The last post discussed the historical role of law. This post finally delivers the promise to discuss constitutions and charters. The sovereigntist Eurosceptic position in Britain standardly includes an elevation of Magna Carta into the greatest document ever in human liberty or, in more moderate versions of this position, certainly the greatest since it was issued in 1215 and the fount of all worthwhile liberties ever since: blessing Britain and countries which might be considered off shoots, like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the ‘Anglosphere’), with a unique appreciation of liberty and parliamentary democracy.
While Magna Carta is of course a remarkable document and the moment it was issued was a remarkable historical moment, these claims are a distortion. It was a Latin document issued under duress during civil war conditions, the duress applied to the king by barons, at a time when the the English aristocracy and monarchy was distinguished from the great body of English by use of the French language and holdings in France.
Magna Carta has nothing to do with parliamentary democracy, it refers to a council of 25 which barons might form if they found the king to be misbehaving, and does not refer to a standing representative body but rather something more like a right of insurrection against a ‘tyrannical’ monarch. This has no more to do with parliamentary democracy than a variety of councils and assemblies existing across Europe at this time, and rather less than some.
Though Magna Carta is dressed up in the language of reasserting traditional rights, this does not make it the expression of a distinctly English or British love of rights based in tradition rather than innovation as the sovereigntists standardly claim. All demands for rights across Europe were expressed in that way at that time, and for centuries before and centuries after. The French Revolution itself started as a demand for ‘restoration’ of rights. The language of restoration is of course frequently a cover for innovation, an attempt to justify innovation by denying what it is.
Magna Carta was the innovatory product of political struggle, not the writing down of the unchanging liberties of old England. The same goes for the struggles for parliamentary power in the seventeenth century which frequently took on the deceptive form of ‘restoration’ of a Magna Carta which was already supposedly a restoration. It is even more fantastical to see the US Constitution as the outcome of Magna Carta, which does not stop many Anglosphere sovereigntist Eurosceptics doing so.
The history, or histories of liberty, is the accumulation of many interacting events, charters and theories in many countries. The growth of British parliamentary power took place in that context as did the US constitution and the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which took place during the French Revolution. Like the French Declarations, Magna Carta exists in different versions so there is no pure origin text of liberty in either place. Rival French and Anglosphere attempts to proclaim the priority of either are particularly absurd. These are documents separated by hundreds of years and many other factors.
We cannot imagine modern liberty without either source, though both sources are flawed and open to challenge. The last thing thought and politics based on liberty needs is some sacred unchallengeable text as foundation, inevitably distorting understanding of the varied contexts and sources of liberty, and inevitably distorting our understanding of how ‘sacred’ documents had a source in power politics and political economy. There is no immaculate liberty born outside of struggles over power and appropriation of wealth.
The writing down of liberties in a legal document itself, particularly one that has a special, difficult-to-overturn foundational status, places some constraint on liberty, on how some people now and even more in the future might have some different ideas about liberty and see the earlier document as constraining.
It is certainly the case that a strongly entrenched document like the US Constitution deprives later generations of the liberty to re-imagine liberty and it is certainly the case that such a Constitution conflicts with the common law tradition exalted by British sovereigntist-Eurosceptics, according to which law progresses through the way judges build gradually on earlier cases to interpret statutes and formulate principles of justice.
Clearly a strongly entrenched Constitution with a Bill of Rights added does not come from common law, though it may try to capture some of the principles supposed to be widespread in common law, and must heavily constrain common law judges. The idea of a Constitution standing above politics, constraining it according to pure justice, has at least in the United States made the membership of the Supreme Court and its decisions a matter of constant political contention.
No attempt at a system of liberty can avoid tensions between different sources and understanding of liberty. Unfortunately the Eurosceptic-sovereigntist position largely tends to overlook this, or like someone looking at the Sun, cannot have it directly in its gaze without serious damage. The elevation of common law tradition, Magna Carta, and parliamentary democracy is the elevation of different things which in some sense must always be part of liberty, thinking of the general principles of judicial independence, institutional harmony, and representative government. However, as they conflict there can be no perfect version and no reason to think English, British or Anglosphere solutions can be regarded as above all others and with nothing to learn from the law-governed democracies of mainland Europe.
Next week, the end, a final summary.
I am currently working on adaptation to climate change and would appreciate a bit of feedback. I find feedback can be useful, if only to get me out of the ivory tower.
A brief background: When addressing climate change the popular idea is to reduce carbon emissions through a carbon tax, cap-and-trade or regulations. However focusing on emission reductions alone:
- Ignores the political difficulties of trying to reduce emissions. Regions that rely heavily on coal use are not going to be in favor of reducing its use or paying extra to use it, see the chart. Notice that states like California or Washington, which are trying to reduce their emissions independently, don’t use much coal anyway to meet their energy needs and would be minimally harmed by a carbon tax.
- Reductions today would not address the climate change that will occur even if we stopped all emissions today. Even if
We therefore need to adapt to climate change. We can adapt:
- Individually by adopting technologies (e.g. air conditioning) or migrating to locations we expect to have better climates.
- At the urban level by investing in the necessary infrastructure (e.g. seawalls to counter sea level rises), or by allowing cities to ‘move’ by letting old buildings deteriorate and focusing new development inland or building up near the coasts depending on local conditions.
- At the (inter)national level by sharing technical information.
Economics, my home field, has plenty to say about the above three forms of adaptation. It is however lacking in discussing cultural adaptation.
For example, in Spain and other Mediterranean countries, it is customary to take a long mid-afternoon break to take a long lunch at home or take a nap. To compensate for this break work may end later than is customary elsewhere, and family-friendly social life is active well into the late evening. This custom was transplanted, to varying degrees, in Latin America; I am most familiar with the Mexican version due to family stories and personal experience. This custom helps to avoid working during the hottest time of the day and shifts activity towards the cooler part of the day. My understanding is that a similar custom exists in the warmer southeast Asian countries, but my personal knowledge is limited.
Are there any other examples of cultural adaptation to climate change that my fellow note writers can think of? Examples don’t need to be in regard to contemporary climate change and can be adaptations that took place during the Medieval Warm Period, the Little Ice Age, etc etc.
US States by % of Electricity Produced from Coal.
Source: The U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013.
Note: Rhode Island, Vermont, and D.C. excluded due to minimal coal use for electricity production.
Following on from last post in this series, focused on the violent formation of the nineteenth century British state, a largely political theory post on how far Britain had a special status as a model of liberalism and then democracy in Europe. Despite all the negative aspects discussed in the last post, there was of course some overall progress in Britain in creating a society and political system based on law, tolerance, individual rights, and a commercial society with prosperity spreading to all, sooner or later, though clearly much later for the afflicted groups discussed in the last post. Now it is certainly true that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently, Britain has been taken as a positive example for those wishing to promote those good things in their own political community.
The trouble with the Eurosceptic-sovereignty view is that these realities are transformed into a belief in a British legal and state community uniquely, and its very essence, prone to liberty under law and all the associated benefits, and recognised such by all Europeans gracious enough to acknowledge British superiority. Let us look at the eighteenth century discussion which is when comparisons of Britain and European states around law, liberty, civil society and so really got started. Strange as it might seem to some, earlier thinkers about liberty like Machiavelli, Grotius, and Pufendorf did not promote the idea of Britain as exemplary. The eighteenth century French Enlightenment certainly did lead to some admiring interest in Britain from that point of view. Maybe the main populariser of Enlightenment, Voltaire, was a great Anglophile. However, the really intellectually important observer in France at that time was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, author of The Spirit of the Laws, who did visit England (but not the rest of Britain).
Montesquieu could be said to be something of an Anglophile and he has sometimes been taken as the bearer of a British model of liberty throughout Europe, as if he recognised Britain, as superior, of course to France. Though this is a familiar story in terms of the urban myths of history of political thought, it is not really plausible for the more sophisticated reader. Questions of interpretation of Montesquieu of course arise here, but there is proper interpretation of Montesquieu based on a thorough reading which could justify the view of him as possessing a political theory based on Anglophilia.
Montesquieu recognised two kinds of state compatible with liberty and ‘moderate government’, meaning government restrained by law along with a general respect for customs and moral standards. Those two types of government are monarchy and republic. Montesquieu also regarded a republic as less compatible with commercial spirit – which he strong endorsed – than monarchy, though he recognised exceptions and transitional cases. For Montesquieu, republicanism, at least in any pure form, meant some very small homogenous community with laws adopted by the people as a whole or an aristocracy. In both cases, Montesquieu thought that wealth tended to undermine the possibility of a republic, as such a state rests on putting ‘virtue’ (largely meaning patriotism and respect for law) above wealth in a very strong way. A monarchy, he thought, rested on ‘honour’ (largely meaning the search for status through wealth or through high position in the monarchical state). So a commercial society was more likely under monarchy than a republic. Montesquieu had in mind a large modern European state, which showed that to be case, France.
For Montesquieu, Britain was a disguised republic, a quite realistic assessment since political power rested with an aristocratic-oligarchic elite under a crown, which could not raise taxes or go to war without parliamentary approval. Montesquieu recognised that Britain was a great trading and commercial country, but at that time the same could be said for France which had a much larger population and therefore was a more important example of commercial society. Anyway, though Montesquieu had some complimentary things to say about Britain, he regarded it as culturally inferior to France, a view he expressed in his own way partly through complaining that there was less enjoyable social relations between men and women, a sign of backwardness.
Montesquieu was sceptical about the relevance of republics to the modern world except as city states, like Venice, or those German cities which were self-governing, or better for reasons of strength and survival, as federations of city states (or maybe rural communities of similar population), like the Netherlands of the time (known as the United Provinces) and Switzerland. Montesquieu looks at so many perspectives and considers so many examples that there is some difficulty in saying what his model was, but the evidence is for a choice of the French monarchy, emphasising how much power in reality rested in institutions other than the monarchy, such as law courts, town governments, universities, and the church. If he was not arguing for the primacy of the French model, he must have favoured the federated republics of his time. He has more to say in detail about Britain and it had good things about it, but there is no way in which Montesquieu had an Anglophile political theory which legitimates soveriegntist-Eurosceptic assumptions of special, separate, and superior status for Britain in relation to Europe.
Next post some more political theory, but also another broad historical discussion.
The sovereigntist mythology of British history is in any case caught in a rather awkward place in claiming both a unique British role in resisting pan-European tyranny and a separation between Britain and mainland Europe. It is hard to see how both claims can be completely true. The sovereigntist attempt to finesse this awkwardness is partly to claim that Britain played this unique role against Napoleon (well maybe Russia, Prussia, Austria and Spanish insurgents helped a little) is that Britain was in Europe to do the job and was then out again until destiny called on us to be in Europe again to beat back the Kaiser in 1914.
There is rather a lot wrong with this picture. As mentioned above, Britain shared royal dynasty with the German state of Hanover at the time of Waterloo. It had done so since 1714, when it acquired as king a Hanoverian prince who spoke almost no English. The Hanoverians continued to reign in Britain until 1837, when Princess Victoria was able to become British Queen but was not able to inherit in Hanover due to the exclusion of women from the succession. Anyway, she kept up the German link by marrying Albert of Saxe-Coburg with whom she spoke German at home. William II, the German Kaiser who was the national enemy/European hegemon of 1914, was one of her grandchildren and was apparently very attached to her.
Of course by this time, the royal family reigned in Britain rather than ruling, though Albert was rather keen on the ruling and things could have become very interesting on this issue if he had not died rather young. Anyway, even excluding the royal family, Britain was very involved with the rest of Europe after 1815. This involvement included:
- possession of Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain, going back to 1713, and still a British territory;
- the island of Malta became British during the Napoleonic Wars and continued to be so until the 1960s;
- the Ionian Islands were transferred to Britain from Napoleonic France, which had recently acquired them as part of a takeover of the Republic of Venice, and the islands remained British until transfer to Greece in the 1860s;
- Cyprus became de facto British in 1878 with continuing de jure but not very meaningful Ottoman sovereignty until 1914 when the island was annexed, becoming independent in 1960, but even so containing two small parts of Britain in the form of two sovereign military bases.
So Gibraltar and two bases on Cyprus were still British, along with the nineteenth century presence in all of Malta and part of what is now Greece. This is surely rather a lot of European involvement for a country that supposedly experienced a radical separation from Europe after winning the Battle of Waterloo, according to the sovereigntist Eurosceptic narrative.
But that’s not all for nineteenth century British involvement in the rest of Europe. Combined British and French pressure on the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (i.e southern Italy and Sicily) played a large role in weakening and isolating the state, so that it accepted absorption into the new state of Italy during the Risorgimento. The Crimean War took a British army via Ottoman Varna (now in Bulgaria) to fight against Russia, in alliance with the Ottoman Empire, France, and Piedmont-Sardinia from 1853 to 1856. Of course Britain was sometimes at war with the Ottoman Empire, so that in 1829 the British, French, and Russian navies defeated an Ottoman fleet at Navarino, a major event in Greek Independence. A remarkably brutal Independence War had been going on since 1821, and the Battle of Navarino marks the decision of the Great Powers, including Britain, to arrange a settlement according to their wishes and convenience, with a German king imposed on the new Greek state (which was initially a republic). Presumably the British government believed that if they had a German monarchy so should everyone else. Britain of course continued to be involved in the lengthy process in which the Ottoman state was bit by bit separated from its European possessions, though often tilting towards the Ottomans to pin back the Russians, as in the Crimean War. Anyway, this all amounts to a very busy time in Europe for a country that had supposedly separated itself from Europe, and I’ve only covered the highlights.
The other side of the sovereigntist-Eurosceptic narrative of Britain after Waterloo is that Britain somehow stood alone as a country of liberty, progress towards democracy, law, prosperity and the like, showing the backward Europeans the way. There is some truth in this, on the whole Britain was ahead, but there are so many qualifications to be made that this can only be treated as like being slightly ahead rather than putting Britain in a class of its own, but more on that in the next post.
“He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man; but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching it with this record of his own transcendental ideal.” (Comment on John Milton by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834)
Milton made important arguments for the kind of political institutions which would serve liberty, as well as discussing to goal of freedom in discussion of opinion. Though there are two basic Milton texts identified here, I will not attempt to distinguish them here, let alone take into consideration every possibly relevant text by Milton. This is a period of rapid change in political institutions in England (also applying but unevenly and differently in Ireland and Scotland; at this time Wales has to be considered part of England), of experimentation including the execution of King Charles I just before the publication of the first essay identified was published and the institution of a Commonwealth and Free State, in that year, and of reaction in the sense of royal Restoration in the year that the last essay identified was published. Context matters and so does change, but I think for the purposes of this post as opposed to a blog about the details of Milton’s life as a man of letters and politics, this will be mostly an overview rather than a tracking of Milton’s evolution.
As with his views on free speech, Milton’s views on political institutions mix religious commitments with knowledge of English history and great scholarship of ancient texts. The knowledge of ancient texts to some degree overlaps with the knowledge of religious texts, which is one reason why intensified study of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth century tended to serve general cultural development and liberty.
Milton’s objections to monarchy are partly established through his reading of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible where he argues that God warned the ancient Jews against adopting the institution of monarchy. Anyone interested in following up which parts of Hebrew scripture Milton is using here should start with the First Book of Samuel, Chapter 8. Disasters that befall the Biblical Jews are in some measure the consequence of ignoring God’s counsel in this matter. Of course, many have seen the Bible as justifying not just monarchy, but absolute monarchy so Milton goes to some effort to argue that monarchy was a second best institution for the Jews from God’s point of view and that the Jews never gave their monarchs absolute power.
The view that Milton has then, of the rights and powers of kings, is that they are established by covenant with the community and not a divine authority which the community must obey. The idea of covenant is important in Christianity, with regard to the view that the ancient Jews had a covenant with God as his chosen people and that Christ offered a new covenant for all humans willing to follow him as the son of God. These covenants were very much emphasised in the Protestant culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which thought it was returning to a relation with God obscured by centuries of Catholic interposition of church hierarchy between believer and divine word.
The idea of covenant moved quite quickly from theology to political and legal thought in Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch theologian and legal-political thinker who was one of the major shapers of modern thought in these matters. Milton does not emphasise him in these essays, but he was certainly an influence. For Grotius, the covenant is at the centre of theology, and influences his view of the obligation to obey law and government, though he does not use the language of covenant greatly in that context. The point being in political terms that in some way laws and political institutions rest on some choice of the community to obey them. In Grotius’s thinking, this is more about the reason for obedience than an incitement to rebellion where laws and institutions lack popular backing, but the latter aspect is necessary outcome. This ambiguity carries on into the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (1551) which takes a foundational social covenant (defined more in legalistic than theological terms) as the basis of absolute obedience to the sovereign, but certainly influences the view of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Civil Government (1690) according to which ‘the people’ (in practice Locke meant the upper classes reğresented in Parliament) the right to overthrow government.
So Milton precedes Locke’s view that rebellion against unjust government is lawful, even admirable, and that laws are uniquely made by ‘the people’ in Parliament and never by a monarch. Milton himself draws on earlier historical precedent for this view of government as based on contract and the right of rebellion against government which ignores that contract. Particularly important is the Dutch Revolt of the late Sixteenth Century, in which merchant towns rebelled for political, commercial, and religious reasons against the absolutist Catholic monarchy of Spain which had acquired them for rather accidental dynastic reasons in recent history. Final agreement with Spain took a long time, but the new Dutch Republic quickly established the possibility of a mercantile republic in modern Protestant Europe and offered support to those who considered republics to be more Protestant than monarchies. Milton draws further on recent Scottish history, pointing out that a Protestant Scottish parliament had deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, in the preceding century. In general, Milton argues that the idea of monarch contradicts the idea of an ordinary human with an ordinary body, with legal accountability like anyone else, and so can never be incorporated properly into a state of free citizens.
Though monarchy which obeys such agreements is allowable from Milton’s point, it is not ideal and is very likely to decay into outright tyranny. Nevertheless he offers examples of how great monarchs of European history, including Roman Emperors, accepted that their power was only justified by serving law and the good of the community. As Milton emphases the last great Roman Emperor Justinian (ruling from Constantinople towards the end of the period during which any Roman Emperor controlled much territory beyond Anatolia and the Balkans) produced the greatest codification of Roman law, making himself the servant of law, not god on Earth. In any case is monarchy might be just about tolerable in many societies for Milton, the proper practice of Protestant Christianity certainly required a freedom from the religious and institutional church authority demanded by kings. Protestant ideas of free discussion of religious ideas and self-governing groups of believers could not thrive under a king (which was a reasonable estimate since Protestant Dissenters were not really equal citizens until the nineteenth century when the monarchy had become largely ceremonial, and indeed the last monarch who really struggled for a more than figurehead role, George III, was en enemy of religious emancipation).
Milton developed a view of how a republic, or commonwealth, might survive over the long term, certainly a longer term than the period it lasted in England, in its purest form only from 1649-52, and then the Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell until 1658 and his heir Richard Cromwell until 1660. He thought that while the country might need a new parliament in 1660, once elected it should serve permanently, replacing dead or absent members through its own method. What Milton seems to advocate here though is not a permanent republican law, but something necessary to institute a permanent republic. Milton thinks of the beginnings of a republic as embattled and as needing to act more like an army than a fully stabilised and secure civil republic should. Both the chance for election and eligibility to vote can be restricted while the republic secures itself against selfish internal a faction and external danger. Here Milton runs into the problem Niccoló Machiavelli, an ardent republican despite frequent misrepresentations, encountered in The Prince, how to get a people that is not very republican and maybe not very ready for a republic to the point where civic virtue and understanding of public good are strong enough for a workable republic.
Milton’s life and public service under the take over of the English republic by the quasi-monarch Oliver Cromwell, followed by his life and exile from public life under the restored monarchy, is the context for the quotation from Coleridge at the head of this post. For Milton, republicanism and associated ideals, became more and more associated with some better and other world. After the Restoration Milton certainly became the author of poetry rather than political essays, producing in particular Paradise Lost, a religious epic which places him just below Shakespeare in general evaluation of English literature. We could look there for a more ‘transcendental’ exploration of republicanism and liberty, and I had hoped to do so. However, this task will be deferred as I think a responsible investigation of republicanism in Milton’s poetry, though a recognised area of discussion, is just too big and different to incorporate into this sequence of posts. Later I hope.
David Friedman writes:
Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say.
He goes on to give examples of inconsistent claims made by global warming alarmists. His (short) post is worth the read. Here are my 2 cents:
First, (in response to the block quote) deferring to experts is sensible but requires a certain degree of expertise in picking out who they are which is a difficult task. We’re all human, and it’s hard to hold something in your head without thinking it’s true. That makes it hard to not be arrogant. We need to emphasize strongly that interpreting information is hard, and the outcomes are not at all obvious. Those concerned with anthropogenic climate change (myself included) are better served by stressing the uncertainty involved and making arguments centered on appropriate risk management.*
Second, The issue of climate change boils down to a series of sub-issues that need to be considered carefully:
We need to think about costs and benefits. A warmer world would be a boon for many people. If we could set the average world temperature, we would want it to be higher than 0 Kelvin. We might even want it to be warmer than it is today.
We need to think about the uncertainty surrounding what’s happening, as well as what we can do about it. We should be particularly skeptical about cost estimates for any effort to try to control the environment.
(This one’s a bit of a non sequitur.) We should use this as an excuse to do things that would help reduce the costs of climate change that we should be doing anyways. Specifically, we need to liberalize immigration policy in wealthy nations. Let’s say there’s a 0.00001% chance that climate change has a bad outcome, and that specifically that outcome is that the entire country of Bangladesh will catch fire and kill everyone. That’s a good excuse to let Bangladeshi’s come to America, but we should be doing that anyways. It’s a low cost (actually a negative net-cost) solution to a potential problem of climate change.
Here’s one that I think the smarter alarmists/deniers already recognize: this is a political discussion. Politics and the truth don’t mix. But recognizing this point and making it widely known may allow people to tone down and argue something closer to the truth.
Both sides like to think of themselves as skeptical (as demonstrated by that masthead which warns that we might have to suffer through the addition of a habitable continent (?)), and good for them. We should value skepticism in this. But that skepticism shouldn’t lead us to make bold claims on one side or the other. It should lead us to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. This is a risk management issue, not a social engineering one.
* I like Taleb but I’m not as worried by GMO’s as he apparently is, but I haven’t read that paper either.