Monday, February 12, 2007

The Pencil-Pushers' Revolution

The Financial Times has an article discussing a 2005 ruling by the European Court of Justice, the high court of the European Union, that opens the door for further transfers of power from the national to the transnational level in the EU. The decision gives the EU the power to regulate "environmental crimes" when remedies assessed at the national level are judged by the EU to be inadequate. The article expresses the concern that the European Commission and Parliament will interpret this decision as expansively as possible, opening the door for European-level steamrolling of local laws.

As No Pasaran notes, the danger is that a decision like this is a vehicle to give unaccountable civil servants even more power to regulate the lives of once-free people, a way of “compelling states to dispose of a millennium of common law or centuries of Civil Code.”

Several principles that seem based on historical experience painfully true to me are useful here:

1. Government, while sometimes indispensable, is dangerous. Government uniquely possesses the power to legitimately raise armies and employ police forces to enforce its will. That power, needless to say, must be applied with restraint.

2. Local government is less dangerous than central government. Citizens whose freedoms are limited by local government can more easily leave for a freer jurisdiction; a local government possesses less power than a national one. Thus, power should be devolved to the lowest feasible level.

3. Local traditions deserve respect. As thinkers from Burke to Hayek have famously noted, traditions contain encoded wisdom within them, even if that wisdom is not immediately apparent. Trying to redesign society in defiance of those traditions means that knowledge is wasted, and horrendous errors can be expected. When things don't go as planned, the planners blame society rather than their own limited knowledge. Unless great care is taken, what starts on the tennis court can end in the Terror.

The European Union is a highly centralized organization, increasingly being erected not just with no mandate from but actually in spite of popular will. Its high-and-mighties famously bemoaned the ignorance of the European proles over whom they rule when France and the Netherlands rejected the centrally planned European constitution. It is a quiet revolution of pencil-pushers, not the sweeping transformation of demagogues; it is hard to imagine Jose Manuel Barroso firing up the masses from the balcony. But it is dangerous, just the same. (Mr. Barroso himself backed approving the constitution by referendum when he was prime minister, but now opposes it when he is in charge of the EU bureaucracy and those inconvenient elections keep snarling his plans.) Sweeping power can certainly be acquired one obscure resolution or court decision at a time. The European Commission has itself over the years somehow found the authority to decide whether Danish farmers are free to grow wine grapes, and that English merchants are forbidden from selling merchandise in English units. If you think these are trivial matters, recall that the freedom to buy and sell is a way to control your own life; once it is gone, yielded to economic planners, loss of most individual autonomy easily follows.

As the recent turmoil over the constitution demonstrates, Europe is still sufficiently democratically vital to forestall overreaching by the distant czars who run the EU. But the battle is not won, and as free people, cognizant of history know, never truly is. An anonymous European official assures Europeans that they needn’t worry, because "[W]e don't see this as the beginning of a European criminal law or as a mandate to start writing a European criminal code."

Sorry, not good enough.



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