Monday, June 29, 2015
The Magna Carta's Legacy
Daniel Hannan's May 29, 2015 article for the Wall Street Journal titled Magna Carta: Eight Centuries of Liberty explains why that document has had such a lasting impact on Western society:
The bishops and barons who had brought King John to the negotiating table understood that rights required an enforcement mechanism. The potency of a charter is not in its parchment but in the authority of its interpretation. The constitution of the U.S.S.R., to pluck an example more or less at random, promised all sorts of entitlements: free speech, free worship, free association. But as Soviet citizens learned, paper rights are worthless in the absence of mechanisms to hold rulers to account.
...The rights we now take for granted—freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on—are not the natural condition of an advanced society. They were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words.
When we call them universal rights, we are being polite. Suppose World War II or the Cold War had ended differently: There would have been nothing universal about them then. If they are universal rights today, it is because of a series of military victories by the English-speaking peoples.
In America, these rights are protected by our system of government, anchored by the Constitution and supported by the checks and balances that are supposed to prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. Hannan notes that there are "universal rights" within our country only because the Founding Fathers, following the example set by the Magna Carta, developed a "constitutional government—or, as the terse inscription on the American Bar Association’s stone puts it, 'freedom under law.'"
The law was no longer just an expression of the will of the biggest guy in the tribe. Above the king brooded something more powerful yet—something you couldn't see or hear or touch or taste but that bound the sovereign as surely as it bound the poorest wretch in the kingdom. That something was what Magna Carta called "the law of the land."
The idea of the law coming up from the people, rather than down from the government, is a peculiar feature of the Anglosphere. Common law is an anomaly, a beautiful, miraculous anomaly. In the rest of the world, laws are written down from first principles and then applied to specific disputes, but the common law grows like a coral, case by case, each judgment serving as the starting point for the next dispute. In consequence, it is an ally of freedom rather than an instrument of state control. It implicitly assumes residual rights.
Hannan declares that it is not a coincidence that while most of the world has fallen prey to dictatorships of one kind or another at one time, the "Anglosphere, unusually, retained a consensus behind liberal capitalism. This is not because of any special property in our geography or our genes but because of our constitutional arrangements. Those constitutional arrangements can take root anywhere. They explain why Bermuda is not Haiti, why Hong Kong is not China, why Israel is not Syria."
Democracy does not flower everywhere. It is delicate and it must have the right environment in order to blossom. Hannan concludes:
Americans, like Britons, have inherited their freedoms from past generations and should not look to any external agent for their perpetuation. The defense of liberty is your job and mine. It is up to us to keep intact the freedoms we inherited from our parents and to pass them on securely to our children.
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