November 17, 2013

THE COMMONWEALTH:

The World of English Freedoms : It's no accident that the English-speaking nations are the ones most devoted to law and individual rights (DANIEL HANNAN, Nov. 15, 2013, WSJ)

We often use the word "Western" as a shorthand for liberal-democratic values, but we're really being polite. What we mean is countries that have adopted the Anglo-American system of government. The spread of "Western" values was, in truth, a series of military victories by the Anglosphere.

I realize that all this might seem strange to American readers. Am I not diluting the uniqueness of the U.S., the world's only propositional state, by lumping it in with the rest of the Anglosphere? Wasn't the republic founded in a violent rejection of the British Empire? Didn't Paul Revere rouse a nation with his cry of "the British are coming"?

Actually, no. That would have been a remarkably odd thing to yell at a Massachusetts population that had never considered itself anything other than British (what the plucky Boston silversmith actually shouted was "The regulars are coming out!"). The American Founders were arguing not for the rejection but for the assertion of what they took to be their birthright as Englishmen. They were revolutionaries in the 18th-century sense of the word, whereby a revolution was understood to be a complete turn of the wheel: a setting upright of that which had been placed on its head.

Alexis de Tocqueville is widely quoted these days as a witness to American exceptionalism. Quoted, but evidently not so widely read, since at the very beginning of "Democracy in America," he flags up what is to be his main argument, namely, that the New World allowed the national characteristics of Europe's nations the freest possible expression. Just as French America exaggerated the autocracy and seigneurialism of Louis XIV's France, and Spanish America the ramshackle obscurantism of Philip IV's Spain, so English America (as he called it) exaggerated the localism, the libertarianism and the mercantilism of the mother country: "The American is the Englishman left to himself."

What made the Anglosphere different? Foreign visitors through the centuries remarked on a number of peculiar characteristics: the profusion of nonstate organizations, clubs, charities and foundations; the cheerful materialism of the population; the strong county institutions, including locally chosen law officers and judges; the easy coexistence of different denominations (religious toleration wasn't unique to the Anglosphere, but religious equality--that is, freedom for every sect to proselytize--was almost unknown in the rest of the world). They were struck by the weakness, in both law and custom, of the extended family, and by the converse emphasis on individualism. They wondered at the stubborn elevation of private property over raison d'├ętat, of personal freedom over collective need.

Many of them, including Tocqueville and Montesquieu, connected the liberty that English-speakers took for granted to geography. Outside North America, most of the Anglosphere is an extended archipelago: Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the more democratic Caribbean states. North America, although not literally isolated, was geopolitically more remote than any of them, "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean," as Jefferson put it in his 1801 inaugural address, "from the exterminating havoc [of Europe]."

Isolation meant that there was no need for a standing army in peacetime, which in turn meant that the government had no mechanism for internal repression. When rulers wanted something, usually revenue, they had to ask nicely, by summoning people's representatives in an assembly. It is no coincidence that the world's oldest parliaments--England, Iceland, the Faroes, the Isle of Man--are on islands.

Above all, liberty was tied up with something that foreign observers could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren't written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn't a tool of government but an ally of liberty: It placed itself across the path of the Stuarts and George III; it ruled that the bonds of slavery disappeared the moment a man set foot on English soil.

There was a fashion for florid prose in the 18th century, but the second American president, John Adams, wasn't exaggerating when he identified the Anglosphere's beautiful, anomalous legal system--which today covers most English-speaking countries plus Israel, almost an honorary member of the club, alongside the Netherlands and the Nordic countries--as the ultimate guarantor of freedom: "The liberty, the unalienable, indefeasible rights of men, the honor and dignity of human nature... and the universal happiness of individuals, were never so skillfully and successfully consulted as in that most excellent monument of human art, the common law of England."

Freedom under the law is a portable commodity, passed on through intellectual exchange rather than gene flow. Anyone can benefit from constitutional liberty simply by adopting the right institutions and the cultural assumptions that go with them. The Anglosphere is why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Singapore is not Indonesia, why Hong Kong is not China--and, for that matter, not Macau. As the distinguished Indian writer Madhav Das Nalapat, holder of the Unesco Peace Chair, puts it, the Anglosphere is defined not by racial affinity but "by the blood of the mind."

At a time when most countries defined citizenship by ancestry, Britain was unusual in developing a civil rather than an ethnic nationality. The U.S., as so often, distilled and intensified a tendency that had been present in Great Britain, explicitly defining itself as a creedal polity: Anyone can become American simply by signing up to the values inherent in the Constitution.

What makes the Anglosphere so exceptional is that we arrived at the End of History so early and organically. We can hardly expect those regions of the globe that have had the system forced upon them by circumstance--the circumstance being that our system works and theirs don't--two centuries later to be at our stage of maturity.  Indeed, most of them look like they'll die off before they grow up.  But there's plenty of room here for the adults.




Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at November 17, 2013 6:37 AM
  

blog comments powered by Disqus
« THERE IS NO CHINA: | Main | IRONICALLY, HIS ONLY LEGACY: »