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Sunday, March 16, 2014

New book on English-speaking peoples and freedom

Sigismundo Celine, the hero in Robert Anton Wilson's The Earth Will Shake, noticed that England's superiority over Italy in matters of freedom of thought not only made life easier for intellectuals such as himself but also resulted in material prosperity.

Some relevant passages from the hardcover first edition:

Due to Mr. Drake and Sir Edward Babcock, I have met a most singular Irishman named Edmund Burke ... In Napoli, a man like Mr. Burke would be leading a secret society; here he is part of the government itself. He and the other Whigs are forever obstructing the king: they tell him what he may do and what he may not do. Of course, the king does not like this at all, but when the Whigs have enough votes in parliament, the king himself may not disobey them. This is because of the Bill of Rights they made his grandfather sign. I try to imagine our Ferdinand IV being made to sign and obey such a document. It is easier to imagine a cow giving birth to two monkeys and an ostrich .... (Page 214) (There's more in the passage that makes me want to read Burke.)

On Page 216, Celine remarks about:

... the freedom of this country (where there is no Inquisition) ... "  [after observing machinery in a factory] This is what natural philosophy can accomplish (the English call it "science") and it is awe inspiring. It is indeed because natural philosophy is hounded by the Inquisition that Napoli is poor compared to England and why Spain, where the Inquisition is stronger, is poorer still. Every machine is a thought that produces wealth, as Uncle Pietro wished me to understand. 

Now, compare with Tyler Cowen's review of Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World by Daniel Hannan. Excerpt:

Every time my plane lands in England I shed at least a tear, maybe more, out of realization that I am visiting a birthplace (the birthplace?) of liberty.  This is not a joke and during my trips there I never quite snap out of that feeling, though I am also well aware of all the problems those people have foisted upon the world as well.

I found many parts of this book to be superficial, or perhaps well-known.  Yet often they were superficial and…true ... This is in some ways an important book, though I do not think it is a book which will satisfy everybody.

Many of the commenters to Tyler's post pointed to how the English treated the Irish, people in Indian, etc. Fair enough, but English speaking Irishmen contributed a lot to the idea of liberty, and India became a democracy.  I do think English writers such as John Stuart Mills made contributions, whatever the flaws of the imperial English state. Reality can be messy, as witness the United States, which is terrible about interfering in the affairs of other countries, but which has an admirable record, generally, on free speech and religious liberty.

Thanks to Michael Johnson for his help in locating relevant RAW passages.

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