It Can Happen Here
American government goes European
Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By ROGER KIMBALL
The New Road to Serfdom
European Union debate on maternity and paternity leave, Strasbourg, Oct. 20, 2010
A Letter of Warning to America
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.
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.)
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 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,”
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
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
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.
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:
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
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-
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
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
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?
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.
“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.
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