I am getting more and more fascinated by the role that politics and the state play in the history of freedom. For, I am just not satisfied with the accounts of my fellow-libertarians. I believe, much research needs to be done toward and from a renewed libertarian perspective.
Institutional change is a fascinating subject, but so is institutional continuity.
Matt Ridley has a remarkable piece on the latter issue - why do some things change so little - and in being inert, how do they help freedom survive and grow?
Ridley reviews a book by a certain Runciman on how Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, would experience a visit of England 300 years after his death:
It is astonishing that the industrial revolution, and the vast expansion of the population that it allowed, did so little to change the main shape and habits of Britain’s political and cultural institutions. [...]
For three hundred years Britain has almost uniquely avoided slipping into feudal, theocratic, despotic or military rule. It has remained an untidy mixture of constrained monarchy, permeable oligarchy, imperfect markets, and representative democracy. [...]
Defoe lived towards the end of a period of civil war, regicide, restoration, (“glorious”) foreign invasion, Jacobite civil war and the imposition of a new dynasty. Yet in the centuries since, with the exception of Culloden and the Blitz, there have been no battles within the country, let alone civil wars. With hindsight, says Runciman, it was never even likely that Britain would succumb to revolution or dictatorship. The idea of freedom was always too strongly popular: freedom of movement, opinion, assembly, speech, contract, trade and fair trial. [...]
If Labour in 1950 had gone to the country with a programme of full communism, or the Conservatives in 1979 with a programme of ultra-libertarianism, both would have lost by a mile. Gradualism was made inevitable by elections, which force parties to respect the cautious instincts of the people [...]
Runciman (like me) is a devotee of the theory of cultural evolution, the notion that society changes by the gradual and undirected emergence of new ways of doing things that persist by competitive survival, rather than by grand design. In Darwinian terms, some of Britain’s institutions are sociological coelacanths — living fossils that have changed little while the world has changed rapidly around them.
It is hard to think of another nation — only the Vatican or perhaps the Netherlands spring to mind — where the main institutions have changed so little since 1724. [...]
On every measure of science, technology and society, we are as modern as you could wish. Yet we manage to be so within national institutions that are little changed from the time of George I.