January 3, 2014


The Anglosphere's long shadow (Matt Ridley, January 02, 2014, Times of London)

 The recent book by Daniel Hannan MEP -- How we Invented Freedom and Why it Matters -- might have been titled to annoy foreigners, but it contains a challenging idea. Bottom-up systems work best.

As Hannan points out, while we tend to stress the differences between Britain and America, foreigners usually see the similarities. The secret ingredient of the Anglosphere is not, of course, racial. We can bury the Victorian notion that there is something specially clever or tough about pale-skinned folk with mostly Celtic DNA, mostly Saxon words and a mostly Protestant faith.

Nor was it inevitable in the Whig-history sense. It was not manifest destiny, but a chain of semi-happy accidents that gave the English-speaking people their chance -- including a sea channel to protect against invaders, a randy king, a Dutch commercial takeover, a coastal coalfield, a brilliant customs official from Kirkcaldy, and a well timed tax revolt.

The secret is institutional. For Hannan, the habit of liberty under the law proved good at generating prosperity wherever it was adopted and whatever the skin colour of the people who caught it -- and even if it was sometimes honoured in the breach. It was a peculiarity of the British that, early on, they got into the habit of dispersing both property and power and never quite lost that habit even under some strong Norman or Tudor rulers.

The monarchy was at least partly elective, the common law was evolutionary and derived from cases rather than principles, property was at least partly sacred, the press was fairly free, Parliament was eventually sovereign. The Government was subject to the law, rather than the other way round. Even in the Middle Ages these features were visible to an unusual degree in Britain.

The common law plays a central role in Hannan's argument -- what he calls "that beautiful, anomalous system that belongs to the people, not the state". Having government under the law, rather than in charge of it, gave rise to security of property and contract, which proved peculiarly helpful when the free market came along and tipped the balance of incentive from predation to production. The roots of these institutions go very deep into Saxon times but many of the key features came together in 1688 and 1787.

For all its periodic lurches into hierarchy and imperialism, the Anglosphere has always hemmed in its rulers with bottom-up traditions.

Posted by at January 3, 2014 2:51 PM

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