Thursday, January 13, 2011

The New Road to Serfdom by Daniel Hannan

A little while ago, I did a short review of The Plan, a programme of political reform espoused by my good friend Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell. Dan is a member of the European Parliament and one of the leading thinkers on the right in the UK. The careful reasoning and refusal to be pigeon-holed make his excellent blog at the Daily Telegraph one that the left love to hate.

Last year, he wrote a short book called The New Road to Serfdom for the US market (although I understand a UK edition is due out soon). The book gets its title from Frederick Hayek’s classic warning about socialism The Road to Serfdom. Like Hayek, Dan warns that the road is paved with good intentions. As far as he is concerned, being left wing is an intellectual and not a moral failing (although it is worth noting that most people on the left think the opposite about conservatives).

The thrust of Dan’s book is that the US is exceptional in its wealth and the freedom of its citizens. The reason for this is to be found in a constitution that keeps power close to the people. Governments are not very good at doing much of what they do. So efficiency and liberty are both best served by decentralisation.

Over here in Europe, we live on the continent of big government. Not content in allowing the central governments of each country to horde power, we have also allowed a super-bureaucracy in Brussels to lord it over us without a modicum of democrat control. All bureaucracies end up looking out for their own interests, not those of the people they are meant to serve. Thus, in Europe, we are getting steadily less free and relatively less rich.

Across the Atlantic, Dan warns his US readers that their country is going the same way. Their leaders are taking power away from people and piling it up in Washington DC. This happens with the best of intentions, but the result is the same: the people become poorer both economically and socially.

What is remarkable about this book (which has done deservedly well in bookstores) is that Dan has managed to turn a difficult and counter-intuitive political argument into a short and enjoyable book that you can read in one sitting. It is ideal for a plane trip across the country that it describes. This is Dan’s genius as a political thinker – not only can he sees past all the cant and hypocrisy, he can help his readers see past it as well.

But not only Americans should read The New Road to Serfdom. As a defence of the American way, it is all the more convincing coming from a Brit. Dan attacks the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of many Europeans and exposes it as ill-informed bigotry. And when you have finished the book, his blog is well worth your time as well, especially if you like Shakespeare.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Evan said...

Wealth and freedom. Perhaps.

But are these the preferred values.

Happiness and health are also values - and on these the US doesn't do terribly well.

Tim O'Neill said...

At the risk of being lumped in with something called "the left", I look at that American "wealth and ... freedom" that this guy finds so "exceptional" and shudder. The "wealth" strikes me as absurdly uneven. And the "freedom" strikes me as regularly invoked by the powerful to convince the weak that they should be weaker.

It was bizarre a couple of years ago that the US had a debate about the merits of something every other first world nation on the planet has: basic universal healthcare. Apparently, on the basis of this "governments = BAD!" nonsense, this was a bad thing. Really? I live in a country where no-one goes bankrupt because they got sick and we still spend half per capita what the "land of the free" spends on health.

It's nuts that this "free enterprise is always wise and good" nonsense predominated then. That there are still shills peddling that myth after the under-regulated US financial system dragged us all the brink of ruin is plain bizarre. Luckily for Australia, our well-regulated banking system and suitably empowered government made us one of the few nations on earth to avoid a recession.

If that's "serfdom" then bring me my hoe and pitchfork. This book sounds like more hollow nonsense from "the right".

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

Having seen both "big government" and "big private enterprise" at their worst, as well as the worst (and best) of the small versions of either, Hannan's argument sounds to me like the usual nonsense we get from politicians that have elevated the idea that free enterprise = good and government = bad to a self-evident TRUTH.

Of course, the world doesn't work like that. Badly run free enterprise can be, and is, incompetent and ineffective to a degree that easily match badly run governmental alternatives. Both bad versions are allowed to trundle on long past their expiration date due to bad checks and balances from financiers or overseers. Both inevitably will be discontinued or replaced, hopefully as soon as possible.

The politcal left has no monopoly on people blinded by ideology.

Humphrey said...

It's great - after having lived under the bloated public sector of messurs Blair and Brown - to arrive in the U.S and find the people have a pathological loathing of government. However, while I consider myself a conservative in the UK here I tend to get lumped in with the left because I still think government has a role to play; particularly in areas where there is insufficient competition for private enterprise to work.

Maybe Hannan disagrees but it seems the healthcare system here has rocketing premiums and is covering a diminishing percentage of the population. Whilst we don't like government, the fact is that something needs to be done about it and a purely private enterprise solution probably won't cut it.

Humphrey said...

'the under-regulated US financial system dragged us all the brink of ruin is plain bizarre.'

I think in this case over-regulation, under-regulation, incompetence in the public sector and incompetence in the private sector combined to give us the righteous mess we have today.

Lenders in the U.S made loans to people that had no hope of paying them back but they did so in part because of the Federal Community Reinvestment Act and because they could sell them to the government sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Those subprime mortgages then made it into the world financial system where they were packaged up as good investments and given five star ratings by the credit agencies.

Meanwhile in Europe - governments had helped to create and sustain their own artificial booms with cheap credit and (in the case of the UK) run huge deficits. The crisis in the U.S financial system kicked in the door, but the structure was already rotten to begin with.

The Singular Observer said...

The problem in the US wasn't over- or under regulation, but bad regulation. For an example of what things look like when the regulation is better - look nect door - Canada fared far better during the crisis than any other G8 country, and our banks are rock solid. Because of good regulation, and taking our medicine back in the 90's, when the Americans was merrily spending the fututre away.

Also, which economies in Europe look the best, and which economies now carry the rest?

Scandinavians, and the Germans.

What do the German economy and the Canadian economy have in common. Both, possibly not intentionally (at least on the Canadian part), are versions of Ordoliberalism.

The wealth in the US is similar to the state of Christianity in the US: A might big river, 6 inches deep.

Humphrey said...

Well my congratulations to Australia and Canada - at least some of the anglosphere knows what it's doing - in fact Canada's actions in the 90s are the model for the UK's austerity initiative.

I admire the Germans for weathering the storm but they were pretty silly to tie themselves to Portugal. Ireland, Greece and Spain. Talk about a millstone.

Svein said...

My problem - probably a relict reflex from keeping bad company in the seventies - is that I can only see one alternative to Big Government, and that is Big Capitalists. If there were the smallest chance of a power base able to balance these two, I would go for it