Review of The New Road to Serfdom, by Daniel Hannan

In these times of general dislike of the United States, both by foreigners and by many Americans, it's refreshing to read a book by a foreigner which points out some items that can be improved in the United States, but without snobbery and disdain.

Daniel Hannan is a British Member of the European Parliament (MEP). His esteem for the United States comes through on every page of this very readable book.

Daniel Hannan makes two main points: That we Americans don't realize how lucky we are to live here, and that we should not permit our government to become bloated and centralized like that of Europe.

He's right on both counts.  When you consider how bad many other countries are, for various, reasons, it is clear that we are lucky to be Americans. One of the reasons we are lucky is that the solution to the European problems he describes are here too.  Hannan explains why primary elections keep politicians closer to the people that they claim to represent. He explains how our Founding Fathers (all those darn heterosexual white males) provided a system which allowed great liberties, even if not everyone was eligible for those liberties from the beginning.

Hannan is at his best when denouncing those who only focus on American sins. "If we want to bring up slavery, we must refer also to the anti-slavery campaign, and to the huge price its adherents were prepared to pay, including death on the battlefield...If we want to discuss racism, we can hardly ignore the fact that in 2008, Americans elected a mixed-race president."

Nail on the head, Mr. Hannan.  Strangely, there are few voices in American academia or the American mainstream (lamestream) press who will say these things. Likewise, as Hannan points out, one is unlikely to find positive coverage like this in the European or other foreign press.

Hannan also discusses the growth of the size of the U.S. federal government. This is not an early twenty-first century phenomenon; the federal government has been growing in power since the Civil War. The various wars, as well as the Great Depression and the more recent Great Recession, have all done their part to make the federal government more bloated, more distant, and less interested in liberty. Hannan points at quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (quangos) in the United Kingdom and in Europe; here in the United States, we are saddled with the various regulatory bodies to whom Congress has outsourced much of its work.

Diversity, in modern liberal use, has come to mean skin color and sexual preference. However, within certain limits, the Constitution's embrace of federalism permits great diversity of government and of lifestyle. Want to live in a very regulated area? Find a major metropolis in New York, California, Washington, or Oregon. Want to be left alone? Find a rural area. Want to live a Protestant Christian lifestyle and be surrounded by those who do? Try the Bible Belt. More importantly, federalism allows states and cities to try their own programs and to learn from each other. Taking that away through more and more federal control will stifle that learning, which is hugely important in these times of rapid technological and social change.

Part of the political anger in the United States can be traced to the fact that many on the left, and some on the right, have chosen to ignore federalism. Abortion is a prime example. To lower the political temperature, shrieking feminists in California and New York will have to realize that abortion is regarded with horror in the Bible Belt; conversely, hellfire-and-damnation preachers and their followers in the Bible Belt will have to realize that abortion is regarded as the cat's pajamas in California and New York.  Because each side wants to impose its vision on the other nationwide, we end up with spectacles such as the screaming protesters barging into Congress to stop the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Kavanagh.  Hannan, unlike the bureaucrats and quangocrats of Europe and the United Kingdom (and their admirers in American academia) gets this; an entire chapter of Hannan's book is devoted to what he calls "the retreat from federalism."

Hannan's examination of the undemocratic nature of the European Union ("A Tale of Two Unions") is also well worth reading.  Hannan starts by contrasting the sizes of the U.S. Constitution and the European Constitution, and notes that the U.S. Constitution"is mainly about the liberty of the individual. The EU Constitution is mainly about the power of the state." Hannan is right to note that the U.S. Constitution was written at a time when there was "maximum emphasis on the freedom of the citizen." By contrast, the European Union was designed to tie governments together so that there would be no repeat of the World Wars. Individual opinion was, and is, regarded as an annoyance by the European governing elite. Hence Brexit and the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) riots in France.

American democracy works, said Hannan. Despite the differences between the U.S. and the European Union, I wish I could share his optimism. Big business and big government are frequently in bed with each other, to the detriment of individuals.  Homelessness is completely out of control on the West Coast.  Upward social mobility, though not gone entirely, is more difficult than it was for previous generations. The national debt is at $22 trillion and rising, and the U.S. government is contemplating the issue of 100 year bonds, just like that other paragon of fiscal discipline and political stability: Argentina. Does anyone, left or right, really want all of this? I hope not!

I believe that this sorry state of affairs exists because any attempt to put it right would trample upon the political identity of many people at a time when political identity is becoming the most important form of identity for Americans.  The national debt offers a good example. Want to reduce the national debt? The best way to do this is for the federal government to stop spending like a horde of crack addicts.  So what to cut? Social spending? Watch Democrats scream bloody murder. Military spending? Watch Republicans scream bloody murder. For my take on military spending, click here.   

Daniel Hannan writes in a very readable style, unlike the government bureaucrats and politicians that he skewers in this book.  I recommend Hannan's book to everyone, especially those who, like me, are losing faith in the ability of government to function, and losing faith in the value of most government agencies.