This one was kind of a journey. Attacking PragerU’s dumb mistakes, as I did in the last video, is not a difficult project. Many have done so already. What’s a lot more difficult, is reckoning with the valid points that Prager makes. The British Empire was tremendously influential, and it is responsible for the spread of representative institutions all over the world. Prager is absolutely right about that.
The larger problem is reconciling these two things we know about the British Empire:
A: It left the world some decent institutions and…
B: The British Empire inflicted massive suffering on the world, on a scale that dwarfs anything that came before, and Britain’s poorly managed reign ended with the multi-decade apocalypse we know as the two world wars.
The standard approach is to pick one narrative and run with it. The viewpoint you choose often coincides with the left or right political marketing segment you choose to fall into. What I try to do with today’s video is reconcile the two, which involves diving in and attempting to sort out my own feelings about freedom, history, and life in general. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. Let me know how you think I did.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Last time we talked about how Prager U gets almost everything wrong about the British Empire. Today I want to talk about a few important things they get right. The British Empire has been extraordinarily influential. It absolutely did shape everybody’s idea of freedom. Prager U and their British Empire guy, H.W. Crocker III, are completely right about that. They just don’t really understand freedom or how it has worked historically.
“Freedom Was an Englishman’s Right, and wherever he went he took that right with him, whether he was an English colonist in America, governing himself through a locally elected assembly, or an English adventurer like Sir Stamford Raffles, creating the free market city state of Singapore, or an English officer, like T.E. Lawrence, leading Arab tribesman against the Turks. The British always thought of themselves as liberators, as bringers of freedom.”
The sorts of institutions that the Prager U video talks about absolutely do bring a special something to societies all over the world. What free institutions bring.. Is power. And freedom is not some magical fairy dust that white guys in wigs hand out to people. It is something that must be taken. Freedom is bloody, and it’s vicious, and the first thing most people do when they achieve the power of free institutions, is use them to brutalize somebody else. Take a look at newly Democratic and enthusiastically genocidal Myanmar for example.
“Freedom was an Englishman’s Right and wherever he went he took that right with him, Freedom was an Englishman’s Right and wherever he went he took that right with him,”
You see, that’s exactly it. Freedom was an Englishman’s right. Not anybody else’s. And because English were, or at least saw themselves as freer than anybody else, they thought were entitled to do whatever they wanted to whoever happened to be living on land the English wanted. You should already be aware of what the Freedom loving English colonists of North America did to the Native Americans they mostly wiped out, and the millions of slaves they brutalized for over two centuries. Lawrence of Arabia is a Romantic figure. In the 1962 movie Obi-Wan Kenobi plays King Faisal, the wise Arab king the British made a lot of promises to in return for his helping them win World War One. In real life, the British stabbed this guy in the back, not just dividing up what he was promised with the French, but also helping the Saudis take control of the holy cities Faisal’s family had controlled for centuries. Stamford Raffles is another interesting one. During the Napoleonic wars, the British took over Dutch lands in Indonesia. In 1814, with an Anglo-Dutch treaty, they decided to give the land back, not to the indigenous peoples, but to the Dutch, because they wanted the Netherlands to be rich enough to act as a counterbalance to other European powers. But then Stamford Raffles took over Singapore, in territory that was supposed to be Dutch, so the British forced them to sign another treaty in 1824. It’s particularly ironic that the Dutch were treated this way, because in the 1500s and 1600s they had built a bloody empire with relatively free institutions for Dutch people. This was the model that the British quite explicitly copied. In the 1820s, the Dutch probably had institutions that were more like Britain’s than anybody else in Europe. Didn’t save them. Sorry if that was boring, but I think it nicely illuminates how much contempt the British had for any other people’s rights. We expect racist historical figures to run roughshod over the rights of people of different ethnic groups. But the British didn’t see the rights of liberty loving European countries as worth respecting either. That is what British freedom meant.
This may seem like a condemnation of the idea of freedom or free institutions, but it’s really not. The modern world’s institutions are better than what came before, but it was only British and Dutch wealth built by slavery, genocide and other horrors that made these institutions possible. That’s really messed up, but also fascinating. We human beings are really messed up. But also fascinating.
I always thought that an understanding that all of us human beings were fallen creatures was the bedrock of conservative thinking. Acknowledging that the darkness at the heart of human nature is inextricably linked to our potential is a fundamental insight of both Christianity and the greatest Western political thought. I think that internalizing these concepts the way I have makes me a conservative. But that’s not Prager’s conservatism. Prager’s conservatism is apparently about content free slogans, and cheering on your team.
Freedom and free institutions are better. But they weren’t some magical gift of the British. Free institutions and the idea of national independence were a series of bombs going off all over the world. Bombs that everybody else learned to control too, fairly quickly in historical terms.. One reason British power fell away was because they lost their edge in this institutional arms race.
I love freedom. But it’s a dangerous thing. Paradoxically, the only way to confront this danger is with more freedom. More Freedom for the marginalized living in powerful countries. More Freedom to help smaller countries build the institutions they need to survive. Freedoms need to be balanced against each other. The height of the British Empire was an era almost completely without balance, when English freedoms rampaged over everybody. .
Prager and Crocker think they are being super transgressive by pointing out that the British Empire was important, but that’s only because they haven’t done the relevant reading. Crocker actually wrote a book called the politically incorrect guide to the British Empire. I downloaded the free sample on my kindle and browsed the table of contents. What’s weird is that he seems to have left out one of the most important things about the British Empire. 100 years ago, most school children in the UK, and probably the US too, could have told you about the Glorious Revolution. In 1688 the British parliament bloodlessly fired the king, launching Britain on a path to greater liberties than anybody else, and more power than anybody else. The Glorious Revolution inspired a philosopher named John Locke, who in turn inspired the founding fathers of the United States. British power was about geography, and it was about industrialization, but it’s likely that 1688 is what made Britain capable of maximizing these advantages the way it did. Crocker doesn’t seem to think 1688 is worth a chapter. And that makes sense, Crocker is a twenty-first century historian, and talking about the Glorious Revolution has been out of fashion for most of a century. So how are things going on the more politically correct side of things? In 2012, two Harvard professors came out with a book called Why Nations Fail. The book is scrupulously politically correct, and it provides a careful nerdy argument about the importance of institutions. And the crazy thing about it is that one of their conclusions, is that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is one of the most important things that has ever happened. They see it as the modern birth of better institutions. So the Politically Correct elitists, are actually a lot more knowledgeable about, and more respectful of British institutions than the Politically incorrect guys. Huh.
Prager is right that British institutions have inspired everyone, all over the world. Almost every country in the world has a parliament of some sort. What Prager neglects to point out is why. Sure, To some degree it’s because these ideals and institutions are inspiring, but it’s mostly because the British used them to become absurdly powerful. British Power got people interested in free government out of self-defense. You can thank Britain for freedom if you want, but I think it makes just as much sense to be thankful that we have all been freed from British power.
Well, that was a lot. Come back next time when we travel to 19th century Egypt, and put some historical weight behind these arguments. Egypt’s tragedy shows both the power and attractiveness of freer, more modern institutions, and the way that British Freedoms often crushed those institutions.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and if you want to learn a ton more about these subjects, you can pick up my book, Avoiding the British Empire, available now on the Amazon kindle and in paperback form. Thanks.