For three hundred years, Great Britain’s fundamental political concepts have differed significantly from those of continental Europe. This difference in outlook will remain a stumbling block for further British integration into the European Union.
One cannot fully appreciate the special kinship of England and the United States without understanding the things that fundamentally separate those two nations from Europe. America and Great Britain have governments that embody the political philosophy of John Locke, the man whose two treatises on government written in the early 1680s provided a framework for England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 and America’s even more glorious revolution of 1776. Locke’s philosophy as outlined in the second treatise, begins with natural rights, examining what rights are naturally attributable to all human beings as discerned through reason and the laws of nature and nature’s of God, particularly the right to property. This idea of property begins with our bodies but extends to include our life, liberty, and estate. Because our enjoyment of property was unsure in the prepolitical state of nature, we created a civil society. A civil society establishes a government to secure individual rights, foremost of which are our rights to property. According to Locke, our property serves as an early warning system. If it is threatened by government, our bodies may next be threatened. Government, for Locke, must be limited because we cannot rationally consent to absolute monarchy. We are better off in a state of nature than under an absolute monarchy; at least in a state of nature, each of us has the right to defend himself rather than being subject to one sovereign who can use all available force against him.
Under Locke, and as stated in the Declaration of Independence, those who consent to be governed do not forsake all rights. Citizens retain the right to judge what is necessary for their own self-preservation and to preserve this type of constitutional system. Citizens have a right—and a duty—to resist absolutism when, as the Declaration of Independence notes (plagiarizing John Locke directly), “a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them to absolute despotism.” In the Anglo-American tradition, attachment to property leads people to consent to be governed, and consent leads to limited government. Limited government protects individuals by protecting their property while leaving them free to care for it.
Locke’s classical liberal political philosophy, however, never took hold on the European continent. There are obviously many reasons for this, but a principal one was the French Revolution, whose most radical elements were directly inspired by eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Much of Rousseau’s political philosophy is a critique of Locke’s limited-government philosophy, and this argument still has important reverberations today in both Paris and in Brussels.
Rousseau attacks limited-government liberalism in the name of the wholeness of man, arguing that liberalism divides a person by focusing on self-interest, individual rights, and property. Rousseau argues that this Anglo-Saxon focus on self-interest cannot provide a basis for a community, because no individual would be willing to sacrifice for the common good on the basis of rational calculation. Rousseau argues instead that society demands truly hard work to establish citizens’ full dedication to the common good and requires a subordination of the individual to the whole. Rousseau tries to resolve the conflict between the individual and the state, between self-interest and duty, by creating some sort of selfless attachment to the common good. This social contract, as he calls it, requires a negation of the individual and the particular in favor of the social. Thus, Rousseau stands in direct contradiction to Locke. Whereas Locke uses a minimal state to protect the individual in the particular, Rousseau attempts to create a selfless attachment to the common good because of his thoroughgoing distrust of individual concerns, including private property.
Rousseau has a far grander vision of what the state should accomplish, he sees a moral dignity in political life. Allow me to paraphrase an apt illustration from his famed novel on education Émile, when a Spartan mother heads off to the battlefield to find out how her city fared. On her way, she bumps into a slave and asks, “How did we do today?” The slave replies, “Oh, poor mother, it was terrible. Your five sons were killed.” The mother says, “Oh, you base slave, how dare you! I asked how the city fared; I care not for my children.” This exemplifies the transformation Rousseau would like to effect in every citizen: we should forget about ourselves and instead think only of what is best for the entire community.
Obviously, this kind of dramatic transformation is nearly impossible to effect, and Rousseau seeks to achieve it through a vague metaphysical concept called the general will. To overcome the tension between individual interests and the will of the community, Rousseau argues for the creation of new kind of individual, a person whose private will seeks only the common good, what Rousseau calls the objective public will, a will that is free from our subjective selves and personal interests. Rousseau’s philosophy involves trying to make the community embody this notion by shaping the mores of citizens so that they deny their self-interests in the name of community.
This notion of the objective public will has had deep repercussions on continental political philosophy for the past two centuries. The Declaration of the Rights of Man issued in 1789 in France echoes Rousseau’s famous formula in insisting that all sovereignty is found essentially in the nation and that law is the expression of the general will. Thus, the French revolutionaries forced the traditional provincial divisions of France to accept tighter administrative control from Paris for the good of the nation, a centralization that was later furthered by Napoleon. Their willingness to remake all institutions of society flows directly from ideas found in Rousseau’s Social Contract: “The state is master of all goods through the social contract, which serves within the state as the basis of all rights.” To Rousseau, these rights do not inhere in our nature; they are endowed only by the social contract.
One Nation Under Bureaucracy
America’s Declaration of Independence, by contrast, does not speak of the general will at all, concentrating instead on how to limit government so as to protect the preexisting rights of citizens—rather than laying down new standards of civic participation. The American revolutionaries protested in the name of existing limits to governmental authority, and the Constitution written soon thereafter placed strict limits on the federal government.
In the American system of government, individual rights are protected against legislative authority, most notably by judicial review. Under the French constitutional system, by contrast, even republican governments have declined to establish judicial checks on the other branches of government. (This is, in part, a reflection of the Rousseau-derived French belief that the state requires unity.) Even disputes about administering policy in contemporary France are sometimes viewed as disruptions of the moral liberty achieved through unity, because even disputes about administration imply division. Through this line of thinking, the political administration and even government bureaucrats come to be seen as the embodiment of the objective public will, the general will. The public sees them as standing above self-interest. (In the Lockean, Anglo-American way of thinking, by contrast, self-interest is the very basis for government.)
Thus, France ever since the Revolution, bureaucrats have not been expected to be responsive to the people or even representative of them. As Jeremy Rabkin, the constitutional scholar at Cornell University has noted, bureaucrats have been the civil equivalent of the army. (Napoleon even gave high bureaucrats military-style uniforms to wear.) The behavior of bureaucrats in France is monitored by a separate body called the Council of State, and it is subject to a special body of law called administrative law, which shields decisions from interference by either the legislature or the judiciary. Given the focus on state sovereignty in France, disputes between the government and private persons are rarely decided in favor of individuals.
There is a deep contrast between the Anglo-American understanding of the rule of law and the French system of administrative law. In England and in America, all citizens, of whatever rank, are subject to laws and jurisdictions of ordinary tribunals. Officials must answer if they violate the rights of private citizens. In France, however, the government—and every servant of the government—is considered a representative of the nation, and these individuals possess a large body of special rights, prerogatives, and privileges over private citizens. Under the French system, individual rights are viewed as subjective and opposed to state sovereignty. This distinction between individual and society has often been at the heart of political battles on the continent, and the belief has been that only the state itself can resolve these battles. German philosophers such as Kant and Hegel built upon Rousseau’s philosophy, universalizing the concept of an objective public will that supersedes individual interests. Hegel argued that only the state bureaucracy is free from the selfish preoccupations that afflict the rest of society. And because bureaucrats are above politics, they should have a specially guarded position and a guiding influence in legislative deliberation.
This notion is the key to understanding the role that technocrats play in Brussels today. Popular acceptance of these ideas has led to the recent calls, both in Germany and now throughout Europe, to establish objective bureaucratic expertise that will embody the objective public will in a way that stands above individual interests. And this notion of the objective public will is one of the main reasons for what is called today the democracy deficit in the European Union. The EU’s bureaucratic system of administration ignores the role that spirited representation of private interests plays in defending liberty in the American and British systems—and is frankly incompatible with civil liberty and self-government.
This disdain for individual interests in the name of the public good has also led to a disdain for the free market in France. But young people in France have recently shown greater frustration with their nation’s dirigiste economy, especially the employment system. France places enormous charges on employers when they hire people—unemployment insurance and other social benefits cost 50 percent above the base salary. Thus, many young French people have begun to move to England during the last five years as France has struggled with unemployment that is still above 10 percent. These trends indicate a slow, albeit growing faith in the market in France, and the same is occurring in parts of Germany. This may be evidence of a decreasing adherence to the notion of an objective public will that should inevitably supersede individual interests, although I believe that the latter idea still retains enormous strength in both countries.
Their governments have certainly held their ground. An interesting aspect of recent talk about European integration is the tendency of French president Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to argue that the more-advanced nations of the European Union embody a new public will that should be the guiding force for the bureaucracy in Brussels. That, I think, is a fairly direct reflection of Rousseau’s ideas about the function of government and Hegel’s thinking about the direction of history, and it implies a clear disdain for representative government and the will of the people in the other European nations that have been unwilling to integrate as quickly as France and Germany. Whatever institutional tinkering may occur in Brussels to correct Europe’s current democracy deficit, the fact remains that unelected bureaucrats will continue to operate under the misguided notion that they stand above individual interests and embody the march of history toward ever-greater unity. This concept will remain a stumbling block for Great Britain as long as she retains her Lockean limited-government ideas, and it is a fundamental reason why Britain should seek a closer relationship with the United States and the other English-speaking nations.