The British Constitution Measured Against Moral Principle
Edward J. Dodson
[A letter printed in the
Center Magazine, July/August 1985, the publication of the
Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]
TO THE EDITORS:
I was struck by Samuel Huntington's observation that the presence of
democratic institutions - where they exist - is in large part due to
British and American influence. It has been my view of history that
the extent to which British society has remained democratic is owed to
the conservative counterrevolutions of its primary colonies,
particularly that of the United States. This argument was made in 1942
by Peter Drucker. In The Future of Industrial Man he concludes, "The
American Revolution brought victory and power to a group which in
Europe had been almost c6mpletely defeated and which was apparently
dying out rapidly: the anticentrist, antitotalitarian conservatives
with their hostility to absolute and centralized government and their
distrust of any ruler claiming perfection. It saved the autonomous
common law from submersion under perfect law codes; and it
re-established independent law courts. Above all, it reasserted the
belief in the imperfection of man as the basis of freedom."
The aristocratic and elitist make-up of Parliament found new
expression in the North American provincial governments. Participatory
government was being nurtured by a growing individualism on free land.
This second factor the access to an unclaimed frontier -- also
identified by Drucker as a requirement to the democratic experience. I
have yet to hear a reasoned argument that disputes his observation
that "the possibility of emigration to the free soil and the
equal opportunities of the United State; were the safety valves. ..
which kept the European social system from blowing up," at least
for Eng; land and its evolving constitutional monarchy.
Access to free or very cheap land and the accompanying freedom of
action available to the colonists in England's North American lands;
Australia, New Zealand, and Southern Africa, sparked the growth of the
democratic process abroad and weakened the aristocratic hold at home.
The American character - with our love of freedom and distrust of
authority - was forged because 0 those unique circumstances. Our break
from England was, therefore, conservative on the one hand -- in its
aim to protect the high degree of individual freedom and of access to
land, i.e., as the source of wealth -~ and against the threat of a
strong centralized authority on the other: Nothing short of a
duplication of these conditions will provide the environment necessary
for democracy to arise and achieve lasting success.
In France, Germany, Poland; Spain, Portugal, and Russia, the people
were unable to escape the stranglehold of elitist government.
Revolutions simply imposed new forms of monopolistic control.
Only one frontier remains: space. But we are still far from being
able to harness sufficient physical capita to colonize the universe.
Now that the earth's inhabitable lands have been largely settled, the
conflict between the propertied and the propertyless has again
intensified. Two Englishmen of the recent past recognized this danger
and attempted to warn us. The first was a political economist, Max
Hirsch. In 1901 his book
Democracy Versus Socialism pointed the way for the survival of
the democracies: "Individualism the full freedom of each
individual limited only by the equal freedom of all others, has never
yet been reached, and the social injustice now prevailing exists, not
on account, nor in spite, of individualism but through limitations of
individualism imposed or acquiesced in by the state."
Max Hirsch was writing in strongly critical terms of state sanctioned
monopolies, and particularly of those policies leading to the
concentrated control of a nation's land and natural resources in the
hands of either a few private interests or with the state itself. A
similar position was later taken by Winston Churchill. Both Churchill
and Hirsch believed democracy would survive only under circumstances
of voluntary cooperative individualism.
In a speech delivered at King's Theater, Edinburgh, on May 17 1909,
Churchill attacked what he viewed as the greatest threat to the
democratic experience: "In this country we have long enjoyed the
blessing of free trade ... but against these inestimable benefits we
have the evils of an unreformed and vicious land system. In no great
country in the new world or the old have the working people yet
secured the double advantage of free trade and free land together, by
which I mean a commercial system and a land system from which, so far
as possible, all forms of monopoly have been vigorously excluded."
Churchill ended his speech with a quote from Cobden: "You who
shall liberate the land will do more for your country than we have
done in the liberation of its commerce."
Keep in mind that Churchill was referring to a world substantially
industrialized and technologically advanced, not an agricultural
society controlled solely by a landed aristocracy. Because we have
failed to recognize these truths, democracy will continue to
experience losses to the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.
In the United States -- and in other former British colonies settled
by displaced Englishmen, Scots, Welsh, and Irish -- as population has
increased and the frontier lands have come under private control, the
tendency toward concentration has gained strength. With the land
monopolization have come the other challenges to cooperative
individualism: protectionism, unionism, special interests, and
nationalization. This would not have surprised Max Hirsch, who
concluded, "Where the democratic governments have undertaken the
conduct of industrial functions, the task has generally fallen into
unreliable and incompetent hands. Universal experience proves that the
more detailed governmental functions become, the more they deal with
industrial matters, the less lofty is the type of politician. Abuse of
power, neglect of duty, favoritism, and jobbery have been the almost
universal accompaniment of industrial politics."
Democracy cannot thrive where state control is called on to displace
private monopoly. As Hirsch warns, state control eventually becomes
more repressive despite whatever motives are claimed. Churchill chose
the only real practical solution (one offered in its most potentially
effective form by Henry George, writing in Progress and Poverty):
simply impose a levy or tax on land equal to its potential annual
rental value - on all land used for all purposes by private interests.
Then, to the extent possible, tax nothing else; not wages nor physical
capital. It is time this proposal is dusted off and once again brought
to bear on the discussions within the political arena. As we have
heard from Samuel Huntington and others, the stakes have become very