Following a very enjoyable river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and three days in Prague, Ito and I are now relaxing in Munich for three weeks before traveling on the Bob Mundell’s annual gathering of economists at his home near Siena, Italy.
This afternoon, while reading my first book on an iPad (my friend Michael Lind’s new history “Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States”) in our hotel lobby, I was intrigued by overhearing the hotel manager discussing some repair work with two tradesmen in English. Obviously the workers were not German. After the manager left, I was further intrigued by the fact that the workers continued to convers with each other in English even though English was obviously not their first language. However, as is common in Europe, it was the common second language shared by them.
Several hours later a third worker joined the first two and all three conversed in English. I overcame my natural reserve and called out to one of them. “Excuse me. You are all speaking English to each but English is obviously not your first language. Where are you each from.” “I am Iranian,” the obvious leader of the group replied. “The electrician over there is from Spain, and our IT guy there is also from Iran.”
I love such things. It makes the world more interesting. But it has also made Germany, two Iranians and a Spaniard better off as well.
It reminds me of a conversation I had a few years ago in Dubai with an Arab citizen. Less than twenty percent of the residents of the United Arab Emerates (UAE) are Emeratis. Over 50% are Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis, whose second language is English. “Why is it,” I asked, “that you Arabs all speak such good English.” “We have to,” he replied in his pristine white thawb. “English is the language of international business and we are businessmen. In addition, it is the only way we can talk to the help.”
I saw The Madness of George III in London yesterday evening on my way to Kabul. The evening included a nice dinner and visit with old friends Tim and Jan Conway, first met in St. Andrews Scotland in 1976. The play, and David Haig’s portrayal of King George III, was spectacular. British theater is the best in the world century after century.
The play set me thinking again about why American’s are so fascinated with England and the English monarchy. My ancestors are mainly English so I may have a slanted perspective. But America’s basic values and institutions, which are respected by all American’s what ever their ancestry, were built upon those of the United Kingdom. We see it most clearly when contemplating the role and place of the British monarchy in British governance.
What fascinates us, I think, is the interaction between the King (or Queen) and his government. From the Magna Carta on Britain has evolved a system of governance based on the rule of law. The powers of the King are limited and checked the powers of Parliament and The Law. This interplay, these checks and balances, are on display in every movie or play about the British monarchy. This, I think, is the core of our fascination with the British monarchy. The King is all-powerful and unquestioned within his household but constrained by tradition and law in his broader exercise of authority.
Indeed, with all of it’s shortcoming, Britain benefits a great deal from the rule of law. The rule of law is much more than having good laws evolved from practical experience (the common law approach of Britain and America rather than the civil law tradition of Europe). The rule of law is an attitude of the members of society. It is the orderly, voluntary adherence to the norms society has agreed on. The result is a much more efficient and relaxed social and economic life.
The English famously queue (line up in an orderly way). It makes the experience of waiting to be served so much more relaxed. Waiting in “line” in Italy, on the other hand is a tension filled, guerrilla warfare effort to minimize being taken advantage of by shamelessly rude Italians, all of whom have relatives or friends ahead of you in line holding their place. On average Italians are more charming than the English. I have concluded that this is necessary to compensate for their disregard for the rule of law. Italians don’t pay their taxes, don’t cue, and in general circumvent at every opportunity the law.
A consequence of the rule of law in Britain and northern Europe more generally and its weaker hold on the behavior of Italians and southern Europeans more generally is that the United Kingdom functions more efficiently. Social interactions are smoother. And members of society enjoy more true liberty. The weaker hold of the rule of law in the south is like a tax on the functioning of the system. The explicit taxes that are not paid by Italians are replace by the tax of higher cost social interactions as they struggle to improve or at least defend their place in line. Italian’s are only fooling themselves to think that they have gotten away with not paying their taxes.