In a wide-ranging interview with Blaze Books in connection with his newest title, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, outspoken British MEP Daniel Hannan provided his insights on American exceptionalism, Western governmental defaults, why he is bullish on the West in spite of such defaults, and a whole host of other topics. Below is our interview, conducted via email. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
What would you say to critics who argue that there are strong bedrock principles that have come from cultures outside the Anglosphere (or to paraphrase the President, that he believes “in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”)?
Hannan: The President was right about one thing. Most Brits do indeed believe in British exceptionalism. But here’s the thing: we define it in almost exactly the same way that Americans do theirs. We believe it resides in certain values and institutions, such as the rule of law, free contract, secure property, jury trials, personal liberty, regular elections, habeas corpus, and uncensored newspapers. In Greece, as in pretty much the rest of the world, people expect – indeed demand – far more intervention from the state. That’s why they’re in the mess they’re in. Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the President, back in 2009, cited Greece in that answer: with a $17 trillion national debt, he seems pretty keen on taking America in that direction.
It seems as if Anglosphere principles are being implemented to some degree more faithfully by folks in the East than the West. Do you see this trend occurring? What are the implications?
Hannan: Anglosphere principles are transportable. They are passed on through intellectual exchange, not gene flow. They are why Bermuda isn’t Haiti, why Hong Kong isn’t China, why Singapore isn’t Indonesia. But it’s striking that, in the league table of economic freedom, the top four territories are all common law and Anglophone: Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore.
[sharequote align=”center”]Think of that phrase ‘the law of the land’. Not the king’s law, nor God’s law…the law of the land[/sharequote]
One topic that you do not mention in Inventing Freedom is the effect of the Israelites, Greeks/Romans and others on our political system. Do you see Anglosphere roots in these peoples, or otherwise care to comment?
Hannan: I don’t claim that we invented the idea of law. When Moses came down from Sinai, the fathers of the English were still grubbing about with their pigs in the cold soil of northern Germany. What we invented, rather, was the extraordinary idea that the law is the property of the people. Think of that commonplace, yet peculiarly English, phrase ‘the law of the land’. Not the king’s law, nor God’s law, but the law of the land – the patrimony of every citizen. Even now, people raised in the European Roman-law tradition are astonished by our beautiful, anomalous common-law system. They can’t get their heads around the idea that, instead of writing down a law and then applying it to particular cases, the law grows up, like a coral, judgment by judgment. It’s the property of the people as a whole, not of the state: an ally of freedom, not an instrument of government control.
Nor do I claim we invented democracy: the rooting about with the pigs thing was still going on when Cleon and Demosthenes were making their speeches. But we invented the idea of personal freedom within a democratic system – a very different tradition to the Continental one, inspired by Herder and Rousseau, which elevated the will of the majority over the rights of the individual and which, in the end, whelped the two misshapen pups of fascism and communism.
[sharequote align=”center”][Law is the] property of the people…not of the state: an ally of freedom, not…government control[/sharequote]
Our system worked. Anglosphere countries never fell to revolution or dictatorship. Our countries never elected a single fascist legislator, and no more than half a dozen revolutionary socialists. We made the defense of freedom everyone’s business, and people responded.
How would you suggest that we better inculcate in our society a reverence for the Anglosphere principles on which it was founded?
Part of it is understanding the ancient and shared roots of these ideas. John Adams’s ambition to see ‘a government of laws, not of men’ pretty much sums up Anglosphere exceptionalism. But the phrase was not Adams’s. He was quoting a seventeenth-century English Whig called James Hartington.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is often quoted as the supreme apologia for democracy, and most of us can recite the words ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. But here’s the really extraordinary thing: those words were not Lincoln’s. His audience in 1863 would have recognized them as our generation typically does not. They were written by John Wycliffe in the prologue to what was probably the first translation of the Bible into English. Incredibly, they date from 1384. In what other language could that concept have been expressed in the fourteenth century?
We sometimes like to imagine that freedom and parliamentary government and the rule of law and equality for women and independent judges and the rest are somehow the natural condition of an advanced society, that all countries will eventually get around to them when they become wealthy enough and educated enough. In fact, they are largely products of the civilization that expressed itself in the language in which you are reading these words. We make a mistake if we assume that they will necessarily outlast the hegemony of the Anglosphere.
[sharequote align=”center”][With individualism] I can see Britons and Americans a generation from now being wealthier than ever[/sharequote]
Do you have hope for a turnaround in the Western Anglosphere given the societal embrace of progressivism? To folks demoralized that Barack Obama could have defeated Mitt Romney after the first four years of his presidency, what would you say?
Hannan: I’m an optimist, despite everything. Every generation predicts a looming catastrophe. The precise cause changes from decade to decade – global cooling, global warming, bird flu, swine flu, asteroid strikes, nuclear holocaust, overpopulation, underpopulation, Islamization, debt, etc etc – but the argument is always the same, namely ‘this time it’s going to be different’. It never has been yet.
Actually, I think the Anglosphere, with its unique emphasis on individualism, is well-suited to the Internet age. We’re still an extraordinarily inventive people. I can see Britons and Americans a generation from now being wealthier than ever, benefitting from driverless cars, additive and subtractive manufacturing and extraordinary advances in medical and genetic research.
Ah, you say, but what about the debt level? See my next answer!
What can the Anglosphere’s past teach us with respect to the “shutdown” and “debt ceiling” debates occurring in Washington?
Hannan: We can say pretty confidently that previous Anglosphere generations would have seen today’s tax levels as a cause for popular revolt. In 1900, the average American family spent 6.5 per cent of its income on government. Today the figure is 36 per cent, easily the largest budget item for almost all working households. Yet, incredibly, it’s still not enough: spending is way ahead of revenue, and every American owes more than $135,000 in government debt, on top of any private debts or mortgages.
‘Things can’t carry on like this,’ say angry conservatives. And, of course, they’re spot on. So why be angry? If things can’t carry on like this they won’t. There will have to be a haircut.
[sharequote align=”center”]Previous Anglosphere generations would have seen today’s tax levels as a cause for popular revolt[/sharequote]
The federal government can’t technically go bankrupt, because there is no higher authority to administer the bankruptcy. But the same principles that apply to a bankruptcy should pertain here. When a firm goes bust, we don’t ask who deserves what morally; we try to get through the process as quickly and painlessly as we can, incentivizing creditors to settle for something rather than holding out for everything and risk getting nothing. There will be some real short-term pain. Those who are owed money by the federal government, whether as bondholders or pensioners, will get less than they are expecting. But once the haircut is done, and the clippers put away, the state will have to live within its means: no one lends money to a defaulting government. Many federal programs will be wound up, many more devolved to state level. Then growth can begin again.
[sharequote align=”center”]Once the haircut is done, and the clippers put away, the state will have to live within its means[/sharequote]
Who do you think is in worse shape today culturally, politically and economically — the US or the UK?
Hannan: The UK began to fall behind during the Second World War. The mobilization of all national resources during the six-year struggle against tyranny permanently shifted the balance between state and individual. Then, in 1972, we joined what is now the EU, which had a permanent and deleterious effect on our democracy, our competitiveness and our law.
So, taking everything together, I’d have to say that we’re in worse shape – although we are now pulling back, while you, dear cousins, hurry to overtake us. Frankly, though, neither the US nor the UK is an especially good advertisement for Anglosphere values these days. Canadians are doing better than either of us, Australians better yet. Their prime ministers, Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, are the true leaders of the free world.