Brexit: Principle over Pragmatism

This article first appeared over at Students for Liberty, click here to see the original. 

ue-flag-1920x1080-wallpapers-612x336What makes the Brexit referendum significantly more interesting than most other current political issues is that public opinion, for once, does not fall neatly into party lines. In fact, most opinions seem more personal than usual, albeit still hugely misinformed. The Leave campaign has focused on the evils of immigration and the supposed extremism and terrorism that comes with it, while the Remain side warns that leaving will bring the still weak economy to its knees. Both sides are scaremongering and, as usual, only focus on a handful of issues and their effects on the short term, while completely ignoring the long term effects on the whole population.

Even libertarians, who are usually consistent in opposing government centralization, have been split on the issue; many seem seduced by the terms ‘free trade area’ and ‘free movement of people’. Thus Jernej Kosec, in a recent article for European Students for Liberty, argues that there is a strong (pragmatic) libertarian case for staying, as the EU is a massive free trade area in a world that is still not fully globalized, and leaving will force the UK to accept trade treaties rather than being able to influence them themselves. The much quoted ‘remain campaign’s comparison of Ukraine and Poland is also made, to offer a historical example of the benefits of the EU.

Firstly, the comparison between Ukraine and Poland is completely irrelevant to the current debate, and the Remain side would do well to stop bringing it up. Joining the EU as a post Soviet-bloc country 20 years ago is entirely different to leaving the EU as an already democratic, somewhat economically liberal country today. The UK has no need for democratic inspiration from the EU, nor is there a threat that the UK succumb to corrupt Russian influence. The UK already has all of the benefits that Poland received from joining the EU, and it is unlikely it will suddenly become a socialist dictatorship if it leaves.

Secondly, and most importantly, these somewhat pragmatic arguments are, in my view, decidedly un-libertarian. Libertarianism is based on clear principles, which always support the greatest reduction in government possible. Government, if it’s even necessary, should exist to defend the rights and freedom of the people from violence, not to legislate free trade agreements. In fact, the very idea that free trade requires complicated state treaties is oxymoronic. As Vilfredo Pareto realized in 1901, “If we accept free trade, treaties of commerce have no reason to exist”. If the EU really existed to facilitate free trade, there wouldn’t be any need to be constantly making treaties in the first place.

Kosec also correctly points out that free trade today is largely hindered by regulations, and that the EU forces many of these regulations to be standardized and equalized among its members states. Yet I fail to see how this centralized regulatory authority is of any benefit to free trade. On the contrary, by forcing the same regulations on all countries, the EU has the effect of eliminating inter-state competition. If the UK left, it could (theoretically) drastically reduce its regulations, benefiting its own economy and encouraging other states to follow suit out of fear of being left behind. While such dramatic deregulation is unlikely to happen, this sort of competition between states does help to at least discourage regulation. The standardization of regulations, and the fact that it generally seems more dedicated to producing more, rather than less regulatory barriers, show the EU for the true protectionist alliance that it is. It’s not a coincidence that Brussels became the lobbying capital of Europe.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the almost universal tendency for governments to grow larger, not smaller. Rarely have governments actually shrunk, and even more rarely was this caused by the democratic process rather than revolutions. Even Reagan and Thatcher, both loved or hated for presiding over supposedly massive decreases in the sizes of their governments, only actually reduced certain programs – both increased overall spending and debt.

The history of the United States, and especially its early history, doesn’t seem to be studied very much in Europe – but it provides an excellent historical example. Unknown to many, the United States began much the same as the European Union – a collection of states with similar interests that wanted to ensure free trade, free movement of people, and avoid going to war. Two hundred years later, it is the most powerful government in the world, the previously independent states now resembling counties more than states.

This is not to say that the European Union will necessarily turn into the next United States. But most governments (and the European Union, which now has an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, certainly is one) tend to increase in size over time. And we are already seeing disastrous policies being forced on an entire continent. Like most governments, the EU is not short on bad ideas: from agricultural subsidies that are destroying cheaper competition from third world countries to bizarre proposals such as enforcing intellectual property laws on buildings and landscapes and the infamous link tax, which may well shut down Google News in Europe. The only difference is that the bigger the government, the more people are affected, and the less inter-state pressure to keep interference to a minimum lest everyone emigrate. Even if there might be some pragmatic benefits to trade in the short run, these are only due to governments creating artificial regulatory barriers and erecting protectionist tariffs in the first place. Leaving the EU might help expose governments for the wealth-destroying parasites they are.

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