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Positive Liberty and ‘The Return of the King’

Victor Davis Hanson writes about Europe in The National Review today:

Our cousins abroad cannot figure out why a crass nation of former European rejects, led by a cowboy from Texas, is wealthier, stronger, and more willing to sacrifice for principle than a more venerated, cultured, and aristocratic civilization. Europe, it turns out, worships class and privilege in the flesh while it damns them in the abstract…

All this was known to our ancestors, chronicled in our literature, enshrined in our popular memory, and carefully noted by our diplomats from Jefferson and Lincoln to Roosevelt and Wilson. Yet the half-century aberration of the Cold War disguised our differences and lured us into collective amnesia. Unlike World War I, after World War II we wisely stayed on to prevent another conflagration. Yet having a common enemy in the Soviet Union misled some of us into thinking that an identical Europe and American would always see eye to eye, when we never really had — despite our cultural and democratic affinities. And now we have come to the end of the Age of Exception, a sobriety brought on by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the stark aftermath of September 11, which scrapped off the thin veneer and revealed particle board, not oak, beneath.

After 9-11, when this rift, which had been quietly simmering along ever since the U.S.S.R. went ka-blewy, Europe’s march to a different drummer has been hard to ignore. As time has worn on, I have come to realize that my view of the relationship was skewed by having come of age during the Cold War, when the differences were papered over.

Reading books about Europe prior to World War One was a great help. I can think of two off the top that I would recommend to anyone with an interest. The first is 1919, by Margaret MacMillan and the other is The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman (Tuchman also wrote The Guns of August, a widely acclaimed book on the gripping first months of the Great War, before it bogged down into trench warfare). Our geopolitical atmosphere is remarkably like the one described in 1919: old empires crumbling or destroyed and the solutions being proposed too idealistic to succeed for long, such as the U.N. and the E.U. We also have new threats go unrecognized by too many.

Then it was Austria-Hungary that went into the history books, and the USSR that went unrecognized as an emerging threat. Then as now, there are some who understand the threat of “planning” and are thought cranks for their trouble. The weak little countries carved out of Austria-Hungary were no match for the Germans or the Russians. It strikes me as a very interesting thought experiment to wonder how different the twentieth century might have been if Austria-Hungary had been united during WWII. Would it have allied with Germany again? Could it have held together and liberalized? It was a much more diverse place than Germany so it’s hard to see how Hitler’s race theories could have had wide appeal. It’s hard to say, however; I don’t consider myself well versed in the subject.

There was another empire that ended in 1919 and that was the Ottoman and the impact of that is still being felt. We’re dealing with it in Iraq still, and also in places like Lebanon and Israel. The rogue ideology of the day is Islamism and, like Communism in the early part of the twentieth century, there are many who refuse to see it as a threat. They appear to think it can be used as if it were a scalpel they could manipulate to scrape the barnacles off of liberal capitalism and then simply put away.

Then, as now, it is the displaced nobles and those who identify with them who think this way. Then, as now, they are those who feel the current system does not adequately recognize their real worth. This is a real problem, however, in a period of widespread decision making – democratic government and relatively free markets. How does one make an appeal to being the “proper” aristocracy in such a situation? Since you can’t use the old words and the old images, the new ones will simply have to be perverted.

So we come to positive liberty in Europe and negative liberty in America, and, unless one is aware of these ideas, it is almost impossible to talk about the subject of liberty with an educated European. We are only talking about the same thing by way of an illusion. With positive liberty, an elite is needed to “create the conditions” for liberty of the helpless masses. It is a terrible burden, but it must be done, goes the thinking. In this way the snobs are able to lay claim to the throne and do it in modern garb. Meanwhile, those who fled the snobs in an effort to get away from their meddling can’t understand why the rest of Europe goes along with it. To our eyes they have sold their freedom for the illusion of safety through “third way” socialism.

Third way socialism does have a toehold on this continent – in the blue states of the last American election and in Canada, especially in la belle province. For the last fifty years it could be fairly said that Canada stood halfway between Europe and the U.S. on this issue, but the last five years have seen a remarkable turn away from traditional Anglo American positive liberty and towards the creation of a Frankish elite based in Quebec and Ottawa. A good chunk of Ontarians appear to have decided that this is the “way of the future,” which is a phrase with a very bad history.

Maybe this isn’t true. Maybe our new course can be laid at the hands of a fractured opposition that ran at least one terrible candidate (Stockwell Day) and forfeited an opportunity to put an end to a Liberal reign that clearly ought to be in its death pangs. It is throwing money around like a drunk and dreaming up every larger schemes with which to “liberate” us with, confident that we will never deign to wag our finger and say enough. We have never had our Reagan or our Thatcher to dispel the phony virtues of the positive liberty, or the phony virtues of those who feel they must stoop so that we can have even that. People come to Canada in order to be free, however, not in order to have a fast food version of it put on a plate and handed to them. If they were content with that approach, they needn’t have come here at all. After all, that sort of “freedom” has a long and widespread history. It can end with an armed gang hoarding food. We’re a long way from that, but we really ought not to think that it isn’t possible. Not if we are historically aware and think in much longer terms that we currently tend to.

Tip to The Tiger in Winter for that last link. A curriculum like that would help turn the ship around.

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Written by Curt

March 4, 2005 at 8:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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