Responsibility isn’t a European word, dating instead to the American founding. Mark Reibling has tracked its first published use to 1788, with Federalist Paper 63 by James Madison, who says: “I add as a sixth defect [which a senate should answer], the want, in some important cases, of a due responsibility in the government to the people”. He adds “This remark will, perhaps, appear not only new, but paradoxical. It must nevertheless be acknowledged, when explained, to be as undeniable as it is important.” Reibling finds that the first recorded use of the term was actually a little earlier than this, on 1 June 1787, at the constitutional convention, and indeed by July 1787 Madison was already concluding “The responsibility of all to the will of the community seemed to be generally admitted as the true basis of a well constructed government.”
The EU, of course, disagrees. It is notorious for retaking referendums until it gets the result it wants. And it is telling that, as the Eurozone crisis continues, the cry is always for leadership, not for the will of euro-users to be consulted. Italians and Greeks have seen their entire governments given to technocrats.
The growth of democracy worldwide after the fall of the Soviet Union has made it easy to forget the originality of the American constitution. It was designed not to introduce periodic voting to legitimise state power, but to upend the political philosophy of the old world, in which only men of exceptional virtue could be relied on to govern. In the American vision, as Lawrence Goldman writes in his introduction to the Federalist Papers, we see a transition “from a dependence on human virtue as the foundation of political society to a new confidence in the capacity of laws and institutions to make men live up to their obligations”. America is built on the idea that ordinary men and women can run the state, if their powers are limited and their fellow-citizens can hold them responsible.
By contrast, the modern European project rests on an ancient, aristocratic belief: that grand central plans, bulldozed through without responsibility by a vast bureaucracy, will create a better world. The American founders understood that worldview too well to admire it. A representative for Massachusetts observed that “public bodies feel no personal responsibility, and give full play to intrigue and cabal.” It is scarcely any wonder that a lack of responsibility has become visible on the Eurozone’s extremities – it is a disease spread from the centre.
America’s system was drawn up by geniuses to be run by ordinary men and women; Europe’s treaties have been drafted by ordinary minds to create a laboratory for philosopher-kings. Europe is finding that no leader is equal to that task. Its responsibility deficit must at last be paid off, and that means building a Europe of citizens, not of experimental subjects.
Marc Sidwell is the business features editor for City A.M.