Monday, November 18, 2013

Speaking the Same Language

Last week, while on a business trip in Europe, I ended up at dinner with four coworkers: a Brit, an Australian, a Singaporean, and a Dutchman. At some point in the evening, talk turned to geopolitics and specifically what the future would hold for China and its relationship with the rest of the world. My Dutch colleague was rather sanguine about the prospects of the continued rise of China. He explained that we should not fear a scenario where China ended up eclipsing the United States in the role of the world’s preeminent superpower. In that situation, the baton of being the world’s policeman would pass from the US to China much in the same way it had passed from Great Britain to the United States after World War II.

I took exception to his view and argued that while the US and the current Chinese government bore little resemblance to each other, Britain and the US had much more common politically and culturally.

In Saturday’s WSJ, Daniel Hannan explored the importance of the ties that bind not only the US and the UK, but the rest of the Anglosphere. The World of English Freedoms:

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.

For a variety of reasons I don’t think that China will surpass the US as the world’s leading super power. If it does, I doubt if the transition will be as smooth and as seamless as the one from the UK to the US. However, whatever happens with China, the bigger risk to the future of the US is if we lose sight of the shared values that have united the countries of the Anglosphere.

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won't be long before Americans start behaving and voting like...well, like Greeks.