Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Different Mindsets

Most of us know about Benjamin Franklin's kite. He showed that lightning is an electrical phenomenon. Based on that theory Franklin invented the lightening rod to protect people's homes. He had the curiosity of a scientist combined with the practical mind of an inventor. In fact had he not been so famous as a statesman he would be famous for his scientific and creative endeavors.

Over a hundred and thirty years later the great German scientist Heinrich Hertz showed that radio waves are electromagnetic. He produced a scientific paper. It was left to Marconi in Italy to turn that knowledge into a practical radio – and Marconi had to go to England to get financial support for his invention. Though Hertz's paper was valuable in terms of scientific knowledge, he had no apparent interest in putting it to practical use.

I believe those two events illustrate a difference between what we might call the European and American mindsets. I suspect the difference comes from our respective histories. Europeans have a tradition of class structure with the aristocracy not stooping to manual labor or to such mundane things as engineering or invention. Why should they? They had servants to take care of everything. Because of that it was easy for the Europeans to think of practical labor as the province of the lower classes, people who were not as good as the dukes, princes and other aristocrats. In some cases anyone there who engages in practical work will suffer a lower status.

The U.S., on the other hand, explicitly rejected any form of aristocracy. The belief that “all men are created equal” allows for no inherited class structure. Our constitution allows any citizen to aspire to any office. (It is said that any baby born in the U.S. could become president and that is just one of the risks he takes.) A people who had to survive in an untamed land tended to have more respect for practical skills than for noble birth. In fact our first president was a farmer and by all accounts a very good one. George Washington continually sought ways to improve production on his farms.

This mindset is undoubtedly behind many of the differences between the U.S. and Europe described in Hannan's book The New Road to Serfdom which I reviewed earlier. It is easier for the Europeans to accept elite that will rule without direction from the masses. With a history of regarding the king as God's anointed, it is easier for them to adopt the statist attitude that government is the source of wisdom.

However if we believe that we are all created equal we usually accept the corollary that we should all have an equal voice in how we are governed. We are more likely to reject the quangos Hannan describes and to form movements such as the Tea Party.

Of course this is not a 100% separation. There have been European inventors and there are Americans who consider the intellectual life a higher form of existence than working for a living. However in general Europeans are less likely than Americans to ascribe high status to the practical inventor and Americans are more likely to demand that their government listen to them. With this difference in mindset is it any wonder that Europeans often regard the U.S. as having a “cowboy” attitude while we often regard them as cowards?

This is something we should keep in mind as President Obama and others seek to have us emulate Europe. Do we really want to hand our thinking and government over to quangos or even to elected officials with unlimited power? I know my answer to that question.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The New Road to Serfdom, Book Review

OK, I hope readers don't mind anther book review
The New Road to Serfdom, A Letter of Warning to America by Daniel Hannan, 187pp plus index, Harper (imprint of HarperCollins), 2010

Daniel Hannan, a member of the European Parliament, writes this book to warn the United States not to follow the route Europe has taken. In it he contrasts the historical freedoms in the U.S. with the European situation. He regards the U.S. as the best hope for the world, not only as an example but as the only country likely to stand between freedom and the undemocratic destination toward which Europe wants to lead the world. The real power in the EU is not the elected representatives but appointed bodies essentially accountable to nobody. In fact the British have coined the word “quangos” for those Quasi-Autonomous Non-Government Organizations. These are what Hayek warned about over 60 years ago in the book from which this one takes its name.

The ruling body of the European Union is officially something that can be called a quango. A group of appointed officials is the only body allowed to initiate legislation. Europeans have no way to vote those people out. In addition, European judges often believe that they have power to do what they think right, regardless of the law and international borders. They have issued writs against Ariel Sharon, Donald Rumsfeld and others on the political right (but not of course against Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, or Robert Mugabe).

Mr. Hannan describes how the U.S. has historically been different in demanding government by representatives of the people while Europe has moved toward rule by quangos and judges, neither of which is constrained by any representative law-makers. In fact while then first words of the U.S. Constitution are “We the people.” The EU Constitution begins, “His Majesty the King of the Belgians...”

Indeed the EU document was to be approved by voters but when the first two countries (France and the Netherlands) voted they defeated it soundly. After that a team of lawyers went through the document line by line and without changing the meaning made it deliberately unreadable. Then the national governments announced that their previous promise of a referendum no longer applied. Government officials approved the union in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the people.

On a related subject, while the U.S. at least pays lip service to the idea of power dispersed to local and state governments, the EU deliberately takes the opposite track, concentrating power in Brussels. This is combined with constitutional mandates for many aspects of daily life. People are supposed to have a right to a job, to respect, vacation, food, medical care etc. However as in the old Soviet Union those rights exist on paper more than in reality. The author describes many conversations he has had with EU officials in which he points out a problem only to be told in effect, “that isn't a problem, we've listed it as one of our priorities.” Sadly the remedy seems to stop with the paper claim that the problem should be solved.

Mr. Hannan describes why it is a bad idea to copy Europe in economics, health care, welfare, society in general, and immigration and why we should not abandon federalism. He makes a good case for a return to the constitutional principles that the U.S. seems to be moving away from.

The one weakness in this book is the lack of references. While much of the material comes from the author's personal observations, there is much that should have been documented. However in spite of that weakness it is an important book, one deserving of wide attention. As Barack Obama and others try to move us toward a European model we really should look at where we are going if we follow that route.