Imagine that your grandfather was one of the greatest tycoons of his day. Through a combination of ingenuity, courage, competitiveness and devotion to principle, he created a new product, which revolutionized an entire industry. Then he proceeded to lead that industry to world-wide prominence. The wealth, prosperity and employment that he created were the envy of the world. His example was emulated and others were able to approximate his success – although never to the degree that characterized your grandfather’s achievements.
But your grandfather’s magnificent success was also the source of bitterness, resentment and contempt among those who believed that the fruits of his endeavors were unevenly distributed among the people in his industry. These malcontents hatched plans to bring down your grandfather’s empire – either overtly by a frontal assault or, if that failed, then covertly by undermining the people’s faith in the soundness of your grandfather’s ideas and methods.
Eventually, your father inherited a thriving business; but he did not inherit the wisdom, tenacity, fidelity and courage of his father. Slowly but surely, the plotters undercut the beliefs – not so much of the rank and file – but rather of the leadership who ran the business, so that by the time your father passed the company to you, it was a mere shadow of what your grandfather had created.
However, your grandfather had another son who left the company to start one of his own. And that son was blessed with all of your grandfather’s salutary traits – perhaps even more so. He founded a company whose success eclipsed even that of your grandfather’s. But alas, eventually, he and his company began to fall prey to the same forces that afflicted your company. Now, as your uncle hands his business off to his son, it is your task to educate your cousin as to what happened to your company, and what is in store for his. It might be too late to rescue your business, but you suspect that there is still time for your cousin – if he will recognize the forces arrayed against him and change course appropriately.
In this allegorical story, you, gentle reader, are Daniel Hannan, a British journalist and writer who achieved notoriety by excoriating his own Prime Minister on the floor of the European Parliament. Your grandfather is 19th century England and your father is 20th century England. The talented son (your uncle) is 20th century America and your cousin is the America of today. Hannan took up the cause of warning his cousin in his recent book The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America. In it he explains the nature of the virus that felled Great Britain, and more generally, Western Europe. He wistfully points out the manifestations of the same virus that are present now in the United States and explains carefully how the virus, if left unchecked, will kill us exactly as it has killed the host across the Atlantic Ocean.
The last chapter of Hannan’s book is entitled Where British Liberties Thrive. By that Hannan is of course referring to America. It is barely taught in school any longer, but there is no question that the American Republic derives virtually all of its founding ideas from the concepts of liberty developed by British and Scottish lovers of freedom in the eighteenth century (and earlier). The idea of a society structured to maximize individual liberty and the rule of law, ensured by a limited government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed was born and nurtured in the British Isles and transported to America with the colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are the fullest expression of the seminal idea of British liberty. The implementation in Britain of those original concepts made that country the freest, most prosperous and civilized nation in the world for 300 years. But about a century ago, the Brits began to lose faith in their own ideals. In many ways they held on for another 40-50 years, but the blatantly socialist experiment upon which they embarked following World War II heralded the death of British liberty and glory. America picked up the torch 235 years ago and has been the leading exponent of British liberty for at least a century. But now, alas, we are threatened with the same malady that brought low our British cousins. Hannan sees this clearly and takes up his pen in order to alert us to what has happened to his beloved country and what is in store for us if we follow the same path.
Hannan follows in a line of eminent British historians and politicians who have sung the praises of British liberty, applauded America’s achievement in bringing said liberty to an even higher level and who have encouraged us to stay the course. I am thinking of Andrew Roberts, Paul Johnson, Margaret Thatcher and of course Winston Churchill. Hannan’s book, whose title channels that of the Austrian philosopher/economist, Friedrich Hayek, is short, powerfully argued and specific in its predictions. The analysis is sharp, incisive and to my thinking absolutely on target. We ignore him at our peril. To illustrate, here are a few quotes from his Introduction:
American self-belief is like a force of nature, awesome and inexorable. It turned a dream of liberty into a functioning nation, and placed that nation’s flag on the moon. It drew settlers across the seas in the tens of millions, and liberated hundreds of millions more from the evils of fascism and communism. If it has occasionally led the United States into errors, they have tended to be errors of exuberance. On the whole, the world has reason to be thankful for it.
Every visitor is struck, sooner or later, by the confidence that infuses America. It is written in people’s faces. Even the poorest immigrants rarely have the pinched look that dispossessed people wear on other continents. Instead they seem buoyant, energetic, convinced that, when they finish their night classes, they will be sitting where you sit in your suit.
The air of the new world can work even on the casual visitor. When I write about my own country’s politics, I am as cynical as the next world-weary Brit. But, whenever I go to Washington, I give in to the guileless enthusiasm that foreigners so often dismiss as naïveté. Like James Stewart’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I goggle reverently at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swelling in my mind.
At least I used to. On my most recent visit, as I stood before the statue of your third president, I fancied I heard a clanking noise. Doubtless, it was Jefferson’s shade rattling his chains in protest at what is being done to his country. The ideals for which he had fought, and which he had incorporated into the founding texts of the republic – freedom, self-reliance, limited government, the dispersal of power – are being forgotten. The characteristics that once set America apart are being eliminated. The United States is becoming just another country.
To put it another way, the self-belief is waning. Americans, or at least their leaders, no longer seem especially proud of their national particularisms. The qualities that make America unique – from federalism to unrestricted capitalism, from jealousy about sovereignty to willingness to maintain a global military presence – now appear to make America’s spokesmen embarrassed.
One by one, the differences are being ironed out. The United States is Europeanizing its health system its tax take, its day care, its welfare rules, its approach to global warming, its foreign policy, its federal structure, its employment rate.
A hundred years ago, my country was where yours is now: a superpower, admired and resented – sometimes, in a complex way, by the same people. We understand better than most that popularity is not bought through mimicry, but through confidence. You are respected, not when you copy your detractors, but when you outperform them
Until very recently, the United States did this very well. While it may have drawn sneers from European intellectuals, denunciation from Latin American demagogues, violence from Middle Eastern radicals, the population of all these parts of the world continued to try to migrate to the United States, and to import aspects of American culture to their own villages.
Now, though, American self-belief is on the wane. No longer are the political structures designed by the heroes of Philadelphia automatically regarded as guarantors of liberty. America is becoming less American, by which I mean less independent, less prosperous, and less free.
The character of the United States, more than of any country on earth, is bound up with its institutions. The U.S. Constitution was both a product and a protector of American optimism. When one is disregarded, the other dwindles.
This book is addressed to the people of the United States on behalf of all those in other lands who, convinced patriots as they may be, nonetheless recognize that America stands for something. Your country actualizes an ideal. If you give up on that ideal, all of us will be left poorer.