Tuesday, May 8

Britain: not just dentistry and cooking


The word on the street is that the Queen visited Jamestown to collect 230 years of unpaid tariffs. Just kidding. She's here on a state visit and CNN reports that a recent poll shows 8 in 10 Americans have a favorable opinion of her. Though we're not her subjects, as a former colony, she's the closest thing we've got to a monarch.

She doesn't exercise nearly as much control as she could, but I imagine, that as the Queen of at least 17 countries, she's up there as potentially one of the most powerful people in the world. Moreover, her ancestors have been ruling Britain for nearly a millennium now. That's quite remarkable. Obviously, they've been doing something right.

Besides Japan, Britain is the other major country to still have a continuous monarchy, compared to the Czars, Kaisers, Reys, and Louis's that ruled and were periodically taken to Dr. Guillotine over the centuries. As far as I know that only happened once in England.

Have you ever noticed that the English-speaking countries, England and its former colonies with their shared history, traditions, and culture, are the most successful areas in the world? Spain and the Spanish Empire had effectively kicked the pail by the 17th century, France lost its New World in the mid-1700's, Portugal got the short end of the The Treaty of Tordesillas, and the colonies of Sweden, Holland, Belgium faded away without much of a peep.

With the exception of Japan, there's something about Britain that they've spread around the world to their former colonies that have, at present, given them high standards of living. To name a few there's the big ones, like Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and the more subtle ones like Singapore and Hong Kong. All of them are at the top.

The ruler or government of a country always needs revenue. They had to get the money as taxes from somewhere. Countries that are resource rich simply get the money from developing their natural endowments. Take for example Saudi Arabia or Russia.

England, as a relatively small island nation, had its people as its biggest resource, up to the industrial revolution. England had to encourage them to develop so they could be taxed. And it happened. The historical centers of learning were Oxford and Cambridge, and the English invented the Industrial Revolution. London was the biggest city in the world through the turn of the last century until New York surpassed it. Even today, more dollars are traded in London daily than in New York City.

The opposite historical example would be Spain and its empire. They could simply go to Latin America and pick gold off the ground and take it home. The Spanish government didn't have much incentive to develop anything as long as the gold held out.

England was also for the most part, a decentralized government. Starting in the 1100's, they've had a strong tradition of separation of powers. Parliament, originally representing the nobles, has been increasingly powerful against the king ever since the Magna Carta and they've always had an independent judiciary. Without a strong central government, the country flourished with a laissez faire system. In comparison, other countries were centered on their palaces. The French king would sequester all the nobles at Versailles, and the Czar, himself, would singularly rule the serfs with an iron fist.

Furthermore, the English speaking world, the Anglosphere, has never been dominated by a tyrant or dictator, except for that brief stint with Oliver Cromwell in the 1650's. For the most part, all the other countries have had their cycles. An extreme example would be the Russians, who have for centuries had a very strong ruler and it's now so ingrained, they tried switching to a democracy but have drifted back to a strong ruler.

Historically the Anglosphere has been neither dominated nor oppressed. Compared to other countries, the turmoil of the 19th century didn't take root and radical ideas like communism never caught on. We are lucky. There really aren't any overlords against whom we can rebel.

Another aspect could be our language itself. We only have one word to address someone else, 'you'.

I know for sure that German and the Romance Languages, French, Spanish, Italian and others, all have a respectful, formal 'you' and an informal one. On the street, everyone you would have met, from the lowest chimbley sweep, to the tradesman, to the merchant, to the king, everyone was a 'you'. In any other language it'd be a major faux pas to address someone the wrong way. The Anglosphere's legal tradition of equal rights could very well be naturally ingrained in us because we simply know no different. For the most part, the English language puts us all on the mostly level 'you' field. That's one of the founding ideas of the United State--that no one's above the law.

It hurts me a bit to say this as a Catholic, but perhaps it's also some of that Protestant work ethic. Protestant countries Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia tend to be the more productive parts of Europe compared to Catholic Italy, France, and Spain. Though it may not be simply a Protestant thing, as Venice and some of the Italian cities originally led the Renaissance. Additionally advanced places like Hong Kong or Japan have never been either.

Some of Britain's greatest potential wasn't fully expressed until the founding of the United States. I think it's most certainly a good thing that we're such friends with the UK but then again, I'm sitting here thinking and writing in English.

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