A review of Inventing Freedom: How The English-Speaking Peoples Made The Modern World by Daniel Hannan. Good scholarship, good points, slightly distracting politics.

I quite enjoyed this book and found it very illuminating. Normally I’m not terribly interested in what conservative politicians have to say, but this is not a categorical objection. The author’s high level of scholarship, analysis, and creativity was enough to recommend the book on its many merits. Technically, Hannan is a brilliant writer well worthy of bearing the standard for the English language. I definitely easily doubled my knowledge of practical and interesting British history. The impression that my American grade school education gave me, that England was a despotic, oppressive, racist, unenlightened, and genocidal regime obsessed with predatory taxes on stamps and tea, does turn out to be quite wrong. As an actual British person, I had suspected as much. But to see it spelled out in no uncertain terms was refreshing. The fact (and I felt it was established as such) that certain elements of British culture promote success, is difficult to extract from the morass of a history which includes so much exploitation and overt racism. The author does an excellent job of this by repudiating any racial element at all. Although it seems unusual to me for a conservative to propose it, Hannan embraces a laudable notion to radically open opportunities to all people regardless of their physical characteristics. This is the real British way, he argues. He seems quite comfortable imagining the population of the British Isles doubling by emigration from lands with exotic ethnicities, however, he insists it would be in everyone’s best interest if they adopted the part of British culture that has been undeniably beneficial (trial by jury, freedom of expression, self-governance, etc.) So far, so good. There were some annoyances that slightly diminished what could have otherwise been a truly great book.

I try to keep an open mind and a moderate position about economics. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from economists it is that to the one, they have no idea what they’re talking about. From Marx to Greenspan, the highest level thinkers have been stunningly dead wrong. Consider the rise of behavioral economics which has in my own lifetime cleanly negated most of what I was taught in orthodox economics classes. Therefore when it comes to brilliant plans to scrap capitalism, I am skeptical. But I am even more skeptical (ever so slightly) by enthusiasts of plans to scrap all impediments to predatory behavior which might just be profitable. The author loves the capitalism! It got a bit tedious and I felt was not well argued. Beijing has capitalism. Based on air-quality alone, I wouldn’t want to live there. But the author hand waves away any deeper complexity regarding economic policy and reminds me that one of English’s better selling points aren’t contained in the novels of Ayn Rand.

On page 142 he says, "There is nothing selfish about capitalism." Is he really talking about (what the OED calls) "an economic system in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit"? Owners. Own. Self. Selfish. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but such statements were a bit too enthusiastic. Next page, he goes on "Indeed, the most egregious forms of wrong-doing in Anglosphere economies tend to be the ones that involve governments: lobbying for improper favors, securing taxpayer bailouts, and the like." I agree that those things are bogus, but to me, that sounds exactly like those selfish private owners of capital pressing any advantage they can find, wholesome or not. History is full of examples of a lack of capitalism being worse than its presence, but to gloss over the problems which clearly remain in such systems seem to invite a categorical rejection of the whole notion instead of a thoughtful balanced analysis. Instead of implying that capitalism as it is practiced in the 21st (or 9th) century Anglosphere is an economic panacea, it would be better to address the problems of massive wealth inequality which do seem to economically enslave people to oligarchs just as surely as any despotic emperor. I bet Jeff Bezos can know more about you than your favorite autocratic despot could have known about their subjects. The author rightly extols the virtues of a right to freely enter contracts. Unfortunately, he doesn’t address the fact that if I were to simply read all of the contracts I’ve implicitly agreed to in the modern world, I would have no time for any capitalist productivity. And what of the modern paradox of contracts that expressly prohibit courts that uphold contracts?

I was sympathetic to how the author naively but earnestly and decently wrote of a post-racial Anglosphere with phrases such as "the nonracial way in which English-speaking societies define themselves." Hmmm. Ok. "Only South Africa had a history of serious racial problems…" Uh huh. This easily could be one of those "white guy wonders what all the fuss is about" situations. In the city I live in there is practically a single highway south of which the racial composition becomes entirely homogeneous. The author would stress that it’s not about race. Those people are "those" people because they speak Spanish, nothing at all racial per se. It’s about the language, the author seems to want to emphasize. I guess the author, a native Spanish speaker no less, has some credibility. On the other hand, history, quite modern history, has been littered with cads who can’t just sputter their bigotry outright and have to code it. It’s a fine line to walk. Sensitivities are high around this issue. I have to say, however, that if the narrative of conservatives could swing toward true racial (and religious) indifference, that would be something they could be proud of. I’ll be looking for evidence in the racial composition of the happy capitalists living in wealthy neighborhoods, but not holding my breath.

The author is brave to even talk about race which is a shame. I too believe in the legal right to be a jerk. Maybe some opinions are odious. I agree with the author that I’d like to hear those opinions and make up my own mind. I find it ironic, for example, that people in Germany today risk legal punishment for discussing a certain odious central European national socialist movement of the mid 20th century which infamously criminalized freedom of expression. Being fascinated by the grand awfulness humans are capable of, I have previously researched the topic of slavery. I came to the same conclusion as the author: "It cannot be stressed too often: the institution existed in every age, in every society, on every continent. What distinguished the English-speaking nations was not that they practiced slavery, but that they crushed it." That is factually accurate. What the author must surely be careful about is substituting "English-speaking" with "white", which shows that even factual accuracy may not be cool. That said, I can see no reason to not be proud of my British heritage with respect to the 1807 Slave Trade Act.

I think this book would have been greatly enhanced had he dropped the penultimate chapter completely. There is too much pundit noise here. The author carps about Obama (who is clearly a disappointing president) and cheers Bush and Reagan (who were clearly disappointing presidents). He canonizes Thatcher. He whinges about the EU. Why the worry? Why not infect the EU with a solid dose of English speaking wholesomeness rather than let their Ministries of Silly Walks infect "us"? It just comes across as insecure. I was satisfied with his excellent scholarship throughout the rest of the book and the thesis stands - speaking English is cool. Being petulant doesn’t help. Just chill out and let English take care of itself. The whole premise of the book was that English is the meme that is serendipitously capable of just that.