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Angelo Codevilla’s examination of the American political class in The American Spectator of July this year will surely take its place among the seminal texts of American conservatism. It brings into clear focus the great danger to the American settlement that has arisen during the course of the last century — which is the slow, steady confiscation of political decisions by a self-defining elite. The cost of those decisions is borne by the people; the benefits accrue to the elite and to those who share its lifestyle. As a result the American political process is beginning to resemble the political process in Europe, where only unimportant matters are discussed in elected legislatures, and where the real decisions are taken behind closed doors, among members of the political class. This class includes a few elected politicians, or at any rate politicians who have at some point been elected to some office that may or may not still exist. But elected politicians form only a small proportion of the elite, most of whose members are in any case unelectable. Far more important are the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, the “captains of industry,” the trade union barons, the favored members of the professoriate, and the people who, for whatever reason, are owed favors by the ruling party.
In a lecture delivered at the University of Munich in 1918, just after the defeat of Germany, and before the new order of German democracy had begun, the great sociologist Max Weber spoke of “politics as a calling” (Politik als Beruf). He drew attention to the inevitable consequence of democracy, which is that while some people will live for politics many more will live from it. The democratic process is open to capture by cohesive groups who, in the course of one parliamentary session, can build institutions and tax-flows that grant a permanent rent to their members, regardless of whether they have been elected to government, and regardless of whether they have ever been honestly and gainfully employed. This capture has been achieved by the trade union elites in France and Germany, by the utilities companies in Scotland and France, by the motor and aerospace industries in Britain, and by all those who live from the welfare state — which means, primarily, not the teachers in schools or the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, but the bureaucrats who control them, and who are in a position to demand an ever larger share of the public revenue.
Until recently the British Parliament made spasmodic efforts to retain control over the use of tax revenue and to account for legislation to the people. Gradually, however, the political class has triumphed over politics: most legislation, and most political decisions, are now governed by bureaucrats who enjoy lifelong security of tenure and who need never account for what they do. And the decision-making powers of local government and civil associations have been transferred to “quasi-autonomous non-government organizations,” staffed by tried and trusted members of the political elite. The Labour Party has been particularly energetic in creating and financing these “quangos,” so that there are now nearly 900 of them, consuming a tax-funded income of £170 billion a year. Many of them have legislative or quasi-legislative powers, like the Health and Safety Directorate, which has encumbered our society with absurd regulations and imposed crippling expenditures on business. Some even have powers of policing, like the Commission for Racial Equality, which regularly prosecutes people, usually without success, for racist thought-crimes. Their officers are shielded from the normal consequences of decision-making while often receiving salaries that can be matched in the private sector only by CEOs. Two hundred quangos have been added in the last two years alone, including the “Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee,” the “Thames Gateway Development Corporation,” and the “School Food Trust,” funded to the tune of £63 million in order to explore ways of improving the meals served in schools.
Such protected spheres of influence provide an unprecedented breeding ground for the political class. There is now a well-trodden career path from the politicized NGOs of the left, via the left-leaning quangos, to high office in the Labour Party and thence to the lucrative bureaucracies of the European Union. The Parliamentary Labour Party now consists almost entirely of career politicians who have spent their lives spending other people’s money and providing ideological reasons for stealing more of it. An astonishing example is Baroness Ashton, the first ever “foreign minister” of the European Union — and therefore my foreign minister, who negotiates on my behalf with all the governments of the world.
I know a lot about Baroness Ashton’s career. But I don’t know anything else about her other than that she is having to learn French for the first time. When our country had control of its foreign relations, a knowledge of French was the first requirement for any position in foreign affairs. Now, it seems, you can reach the very summit of European politics with no qualifications at all. Lady Ashton began as a secretary in the most destructive of all the left-wing NGOS, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a KGB-funded pressure group that nearly succeeded in preventing the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain, at a time of real and pressing Soviet threat. She moved to the “Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work,” a leftist quango devoted to the maintenance of the welfare state’s most hopeless victims. From there she moved smoothly to the National Health Service, became chair of the Health Authority in Hertfordshire, and was finally appointed vice president of the National Council for One Parent Families. She entered the House of Lords at the behest of Tony Blair, and in accordance with his policy of filling the upper house with leftist apparatchiks. She became a European Commissioner by appointment, the choice being Gordon Brown’s, and foreign minister likewise, as a result of a deal worked out by the European political elite. Never once has this woman ventured to propose herself for election to anything. Instead she has been carried from office to office by a class whose interests she can be guaranteed to represent, and whose agenda she will never question.
IS AMERICA SAFE FROM the European disease? Surely the principles of federalism, built into the Constitution by the great men who devised it, will prevent the final confiscation of political decisions from the people whom they serve? Surely we shall never see in America the emergence of a government machine of the kind we see in Europe, where the most important decisions are taken behind the closed doors of the European Commission, by bureaucrats who have never been elected and who keep no minutes of their meetings?
True, things are unlikely to go that far. But the American president has expressed his approval for the European superstate, and American politicians talk and act as though people like our “foreign minister” really are entitled to speak for us. Moreover the political class in America has discovered its own way of bypassing the people, legislating through the Supreme Court rather than through Congress, and creating government agencies that give permanent rents and regulatory powers to its members. Just how far the ruling class can proceed in the European direction is debatable, but this fall our bravest member of the European Parliament, the English conservative Daniel Hannan, is publishing an important book that spells out the dangers, brilliantly summarizes the state of play, and shows exactly why the American Constitution both deserves and needs protection from the new ruling class. The New Road to Serfdom (Harper), which takes its title from the famous anti-socialist tract published by Friedrich Hayek, is subtitled A Letter of Warning to America. And no reader of this magazine should be without a copy.
Hannan shows just how easy it is to remove powers from the people and to transfer them to professional politicians; he documents the process as it has occurred in Europe and identifies the warning signs in America. And he utters a passionate plea to the American people, as the last representatives of the freedoms for which the English-speaking people have given so many lives. It is time, he tells his American readers, to wake up to what is happening, and to rescue their Constitution from the new ruling class. His book, along with Angelo Codevilla’s article (which he has expanded and is now available in book form from Beaufort Books), should be on sale at every Tea Party.
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the AEI.
Scruton, with examples of Europe, illustrates where we need to be cautious about the direction American politics is heading.
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