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Jewish World Review May 24, 2002/ 13 Sivan, 5762

Mark Steyn

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Sweet land of liberty: Britain and Europe have free governments, but only in the US are the people truly free

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Exactly 50 years ago, the Voice of America sent along a team to my small town's annual town meeting to record the event for broadcast behind the Iron Curtain. Asked why they'd chosen us, the VOA said that our town meeting was considered 'one of the best in the country' and it would help show millions of East Europeans trapped in totalitarian states how democracy worked. My neighbours gave a non-committal Yankee shrug and then got down to business. Among the highlights: they voted to re-elect Herbert Perkins and Harry Franklin as our two-man police department; to approve the playing of beano - i.e., bingo - in town; to raise $1,200 to repair a bridge and $150 for 'gravel on Rachel Miller's road, Miss Miller to give a like amount'.

What the Bolsheviks made of all this we never found out. But we have a pretty good idea what the Europeans make of it: they think it's bunk. If you want to know how the EU operates in any particular area, the quickest way is to figure out how America does it and then work out the opposite. The death penalty? In America, states decide: Louise Woodward is lucky she killed that baby in Massachusetts rather than Texas. In Europe, the EU decides: you can't even join the thing unless you've abolished capital punishment. 'America is ineligible for EU membership,' a Eurograndee told me triumphantly in Paris last month, as if this news would somehow depress me.

The last Frenchman to get the United States was Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1840) he wrote, 'Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people's reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.' That's exactly the phrase: 'the spirit of liberty'. In the hours and days after 11 September, British friends kept asking me why it was Mayor Giuliani who was taking charge on the streets of Lower Manhattan rather than President Bush. The implication seemed to be that the mayor is some kind of understudy, that the system isn't working unless the top guy's there. But that's to get it exactly backwards. It's in the mayor and the police and fire departments and other municipal institutions that you measure the health of a society.

Trundling around Britain, Europe and the Middle East in recent weeks, I can't say I detected 'the spirit of liberty' anywhere. I felt its absence in many places - in the impotence and fatalism of prosperous English property owners barricaded into their homes behind their window locks and laser alarms because nothing can be done about the yobboes lobbing the bollards through the bus shelter until David Blunkett comes up with a nationally applicable policy on the subject. And even then he's likely to have filched it from some American police chief - like the 'broken window' theory, of which one hears more in Britain than the US these days.

That's what the 'democratic deficit' does: it snuffs out the spirit of liberty. The issue is not how to make the chaps in Brussels more 'accountable', but why all that stuff is being dealt with in Brussels in the first place - why so much of the primary-school science can only be entrusted to the laboratory's men in white coats, like Chris Patten. Eurocrats who spent much of the Eighties mocking President Reagan's 'trickle-down economics' are happy to put their faith in trickle-down nation-building: if you create the institutions of a European state, a European state will somehow take root underneath.

It doesn't work that way over here. The other day, I went to a party for my neighbour Becky, who was retiring after many years as secretary in the town office. Afterwards, I came home and heard that America had withdrawn from the International Criminal Court. These are really two sides of the same coin. At Becky's party, about half the town's adult population were there, many of whom held elected office in municipal government: there were the town clerk and sexton, the cemetery commissioners and library trustees, all elected. There were members of the school board, who, despite being part-time and unpaid, have more control over curriculum and taxation than the Welsh Assembly does. There was Dina, my hairdresser and also the school district treasurer, who cuts the cheques for the teachers each week. There was Freddie, our road agent, who maintains the highways and decides the load limits. Think about that: the weight of the trucks on our roads is the responsibility of an elected official right here in town; in Milton-under-Wychwood, the weight of the juggernauts rumbling through the village is decided by Brussels.

Most British politicians reckon this sort of thing's a joke. But you'd be surprised: give people democratic control of roads, education, law and order, public services and so forth, and it does wonders for their disposition. These things are all primary-school science, but in Britain they're mostly reserved to quangoes staffed by baronesses. The baronesses are perfectly pleasant, but it's unclear to me why their skills are so highly regarded that they should supplant responsible self-government. Meanwhile, what's left to elected officials is trivial. Fleet Street finds it hilarious when Clint Eastwood gets elected mayor of Carmel or Sonny Bono mayor of Palm Springs - typical bloody Yanks, hung up on shallow celebrities. But, to the contrary, the celebrities are acknowledging that, when it counts, they're citizens. That's the 'spirit of liberty': plumbers, doctors, strippers, movie stars get steamed about crime or zoning regulations or logging restrictions and decide to do something about it. How come Liz Hurley or Robbie Williams never run for mayor or councillor? Because, like non-celeb Britons, they know it's not worth it.

At some conference a couple of years back, I suggested to an affable Tory quango baroness that the Conservatives should become the party of decentralisation. She thought this was ridiculous, but then she seemed to have a difficult time getting a handle on US federalism in general - she kept talking about 'the American police' and 'the American education system', neither of which exists in any meaningful sense. In America, power is vested in 'We, the People' and leased upwards, through town, county, state and federal government, in ever more limited doses. By the time you get to the organs of embryo world government like the International Criminal Court, Americans are inclined to feel that's leasing it a little too far. A couple of miles from me, a farmer has spray-painted across his barn in giant letters a motto that speaks for many of his neighbours: 'US out of UN now'. America is the only Western power in which a significant proportion of voters disdain the UN and all its works, and where for many years Congress declined to pay the country's membership dues. Europeans assume this is some sort of primitive, redneck fear of 'multilateralism', but in fact it's an entirely reasonable wariness of diluting the sovereignty of the American people in what is, in large part, a front for anti-democratic forces.

Conversely, in Britain, power is vested in the Crown and leased downwards in ever more limited doses. Even the language of alleged decentralists - 'devolution', 'subsidiarity' - assumes that the natural place for power to concentrate is at the centre. It seems to me the reason that there's no real mass movement against loss of sovereignty to Europe is that, unlike small-town Yankees, most Britons don't feel they have any sovereignty to begin with.

Britain and Europe have 'free governments' but they don't have 'the spirit of liberty', and they suffer as a consequence. If you were to apply Tom Ridge's system of colour-coded security alerts - from blue to red via green, yellow and orange - to the entire planet, you'd wind up with something along these lines: the United States, code green; the Britannic world, code yellow; Europe, code orange; the Middle East, code red. The Arab world has no democracy, and little prospect of any, and so its much-vaunted 'Arab street' is, in fact, a symbol of weakness. Folks jump up and down in the street when they've nowhere else to go. The Arabs are world leaders at yelling excitedly and shouting 'Death to the Great Satan!' and are world losers at everything else.

Western Europe, though, isn't much healthier. In America, Canada and Britain, we're the heirs to so many centuries of peaceful constitutional evolution that we find it hard to comprehend the thin ice on which European democracy skates. When we look back on the Seventies, it's Jimmy Carter, Pierre Trudeau and Harold Wilson, all of whom I could have done without. But they look pretty good compared with a stroll down memory lane in Portugal, Spain and Greece, where Seventies nostalgia means Salazar, Franco and the Colonels. In most of Europe, there simply is no tradition of sustained peaceful democratic evolution. After 215 years, the US Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Spanish and Greek constitutions, it's older than all of them put together. Whether the forthcoming European constitution will be the one that sticks remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet on it. The curse of the Continent is big ideas: Communism, Fascism, European Union. Generally speaking, each of these wacky notions is a response to the last dud: the pre-war German middle classes put their faith in Hitler as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks; likewise, the postwar German middle classes put their faith in European integration as a bulwark against a resurgence of Nazism.

The ideal Euro-scenario was postwar Austria, a two-party one-party state where, whether you voted centre-left or centre-right, you ended up with the same centre-left-right coalition government. Then Jorg Haider came along. The EU sees itself as the answer to the problem of Le Pen, Haider, Fortuyn, et al. Le Pen, Haider and co. see themselves as the answer to the problem of the EU. The correct answer is probably 'Neither of the above', but the stampede of politicians and press to demonise Pim Fortuyn suggests it's the Europhiles who are in the advanced state of derangement: when you're that eager to tag as a fascist the guy who's standing up to the fascists (the Islamofascists, that is), you're in pretty bad shape. France is even more diseased: if an election with only one viable candidate, no debate, a cheerleading media, a blind eye to corruption, and public demonstrations with bussed-in schoolchildren 'strengthens' your democracy, then I'm moving to Zimbabwe.

Britain, Canada, Australia and the rest are in better shape. But it's weird to see the suffocating ubiquity of Tony Blair described as 'presidential', when in truth he wields more power as the Queen's First Minister than a US president could ever dream of. A humble prime minister can effectively abolish one house of the national legislature, install toytown parliaments with variable powers in three-quarters of the realm and chop what's left into bogus invented regions. If you live in, say, Banbury, you might wind up in South Midlands (North), North Midlands (South), West Midlands (East), Greater Thames Valley or Lower Mercia, but, wherever it is, the decision is entirely out of your hands. No US president can carve off the western bit of New Hampshire and the eastern bit of Vermont and rename it Central Region or Humberside.

Yet, for all its imperfections, Westminster democracy has delivered an unglamorous stability: unlike America with 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness', Canada's constitutional preamble commits it to 'peace, order and good government', which sounds less primal and more bureaucratic but is still more than the Continent has managed. The great mystery is why Britain, having successfully exported its democratic structures around the world, is abandoning them at home to subordinate itself to a political and legal culture with which it has nothing in common.

You would think, would you not, that, if Europe were really serious about avoiding the horrors of the last century, it might try and learn from the two most successful and enduring forms of democracy in the world: the Westminster parliamentary system and American federalism. Instead, these are precisely the forms the EU is most determined to avoid. The French spend so much time demonising America as a 'hegemon' and 'hyperpower' that they miss the point: the US made it big by keeping things small, by recognising that the most important part of democracy is the first rung on the ladder. Thomas Jefferson considered New England town government 'the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation'. The last word is the important part: anyone can start a democracy, but keeping it going depends on an engaged, participating citizenry, not just folks who shuffle along to the polls once every four years to vote for some guy from a centrally approved list of party hacks. The 'spirit of liberty' is at least as important as a 'free government', and, in its reflexive distaste for the former, the European Union is unlikely to end up with the latter.


JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The Spectator of London. Comment by clicking here.

05/14/02: Extreme hypocrisy in the pursuit of 'peace' is ...
05/10/02: The home office of extremism
05/01/02 Slipping down the Eurinal of history: France, the joke is on you
04/23/02 It's time to snap out of Arab fantasy land
04/16/02 Mideast war exposes 'ugly Europeans'
04/09/02 Arafat has begun his countdown to oblivion. Now it's time to crush the Palestinian uprising
03/27/02 The good, the bad and the Gallic shrug
03/20/02 Grand convocation of the weird

© 2002, Mark Steyn