September 29, 2005

Anglosphere exceptionalism

Peter Saint-Andre's post is yet another pointer to the ongoing evidence for Anglosphere exceptionalism -- that is, the tendency of the English-speaking, Common Law nations to stand out in any number of dimensions, including social, economic, and political. Another very interesting pointer is the "LLSV" work -- the findings of Rafael La Porta of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, Florencio Lopez-de Silanes of the Yale School of Management, Andrei Shleifer of Harvard's economics department, and Robert Vishny of the University of Chicago's business school. These researchers, themselves from what were once known as the "emerging economies" of Eastern Europe and Latin America, have found that even in the Third World an English-speaking, Common Law background is an indicator of development success.

In my book, which was written before I had seen the LLSV work, I had, based on a broad variety of evidence, tried to integrate the present-day evidence of Anglosphere exceptionalism with the newer historical work on English exceptionalism in history, and the continuity of culture between pre-colonial British Isles societies and the broader Anglosphere, including America, to try to answer the perrenial question, "what's going on here, anyway?" The LLSV work is useful because it helps drive the final nail in the coffin of Anglosphere essentialism -- the idea that there is something inerent in the historically British-descended English-speaking peoples, racial or genetic or whatever, that has caused this socio-politico-cultural exceptionalism. Almost every race and nationality in the world has some branch in the Anglosphere, either as former colony or immigrant subgroup, and almost every one of them does better than their counterparts outside of it.

Rather, the LLSV research tends to support the conclusions of the new historians, which suggest that these characteristics emerged as a result of a long series of happenstances and accidents in English history, in which geographical, climatological, and anthropological factors all played a role, but none crudely determined the outcome. (For instance, David Howarth and N.A.M. Rodger both make the point that Britain's being an island certainly had something to do with its escape from Continental militarism and bureaucratization -- but that you just can't say that "being an island saved it from invasion". Being an island certainly never helped Ireland in this regard.)

Once your eye is attuned to Anglosphere exceptionalism, it's hard to stop noticing it. It's hard to think of another aspect of the current world that it so pervasive (and so consequential) yet so little remarked upon.

Posted by Jim Bennett at September 29, 2005 01:17 AM

Being and island does help. Ireland was a colony. Her history right up to the twentieth century (and even then) was shaped by that. Once there was no Irish parliament, the decisions were all made with British interests in mind. On the other hand, Ireland's fantastic progress at the moment is not unconnected with the enormous funds it receives from the EU. So, I am not sure that proves anything.

I would not argue against English or Anglospheric exceptionalism. All I am doing is warning against seeing the world with rose-coloured spectacles. As you say, once you start looking, you see. But you also convince yourself that you see. These things do not happen of their own accord. Political decisions are needed. That is why I linked Melanie Phillips's article. Here is another one from today's Financial Times (reported also in the Scotsman and the Independent, the rest of our media not being grown up enough to cope with hard news):

Posted by: Helen at September 29, 2005 02:47 PM

"These things do not happen of their own accord." Depends which things you are talking about. The LLSV studies show that, in fact, former British colonies have better economic performance, even when you account for everything else. In other words, the British left behind stronger institutions which allow the people in these countries to generate more wealth. This is not really something that you see because you want to see it. It is an odd fact that sticks out and requires explanation. LLSV posit that it is the legal system. I would speculate that it is the legal system and a bunch of other, related things that the legal system is a marker for.

If the things you are talking about preserving are Britain's identity and its historical inheritance, agreed, current developments look bad, and opposing them will require political will.

But the Anglosphere is an observable thing, historically and currently. The term describes historical and current facts. So, while I agree that there is always a risk of seeing what you want to see, this is not one of those instances.

What future institutional form the Anglosphere will take is an open question. Jim proposes a Network Commonwealth. The degree to which Britain participates in any such future arrangement is an open qustion, too.

On Ireland, I think the point Jim is making is that merely being an Ireland does not protect you from invasion. The sea is as much a highway for invasion as a moat. The moat is a moat only if you have a Navy. Ireland did not. Why? Lots of reasons, but the basic weakness of their political and civic order prevented the creation of a navy, which is very difficult thing to build and maintain. So, they were overrun and became a colony for a millenium. Life is hard on those who cannot get themselves organized enough to defend themselves. Alas for my Irish ancestors.

Posted by: Lex at September 29, 2005 04:51 PM

Um, well, not that many people had political and civic order when Ireland was overrun and, of course, England did have a surplus of Norman baronial sprogs, born, mostly, on the wrong side of the blanket. Probably the beginning of the empire being outdoor relief for the upper classes, as it became known later on. Of course, you are right about former British colonies, or, at least, some of them. I am not sure you can prove your point in Africa, not even South Africa, which is steadily disintegrating. To be fair, its judicial system survived apartheid and, for the moment, surviving the rather racist, neo-Marxist government of Thabo Mbeki.

Posted by: Helen at September 29, 2005 05:08 PM

As to political and civic order, England after the Conquest had exceptionally strong and centralized government, which kept civil peace and imposed uniform law. This allowed the English monarch to generate a lot of military power. That was a disaster for the Irish.

As to Africa, it is a question of degrees of awfulness. I suspect that compared to, say, the Portuguese, the ex-Brit colonies are probably a little better. But I cannot point to any hard facts on this, and Zimbabwe is not a beacon of anything except the nastiest possible Conradesque awfulness.

Posted by: Lex at September 29, 2005 06:51 PM

One gets into trouble when trying to define Englishness in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Who were the English? It is useful to trace the various strands that became interwoven (Kipling does it well though a little fancifully in his children's history books, "Puck of Pook's Hill" and "Rewards and Fairies"). The post-Conquest political order was imposed by the Normans who were, obviously enough, Norsemen, though there was a good deal of political structure in pre-Conquest England as well. Not enough, obviously. The Normans imposed a political and civic order wherever they went: parts of France, England, Sicily, Russia and, eventually, Ireland. The question surely is why did that order became part of some countries' existence and not others. In the case of Russia, the Tatar invasion had a good deal to do with it.

Posted by: Helen at September 30, 2005 04:40 AM

It strikes me that one of the unique qualities of english civilization was the capacity to layer new types of order. The imposition of the Norman Feudal structure did not entirely eliminate the older Saxon order - sheriffs, etc. The creation of the new order in America did not (unlike, say, France a bit later) wipe out the earlier English/colonial order.

Perhaps a bit of our ability to adapt to change is just that. We can add new things without needing to throw away the old that still works.

Posted by: Stephen at September 30, 2005 11:32 AM

Well, it's interesting that this layering is visible in the language, the law, many aspects of government, and probably many other social phenomena.

The question of how much continuity there has been from Anglo-Saxon times is one that has had some new thinking lately. James Campbell's The Anglo-Saxon State (2000) makes a strong case for more rather than less continuity. Interestingly enough, Campbell also makes a case for Scotland being more Anglo-Saxon than is generally understood.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 1, 2005 12:43 AM