The New Road to Serfdom
A Letter of Warning to America
by Daniel Hannan
HarperCollins, 224 pp., $24.99
In September I was part of a conference in England on the subject of “The Anglosphere and the Future of Liberty.” Just before I introduced our dinner speaker, the British politician and journalist Daniel
Hannan, a friend handed me a finely printed card which read, “Socialism: It’s not just for Europeans any more.”
Oh, the shattering simplicity of the perfectly obvious! Hannan’s remarks, as it happens, dilated on this sorrowful theme: how America was becoming more and more like contemporary Europe, and why this was a bad thing. This is also the theme of his short, lively, polemical, and irresistible book.
Buy it. Read it. It will probably make you angry. It will certainly make you better informed about what is happening to America. And like the book from which it takes its title, F. A. Hayek’s 1944 masterpiece, The Road to Serfdom, Hannan’s book is essential intellectual equipment for Tea Partiers everywhere. If you cherish freedom and value independence and self-reliance, you will like this book. If you value security above all else, and look to government to take care of you, you will be frightened by it.
The New Road to Serfdom is in equal parts a paean to ordered liberty and an admonition against the snares of central planning and rule by cadres of self-perpetuating elites. Europe has gone down that road with baleful results for freedom and prosperity that Hannan outlines but that are still ill-appreciated on this side
of the Atlantic.
When it comes to the European Union, Hannan knows whereof he speaks. For the last 11 years he has been a member of the European Parliament for Southeast England for the Conservative party. He has watched with dismay as political power and sovereignty have drained away from the 27 member states and have been invested in Brussels. In dismay, but not in silent dismay. In a series of coruscatingly brilliant speeches (many of which are freely available on the Internet: Google is your friend), he has stood up for freedom, local prerogatives, and fiscal prudence and against their statist alternatives. Cato the Elder was in the habit of ending his speeches with the imperative: “Carthago delenda est.” (Carthage must be destroyed.)
Hannan has deployed a similarly tonic use of the gerundive at the conclusion of his own speeches: “Pactio Olisipiensis censenda est.” (The Lisbon Treaty must be put to a vote.)
The Lisbon Treaty, aka the European Constitution, the 78,000-word behemoth (the U.S. Constitution, with all of its Amendments, is but 7,200 words) that was to bind all of Europe into a single, smoke-free, low-carbon, egalitarian, nonsexist, emolliently progressive utopia, in which everything from the right to a job to the right to “good administration” (!) is guaranteed in writing. The American Constitution, as Hannan notes, is mainly about the liberty of the individual and limiting state power. The Lisbon Treaty, despite its rhetoric, is mainly about explaining the power of the state. But wait!
Daniel Hannan asks that the
Lisbon Treaty be put to a vote. But wasn’t it already put to the people for a vote? Why yes, repeatedly—and each time they voted it down, by a substantial margin. Exasperated, the bureaucrats who now run Europe, and who appoint one another and are therefore essentially beyond the reach of the voters, simply adopted it, after taking the precaution of having a team of lawyers render it (as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing cheerfully acknowledged) “unreadable.” (A Pelosi moment, that: “We have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what is in it.”)
Daniel Hannan has not liked what he has witnessed unfolding on the continent. Unelected—and, if I may so put it, un-unelectable—officials now run the show. They decide everything from fiscal policy to what sort of light bulbs you may use to how much the bananas you import may deviate from the perpendicular. (You think I am making this up; I am not.) “Who can seriously doubt,”
That the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest fonctionnaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work?
In November 2009, the first president of the European Union, the Belgian Herman van Rompuy, declared the “first year of global governance.” On what authority did van
Rompuy issue his declaration? Best not to inquire. Hannan quotes a pertinent observation from Edward Gibbon: The fact that there are many independent states, Gibbon noted in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has “most
beneficial consequences to the liberty of
mankind” because it limits a tyrant’s reach. The protestant in Louis XIV’s France, for example, had somewhere to flee to because Louis’s jurisdiction was limited. And what now, that the age of “global governance” has begun? And who are these new mandarins who find themselves at the helm of the EU?
Consider Catherine Ashton—that’s Baroness Ashton to you and me since Tony Blair ennobled her with a life peerage. She’s the EU’s first foreign minister. No, that’s not quite right: Only sovereign countries have foreign ministers. Entities like the EU have grander-sounding nabobs. When Baroness
Ashton took office in December 2009 she gloried in the Mikado-like title of “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” It’s a bit like Seth with The Tank in
Black Mischief. What had Baroness
Ashton done to merit this awesome responsibility? Well, she’d worked for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Then she sat on the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. Then she was with the Health Authority in Hertfordshire and served as vice president of the National Council for One-Parent Families. According to Hannan, she has never faced the voters, but she is the EU’s
Lord High Everything Else.
The EU, Hannan writes, presents “a depressing example of what the United States might turn into: a federation that is prepared to sacrifice prosperity for the sake of uniformity.” Until recently, the United States offered a pretty clear alternative to Europe. We had been used to electing the people who led us—and unelecting them if they didn’t please us. We favored, at least in theory, small government, preferred local initiatives to centralized solutions, and took self-reliance, not the size of the welfare budget, as an index of society’s health. We read and approved James Madison’s observation, in Federalist 45, that the powers delegated by the Constitution to the federal government were “few and defined”—having to do mostly with “external objects” like war, peace, and foreign commerce—while the powers delegated to the individual states were “numerous and indefinite,” extending to “all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” Indeed, to a large extent, the United States has until recently governed itself like “a confederation of statelets, allowing substantial autonomy to its constituent parts.”
The New Road to Serfdom sports some memorable epigraphs from such folks as John Winthrop, James Madison, and Hannan’s hero, Thomas Jefferson.
I particularly liked Jefferson’s enumeration, in 1800, of America’s many “blessings”: its secure position between two oceans, its size, its natural resources. What else was necessary to make us “a happy and a prosperous people?”
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.
Jefferson’s commendation put me in mind of an epigraph, from David Hume, that Hayek used at the front of the original Road to Serfdom: “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” America’s drift towards socialism—towards bigger government, higher taxes, increasing centralization, more intrusive bureaucracy—has been gathering force for many decades. One important marker came in 1913 with the Sixteenth Amendment. Consider the text:
“Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, with apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Today, of course, we take the income tax for granted. Death and taxes: Are they not the inevitable evils? Perhaps. But Hannan is right that the Sixteenth Amendment “revolutionized” the relation between federal power and the states. It would, as he says,
have “horrified” Jefferson—indeed, it would have horrified all the Founders, whose care to preserve states’ rights was a critical “auxiliary precaution”
to support freedom.
I do not advise bringing up the legitimacy of the Sixteenth Amendment in serious conversation; there are some issues that are simply off-limits in polite company. It is nonetheless worth reflecting on what a privilege it is to be in the position of deciding which issues are “dead causes” and which are okay to broach. How about Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal? For many years that, too, was off limits. But the advent of Barack Obama has had the curious stereoscopic effect of making FDR’s legacy both more subject to scrutiny and criticism and more sacrosanct. Hannan is clearly skeptical, and he makes the provocative observation that “most disastrous policies have been introduced at times
New Deal Democrats, like many elected representatives today, were in the grip of one of the most dangerous of political fallacies: the idea that, at a time of crisis, the government’s response must be proportionate to the degree of public anxiety. “Doing nothing is not an option!” intone politicians. . . . Doing nothing is always an option, and often it is the best option.
Indeed. For Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” when you can milk it to increase government control. But then there was Calvin Coolidge, perhaps America’s most underrated president, who (among others) is credited with commanding a busybody aide: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” (I cannot find the source, but I urge you to ponder the wisdom of Coolidge’s advice.) The point is that it is far easier to establish than to rid oneself of any bureaucracy, and of all mankind’s bureaucracies, the hardest to kill are government bureaucracies. (Still, while there is life there is hope: Coolidge did manage to reduce the size of the federal budget by some 50 percent.)
When the economic crisis broke in the fall of 2008, the United States and Great Britain were among the quickest off the mark to spend more, borrow more, and impose a raft of new regulation. In late October 2008 then-
candidate Barack Obama stood before a cheering throng and told them that they were only five days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” As the past two years have shown, he wasn’t kidding; that wasn’t hustings hyperbole but a forthright plan of action. In the past months Obama has expanded the size of the federal government by a third (by some estimates), has spent trillions—trillions-—of
dollars, and has, under the rubric of health care “reform,” put nearly 20 percent of the American economy under the control of Washington. Instead of exuding confidence about his own country, he has jetted around the world, arrogantly apologizing for America’s past
“arrogance” to bewildered tyrants and heads of state. Meanwhile, he has effectively jettisoned the Republican-
sponsored welfare reforms that Bill
Clinton signed into law, quietly reassuming federal control over welfare spending. (Another tidbit from
Jefferson: “To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.”)
In the past, I have often wondered why people, whether in Europe or the United States, put up with the promiscuous indignities of quasi-socialist rule. Why didn’t they fight back? I put it down mostly to something Hayek described as one of the “main points” of his argument in The Road to Serfdom: that one of the most important changes that extensive government control brought in its wake was
a psychological change, an alteration of the character of the people. . . . The important point is that the political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives.
Such a change, Hayek acknowledged, was not easily demonstrated, but it could be clearly felt. It did not arise all at once but might take “perhaps . . . one or two generations” to flower fully. It was all, I thought to myself, part of what Alexis
de Tocqueville meant in those famous passages about “Democratic Despotism” in Democracy in America. No wonder Hayek had taken his title from
Tocqueville: The description of how despotism in a democracy tended to infantilize men rather than tyrannize them as did despotisms of old seemed exactly right. Its power, said Tocqueville,
extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
I had concluded that something like Tocqueville’s analysis explained the quiescence of the citizenry in Europe and America when faced with the progress of socialism. As Hilaire Belloc put it, “The effect of Socialist doctrine on Capitalist society is to produce a third thing different from either of its two begetters---—to wit, the Servile State.”
Here we were, then. Or were we?
In the immediate aftermath of the
economic dégringolade in 2008, the United States experienced a veritable tsunami of government expansion. “Taxation, expenditure, and borrowing were all rising exponentially,”
Hannan observes. “Federal officials were presuming to tell private firms how to operate, even what to pay their employees. And, most shocking of all, the entire nation appeared to be going along with the new dispensation.”
But appearances were deceiving. The clerks were going along with it. (Many observers would refer here to the “elites,” but “elites” is not quite right; “clerks,” as in “trahison des clercs,” is closer to the reality.) Those with their lips sewn to the government teat went along, as did the left-leaning commentariat. But the rest of the populace? The bumper sticker advising that “It’s a good thing Obama doesn’t know what comes after trillion” told you something. As did, for example, the Rasmussen poll revealing that only 21 percent of Americans approved of bailing out General Motors, which forever more will be scornfully known as “Government Motors.” Calls to “man up” were suddenly being heard across the land. Someone had miscalculated, and miscalculated badly.
I write this during the run-up to an election that, if the signs and portents are at all accurate, will be a disaster for—well, I was going to say “for the Democrats,” but it will be a disaster for all those politicians, be they Republican or Democrat, who have forsaken the Founders’ wisdom that discerned the unbreakable link between limited government and freedom.
Hannan quotes a marvelous passage from
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shade of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.
“Clerks” is better than “elites,” but better than both is the image of those little, shriveled, meager, hopping “insects of the hour” that Burke apostrophizes. Insects, beware: This election is only
Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, is the author of the forthcoming Much Ado About Noting: A Pedographophilic Chrestomathy of Sly, Admonitory, Informative, Scurrilous, and Amusing Observations from the Bottom of the Page.