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Two Roads Diverged

The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America By Daniel Hannan

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America
By Daniel Hannan
(Harper, 224 Pages, $24.99)

It takes a great amount of gumption to title your first book published in the U.S. after an undisputed classic by an icon of liberty, but Daniel Hannan, MEP, is not short in the gumptive department. This is, after all, the man who stood up in the European Parliament before then British prime minister Gordon Brown, and in words of liquid gold told him exactly what the British public thought of him. That intervention struck a global nerve with people dissatisfied with their leaders, and the speech was watched on YouTube by 2 million people within a few days. Now, Mr. Hannan has written a letter of warning to America called -- channeling F. A. Hayek's classic -- The New Road to Serfdom. It deserves to be read by 2 million people.

Mr. Hannan is an unabashed admirer of America and of the American political system, and has been so for many years. Shortly after leaving Oxford University -- where he had made a Euroskeptic group, Campaign for an Independent Britain, a significant force in student politics -- he was so impressed by the GOP's 1994 Contract with America that he had his National Association of Conservative Graduates (NACG) propose a similar Covenant with Britain as a means of advancing conservative values and policies. It was a valuable idea, but it seemingly disappeared when the Conservative Party dissolved NACG.

Many years later, after he had been elected to the European Parliament, he was the driving force behind, first, a pamphlet called "Direct Democracy" and later, a book called The Plan, co-authored with the trenchant Douglas Carswell, MP. In these proposals, Mr. Hannan advocated that Britain adopt (or in many cases, readopt) some of the singular features of American democracy: elected sheriffs, primaries, recall elections, and ballot initiatives, to name but a few. Many of these suggestions are finally filtering through to the upper reaches of the new Conservative government.

The New Road to Serfdom follows that path, explaining what is great about American democracy and why it is so much preferable to the European version. As Hannan shows, European democracy has wandered down the road to serfdom, ignoring Hayek's warning that, "The delegation of particular technical tasks to separate bodies, while a regular feature, is yet the first step by which a democracy progressively relinquishes its powers." In Europe's case, this delegation has been to the supranational European Union bodies as much as to national executive agencies. Today, 80 percent of Britain's legislation is made in Brussels, not Westminster, and it is made by a process in which the executive (the European Commission) not the legislature (the European Parliament) has the sole right to initiate legislation.

Having seen democracy eroded in his native UK, Hannan understands the danger of taking democracy for granted. Seemingly for that reason, he goes to great lengths to spell out exactly why America's democracy works -- to Americans. Even where the system is seemingly broken, it works better than the European version. For instance, in the UK most political incumbents only have to worry about keeping their party bosses happy to retain their seats. Contrast that with Hannan's example of a conservative Democrat in Georgia, who faces the threat of dismissal by the voters in a primary if he kowtows too much to his party bosses in Washington. As Hannan says, Americans know their ballots can effect meaningful change, something that simply isn't the case even in most democracies. American democracy is genuinely deserving of Churchill's famous reluctant endorsement: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

The New Road to Serfdom outlines the great contrast between the constitutions of the United States, written in 1787, and of the European Union, written in 2004. While the former celebrates political ideas formed over centuries, the latter repudiates those same ideas. As Hannan says, "Rather as several varieties of European grape survived in California when the 19th-century phylloxera blight wiped out the ancestral vines in Europe, so the political structures that brought Europe to global hegemony are better preserved in North America than in the Old World."

Yet Hannan is concerned that Europe's political blight has blown across the Atlantic. In a positively Philippic chapter, he warns America not to copy European health care policies ("I really hope you've thought [government-run health care provision] through, my friends. Because, believe me, there is no going back."), welfare ("Under the guise of contingency, Washington has casually reassumed control of welfare spending...America is drifting back to dependency."), and immigration (he details how Europe's abandoning of assimilation has helped radicalize Muslim youth).

Above all, he warns us not to abandon the checks and balances inherent to real, decentralizing federalism, as opposed to the centralizing European variety. "Europeanization," he says, "is incompatible with the vision of the founders and the spirit of the republic. Americans are embracing all the things your ancestors were so keen to get away from: high taxes, unelected lawmakers, pettifogging rules." As blights go, this one is devastating.

Yet the blight is global, and extremely contagious. In his chapter on America's position in the world, Hannan points out how just about every international body or agreement that America seeks to join is poisonous to her republic. International judges seek to undermine the Constitution, while the "human rights" establishment celebrates anti-American dictators. In every area, these global institutions eschew the American ideal of actually doing something about a problem in favor of the bad European habit of confusing declamation as action -- except when it comes to actions that undermine America's sovereignty. Hannan is right to point out that this is a new road to serfdom, one that tries to make an end run around America's democratic institutions altogether.

America is standing at a crossroads: On one side is the road back to liberty. On the other lies the road to a more insidious form of serfdom than Hayek ever envisaged -- the serfdom of the regulatory state, where you are nominally free do as you choose, but in practice you are controlled in every action. This is the serfdom of the bureaucracy, the serfdom of the Enarque, as the French call the graduates of the governing elite's Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the finishing school for technocrats. Most of Europe and the Anglosphere is trudging resignedly down this road, on the grounds that it's better for the children, or something. Like Robert Frost before him, Hannan rightly makes the case that we should take the road less traveled. It will make all the difference. 

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About the Author

Iain Murray is Vice-President for Strategy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.