common law

Culture: A Shopping Cart With A Bad Wheel

Head In Hands

Head In Hands. When will the political posturing end?(Photo credit: craigmdennis)

I haven’t posted on this blog in a while. The aspects of US politics and political culture that have preoccupied me lately are frustrating, and I wanted a break from criticizing.

Plus, I was trying to spend less time thinking about politics as long as the theater of the absurd continued on Capitol Hill.

That continues still, but I read something this week about the US system of government that highlights some things I really love about this country.

Daniel Hannan’s “Saturday Essay” in the Nov. 16-17 Wall Street Journal looks at some values and institutions shared by the US and UK—and English-speaking countries in general. He says what sets them apart is an emphasis on “personal liberty, free contract, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, regular elections, habeas corpus, open competition, secure property, religious pluralism.”

Personal liberty is connected with an emphasis on the individual over the collective, which in my opinion is the root of some serious problems but also a source of great strength. Hannan makes some other interesting points, but the best part is about our legal system.

Talking about foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannan says

Above all, liberty was tied up with something [they] could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren’t written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn’t a tool of government but an ally of liberty.

This liberty, “freedom under the law,” is passed on not through blood ties but through shared institutions and culture. So anyone can become a part of it.

Here’s the big “however.”

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won’t be long before Americans start behaving and voting like…well, like Greeks.

When I first read this, I thought “great, I’ve been ambushed by more rhetoric about how Obama and the Democrats are destroying America.” Then I read it again and noticed that Hannan is British, so he’s not running for office here, trying to appeal to voters.  (I put down the Benadryl.)

He has a point. Our political identity is based so much on belief. If our beliefs change, then our institutions, culture, and identity will too. This shift toward European-style institutions does seem to be happening, but this is hard to observe from inside the country. Like standing on a glacier and trying to detect movement. You know something’s happening because you know that glaciers move, but you can’t tell exactly what.

Is there any way to influence where the “glacier” is headed?

A shopping cart filled with bagged groceries l...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine political culture as a giant shopping cart with a wheel that sticks. It’s hard to steer, and when you put a few hundred million people and their mental baggage in it, the cart becomes even harder to control. So you’re along for the ride.

This worries me, but I also think the (apparent) difficulty of steering our culture could be a good thing, because that makes it less susceptible to the influence of any person or group that isn’t looking out for the interests of the majority.