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Countering the Neoconservative Defense of the British Empire

One of the worst novels of the nineteenth century, aesthetically and politically, is Julius Vogel’s Anno Domini 2000 (1889). It is stylistically absurd because the author was a statesman with no literary prowess. It is appalling politically because it envisions a future in which the British Empire survives into the second millennium. It remains in print to this day.

Vogel’s novel is relevant because it challenges recent scholarly attempts to portray the British Empire as a paragon of liberty. Neoconservatives such as Niall Ferguson and Nigel Biggar claim that the British Empire embodied liberal principles and spread them around the world. They argue that liberalism is secured through the power of empire, and therefore they lament the British Empire’s demise. From their perspective, only the willingness of the United States to assume the empire’s mantle after 1945 prevented a crisis of Western liberalism.

A basic awareness of natural rights theory demolishes this might-makes-right rhetoric. The libertarian thinker Murray N. Rothbard once called Britain “the most ruthless empire on the face of the earth.” His reasoning was based on the British Empire’s extensive and long-term disregard of natural rights.

Authentic liberalism defends, on principle, the dignity of individual persons and communities. The British Empire, in stark contrast, spread itself by trampling on the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide (who were brutally “civilized” through conquest) and its own citizens (who were aggressively taxed and conscripted to make such conquering possible). This statist project, this “civilizing” mission, is anathema to liberalism. There were genuine liberal elements in British politics, but statist imperialists had marginalized them by the late nineteenth century.

The words and actions of the empire’s leaders reinforce this point, as Julius Vogel’s Anno Domini 2000 illustrates. Vogel was a prominent imperial politician in the late nineteenth century. He twice served as premier of New Zealand, whose provinces he abolished and whose economy he wrecked through expensive public-works schemes. He then went to Britain and worked with the Conservative Party of the arch-imperialist Benjamin Disraeli.

Vogel wrote Anno Domini 2000 when many British thinkers were concerned about the security of their sprawling empire. How could it be defended against its rivals? How could the empire, being so disparate, remain economically and politically linked? The answer, he and many others believed, lay in federation. By giving the colonies a greater stake in imperial affairs, bonds of loyalty would be strengthened. The “civilizing” mission could continue unabated. Vogel wrote Anno Domini 2000 to popularize this idea among the masses. The novel is light on plot—some gallant imperial loyalists fight a conspiracy to undermine the empire—and heavy on political analysis.

The imperial federationists claimed to uphold liberal principles, but in fact they destroyed them for the sake of the state. Vogel’s future federation links the empire’s territories through coercion and jingoism. The armed forces are immense. The federal navy must be larger than all other fleets combined, the various ground forces total over two million soldiers, and an air-cruiser fleet hovers above the clouds, ready to project power anywhere on the globe within a matter of hours. A strict social hierarchy, intertwined with the military, dominates public life. To keep the lower classes content, there are generous social welfare programs. Even able-bodied persons who refuse to work can live comfortably off welfare.

To pay for this bloated apparatus, the empire relentlessly taxes its citizens and regulates the economy. Foreign trade and the employment of foreigners within the empire are discouraged. The empire functions as a protectionist bloc, its citizens commanded to trade with one another and view everyone else as a potential enemy.

The federal apparatus ensures that the colonies are well-represented in Parliament. The seat of government periodically shifts location to signify its commitment to interempire relations. However, this federation is not a free union of peoples. The British Empire rejects the American Revolution’s vision of independent states voluntarily uniting for a common cause and remaining united only as long as their populations desire it. The British imperial federation is dictated from above and maintained through force.

As Vogel states, “To question even the wisdom of continuing the Empire . . . or of permitting a separation of any of the dominions was held to be rank treason; and no mercy was shown to an offender.” The plot bears out this idea. When a certain Lord Reginald Paramatta launches a separatist movement in Australia, the authorities persecute him to the ends of the earth. Likewise, the hostility to true liberalism provokes tension between the British Empire and the American Republic. War breaks out when the American president, by reaffirming independence from Britain, offends the British emperor. In defense of national honor, the British launch a full-scale invasion. Air cruisers neutralize the Eastern Seaboard, the American army is bested in battle, and New England is annexed to Canada. Vogel celebrates this aggression as “the Fourth of July retrieved”—payback for the American colonists’ Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Anno Domini 2000 illustrates that the British Empire was no bastion of liberalism. Of course, Vogel did not predict the future accurately in all respects, and he did not reflect everyone’s opinion. However, he manifests the conviction held by all British imperialists of all ages—that the collective takes priority over the individual and that the British Empire’s “civilizing” mission entitles it to oppress other peoples and coerce its own citizens.

The neoconservative defense of the British Empire, in other words, is morally bankrupt. For a true understanding of the liberal tradition, one must turn to events like the American Revolution and to thinkers like Murray N. Rothbard.

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