Uninventing Freedom

Daniel Hannan, the famous Euro-skeptic, recently published a magnificent book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. In it he traces the history of the Anglosphere – the English-speaking countries of the world – from its origin in the British Isles to its greatest flowering on the soil of the USA. It is not my purpose here to formally review the book – two excellent reviews have already appeared. (See Mark Tooley’s essay in The American Spectator [Jan/Feb 2014] and Barton Swain’s piece in the Wall Street Journal [11/29/13], the latter of which is also featured on the Reviews page of this web site.) Instead, I will supply several trenchant  quotes from the book and then use them as a stepping stone to draw some conclusions pertinent to the political mess in which America finds itself. By the latter I mean the predicament emanating from the fact that the people of the US have recklessly elected – and re-elected – a president whose basic political beliefs run totally contrary to the fundamental axioms, which have formed the foundation upon which this nation was established and has been governed.

Elected parliaments, habeas corpus, free contract, equality before the law, open markets, an unrestricted press, the right to proselytize for any religion, jury trials: these things are not somehow the natural condition of an advanced society. They are specific products of a political ideology developed in the language in which you are reading these words. The fact that those ideas, and that language, have become so widespread can make us lose sight of how exceptional they were in origin… [Indeed] the three precepts that define Western civilization—the rule of law, democratic government, and individual liberty— are not equally valued across Europe. When they act collectively, the member states of the EU are quite ready to subordinate all three to political imperatives. The rule of law is regularly set aside when it stands in the way of what Brussels elites want.

Barack Obama’s view of America matches the EU premise. He sees the US as just another country among the nations of the world; its culture, political philosophy and economic system are of no more intrinsic merit than those of any other country. His goal is to meld us into world society as one among equals. He completely rejects the messianic idea, common to our Founders and all of our leaders from Washington to Lincoln and even to FDR, of American Exceptionalism – which posits that the American experiment is unique in the annals of history and that America is to be a beacon of freedom to the world.

What distinguishes the common law from the Roman law that predominates in Continental Europe and its colonial offshoots? Chiefly this. The Continental legal model is deductive. A law is written down from first principles, and then those principles are applied to a particular case. Common law, to the astonishment of those raised in the Roman or Napoleonic systems, does the reverse. It builds up, case by case, with each decision serving as the starting point for the next dispute. It applies a doctrine known to lawyers as stare decisis: previous judgments should stand unaltered, serving as precedent. Common law is thus empirical rather than conceptual: it concerns itself with actual judgments that have been handed down in real cases, and then asks whether they need to be modified in the light of different circumstances in a new case.

Our president cum law professor has little use for common law or stare decisis. This is evident in his increasingly lawless behavior. As his actions regarding Obamacare, the Dream Act, gay marriage, recess appointments and many, many other areas indicate, he is content to ignore the constraints imposed upon him by the Constitution and create law by fiat – that is, by executive order. He sees himself and his minions as wise beings who know what is best for America. The law is merely a vehicle to implement his vision. The opinions of the people on any particular matter are of little import.

Tenth-century England had undeniably started down the track to constitutional liberty. What might have happened had it continued on that path we’ll never know, because, in 1066, it was brutally wrenched out of the Nordic world and subjected to European feudalism. Harold Godwinson, an English nobleman with scant claim to the throne, but with the unequivocal backing of the Witan, was deposed by William of Normandy, who had his own ideas about the duties owed to a king. It was a calamitous defeat for England, for the Witan, and for the development of liberty. Indeed, the next six centuries can be seen in one sense—and were seen by many of the key protagonists—as an attempt to reverse the disaster of 1066.

This quote is included to highlight the effectiveness of the liberal brainwashing that is administered in America’s public schools. Long ago, I identified for myself the falsehoods that were drummed into my head in school: from the nonsense that FDR saved the nation from the Great Depression to the obscenity that Communism was an alternate – and in some ways more effective – economic system as opposed to capitalism. Well, it never dawned on me that the Norman conquest of Britain was a disaster that set back the cause of liberty for 600 years. In school and college, I learned that the conquest was a result of a more or less legitimate dispute over who should possess the British crown, and that its effect on English life was relatively minimal with the exception of hastening the end of slavery on the island. Hannan presents a compelling case that the Normans attempted – with some success – to replace the decentralized, rudimentarily free legal system in England a millennium ago with a centralized authoritarianism. Such a viewpoint is never presented in school. Well, this is perhaps a minor example, but it is representative of the distorted history that was taught, and is taught even more egregiously in today’s public schools.

In most of Europe, landownership was settled, with farms being treated as an inalienable patrimony. In England, by contrast, there was a lively land market from at least the thirteenth century (earlier records are harder to come by). In most of Europe, children would work on their parents’ farms, receiving board and lodging rather than wages. In England—to the surprise and occasional disgust of overseas visitors—children would generally have left the family home by their teens, either for apprenticeships or to work elsewhere. The farmwork would instead be done by hired hands for competitive pay. In most of Europe, the family was recognized as the primary unit, not just in custom but in law: parents generally could not disinherit their children, and the family plot was treated as a communal resource. In England, there was almost no notion of shared ownership. A boy who had reached legal maturity was, in the eyes of the law, a wholly free agent: his father had neither claims over him nor duties to him.

Barack Obama, July 13, 2012 in Roanoke, VA: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Perhaps George W. Bush’s single greatest foreign policy success was to draw India back into the alliance of English-speaking democracies when he accepted the nation’s nuclear status in 2006. That relationship has been vigorously cultivated by David Cameron but neglected by Barack Obama. Fortunately, Indians seem prepared to wait for a different attitude from Washington. They are a patient and courteous people.

Obama is working hard to separate the US from the Anglosphere. One of his first acts as president was to expel the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. He has denied that there is any special kinship between the US and the UK. He keeps Canada cooling its heels for five years waiting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. And I have never heard him utter a warm word about Australia or New Zealand. But perhaps this is unfair as he has been equally rough on America’s non-Anglo allies. His treatment of Israel has been an abomination. And while he bows to kings, hobnobs with Venezuela’s (now dead) Marxist leader, and is anxious to negotiate with Iran, Assad and the dear leader of North Korea, he gives the back of his hand to Poland, the Czech Republic and Honduras. His sense of American history and Western Civilization is … is … well, he doesn’t have any sense of them.

Americans take pride in being self-reliant, optimistic, ambitious. But these characteristics are not a by-product of Mississippi water or turkey meat, and neither are they some magical quality in the American genome. People respond to incentives; culture is shaped by institutions. If taxation, spending, and borrowing keep rising, if more and more Americans become dependent on the state, it won’t take long before they start behaving like the French, rioting and demonstrating in defense of their acquired entitlements… Margaret Thatcher’s political godfather, Sir Keith Joseph, used to remark that if you give people responsibility, they behave responsibly. What goes for individuals goes for entire nations.
There has been a general loss of confidence in the superiority of the Anglosphere model, which fended off every extremist challenge throughout the twentieth century. Cultural relativism feeds into hard policy. Once you reject the notion of exceptionalism as intrinsically chauvinistic, you quickly reject the institutions on which that exceptionalism rested: absolute property rights, free speech, devolved government, personal autonomy. Bit by bit, your country starts to look like everyone else’s. Its taxes rise; its legislature loses ground to the executive and to an activist judiciary; it accepts foreign law codes and charters as supreme; it drops the notion of free contract; it prescribes whom you may employ and on what terms; it expands its bureaucracy; it forgets its history

For Obama and today’s liberals, America’s decline is its just reward for its checkered history. For them, America has failed to live up to its promise. Moreover, that failure was ordained by America’s flawed founding. Its sins are numerous and great: slavery; segregation; abuse of Native Americans, women, gays and minorities; nuking Japan; corporate greed; international pillage; and the promotion of laissez-faire capitalism, States’ rights and gun rights. The fact that America has confronted its true failings (to be found among the previous list, which contains some bogus elements), and made enormous progress in correcting them is irrelevant. Only a fundamental transformation of America into a pliant, social welfare state can expiate its sins.

Hannan calls attention to these perverse views held by Obama and describes in detail how they violate the history and calling of the Anglosphere. Nevertheless, Hannan remains optimistic that the US can overthrow the tyranny of Obama’s fundamental transformation and restore the nation to its historic calling, to its rightful place as the leader of the Anglosphere and thereby guarantee freedom and prosperity to the American people for ages. His final words evoke an American patriot of whom Ronald Reagan was fond:

For we are not finished. We remain an inventive, quizzical, enterprising people. All we need to do is hold fast to the model that made us that way. Edmund Burke’s words about America in 1775 apply, mutatis mutandis, to the Anglosphere as a whole today. English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.”
[And in Burke’s time] at the other end of the Anglosphere, a young doctor in Boston named Joseph Warren—the man who sent Paul Revere on his ride—was seeking to rally his countrymen in defense of the same principles. His words ring down the ages: “You are to decide the question on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
You, reading these words in his language, are the heirs to a sublime tradition. A tradition that gave us liberty, property, and democracy, and that raised our species to a pinnacle of wealth and happiness hitherto unimaginable. Act worthy of yourselves.


This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative