Don’t Try This at Home
The New Road to Serfdom:
A Letter of Warning to America
By Daniel Hannan
HarperCollins, 224 pages
“We weren’t out in the streets holding banners and trying to change minds,” said a participant last February in Britain’s first-ever Tea Party meeting. “However, it was a start.”
An appropriately British response, this, to an American groundswell opposing the hyperactive, Washington-centric policies of Barack Obama during the early years of his administration. And in The New Road to Serfdom, Daniel Hannan—the 39-year-old headliner and organizer of the meeting in Brighton, the district he represents as a member of the European Parliament—explores the latest wave of governmental dominance in Europe and its instructive significance for an increasingly Euro-modeled America.
Hannan attained international prominence in March 2009 when he launched a widely circulated broadside against then-British Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. “You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt,” he pronounced. “You know, and we know, and you know that we know that it’s nonsense.” As a part-time journalist, Hannan—in columns, podcasts, and television appearances—consistently offers an ebullient and optimistic, yet devastating, critique of the welfare state.
While his well-crafted, engaging book covers the waterfront of overbearing statism in Europe and the United States, it sheds little light on why America has begun following Europe down the new road to serfdom and what, if anything, “we the people” can do to turn things around.
Although the book takes its title from Friedrich Hayek’s landmark 1943 work, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek’s ideas are largely absent. Instead, while broadly cautioning against the overweening state, Hannan offers warnings redolent of Hobbes and Tocqueville: a European persuading his beloved America not to embrace the oppressive Leviathan whose tentacles now slither across Europe.
He fears an American retreat from the exceptionalism that has distinguished it from Hannan’s own Britain and the rest of the Continent:
Americans, or at least their leaders, no longer seem especially proud of their national particularisms. The qualities that make America unique—from federalism to unrestricted capitalism, from jealously about sovereignty to willingness to maintain a global military presence—now appear to make America’s spokesmen embarrassed.
In contrasting the enduring vitality of the United States with the increasingly influential, dreadfully enervating state-centered Europe, the author proves himself a student of American history, a defender of constitutional originalism, and a diagnostician of the contemporary American predicament.
His gushing outsider’s admiration for America excuses, or at least explains, a number of the book’s flaws. Among these are Hannan’s folksy reconstruction of an incredible conversation with a gay Republican in a “rural county in a southern state” (“Ah ’preciate you comin’, an’ Ah ’greed with most of wut you said…”) and his hyperbolic comparison of the “buoyant, energetic” attitude of poor American immigrants with “the pinched look that dispossessed people wear on other continents.”
Hannan replows old ground in his observations of America’s “civic rather than…ethnic conception of citizenship,” but he astutely notes that only such a unique ideological attachment can give rise to a full-throated political philosophy defining itself in opposition to American ideals. After all, Hannan asserts, one never hears of “anti-Colombianism” or, for that matter, antagonism toward any “normal” country whose identity revolves around blood, not creed. (Hannan briefly argues that it is Israel’s defining philosophical conception of itself that similarly puts it on the receiving end of the world’s calumnies.)
Hannan focuses the bulk of the book on diagnosing Europe’s infirmities for the benefit of American readers. “I have been a Member of the European Parliament for eleven years. I am living in your future. Let me tell you a few things about it,” he solemnly intones at the start of his best chapter, pithily entitled “Don’t Copy Europe.”
Succinctly capturing the central difference between the 7,200-word U.S. Constitution and the 76,000-word EU version, Hannan quips, “where the one was based on empowering the people and controlling the state, the other was based on empowering the state and controlling the people.” The U.S. charter famously begins, “We, the People…,” while its EU counterpart starts, “His Majesty, the King of the Belgians…”
More specifically, Hannan strongly cautions his transatlantic neighbors against the Obama-inspired “sustained project of Europeanization: state health care, government day care, universal college education, carbon taxes, support for supranationalism, bigger government, a softer foreign policy.” He excoriates European elites responsible for the growth of the Brussels-based bureaucracy that has gradually, but fundamentally and deleteriously, transformed once-vibrant European societies. Having locked horns with his share of Eurocrats and British statists, Hannan issues warnings against an American adaptation of the signal European failures in health care, welfare, economic growth, immigration, and foreign policy. These lucid warnings demand to be taken seriously.
Yet, it is always easier to offer instruction on what not to do than to endorse a specific course of action. Hannan is imprecise when it comes to outlining the road away from serfdom. This may be in part the result of his peculiar political position as a lonely conservative in Brussels. Much like Republicans before November 2010, and unlike the Tories currently running Britain, he finds himself essentially in permanent opposition, tilting at EU windmills, launching diatribes with little chance of effecting genuine change in Europe. It’s as if he left out specific policy recommendations because to countenance their implementation would have been giving undue attention to the improbable.
Now that Hannan’s Tea Party brothers-in-arms across the pond enjoy a modest measure of power in Washington, they can no longer subsist solely on a diet of hostility to Obama and his liberal agenda. They must supplement their regimen with side dishes of policy that, one hopes, will someday soon become staples. Hannan and his Tea Party audience in Brighton might face the same dilemma ere long.