It is hard to keep up with the unfolding events of the eurozone debt crisis. Earlier this week, the auction by the German government of 10-year bonds, which is an event normally garnering only specialist coverage, made big news. It was, in the words of several news-sites, a disaster, with only some of the paper being bought.
With impeccable timing, therefore, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the UK-based free market think tank, held a panel debate last night around the question of whether the euro has a future. And an interesting collection of folk were on display: Prof Philip Booth, Editorial & Programme Director, IEA; William Cash, Conservative MP for Stone and a long-standing eurosceptic and loather of most things around the European Union; Ed Conway, Economics Editor, Sky News, Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, and finally, and in my view, most memorably, John Stevens, a former member of the European Parliament.
Stevens was memorable because, while he made some good arguments (such as that return to the drachma would cause severe problems for the Greeks in some ways), he also repeated a mistaken old argument that I occasionally hear from pro-EU/euro types.
The argument goes something like this: Small states (like the old city-states of Italy or wherever) cannot thrive on their own and need to be part of a bigger country. The European Union enables its members to punch with a heavier weight than alone. The old glories of Renaissance Italy only serve as a reminder of how small states lose their edge to bigger entities. And with China and India on the rampage, we need to stick together, despite the odd problem of making the project work.
Okay, that is a bit of a paraphrase, but in essentials that is what Stevens said last night. Like others in the audience, I smelled something a bit fishy about it. For a start, is it really the case that the prosperity of small states/principalities/whatever – like 15th Century Milan – could not be sustained alone and that these places had to merge or be taken over by a much bigger entity in order to survive? (It is not as if modern Italy, which was only unified 150 years ago, is an economic colossus as a result of said unification). Take Hong Kong, for instance. In geographic terms, it is tiny compared with the Chinese mainland and for reasons most Samizdata regulars will be familiar with, Hong Kong has been one of the great economic success stories since the Second World War. (For sure, it was a British colony until 1997 but plenty of other places were colonies and they did not thrive). The same goes for Singapore. Or to travel back in time a bit: the UK – hardly a big country – Switzerland (ditto) or the Netherlands. In the latter example, the Dutch were so lacking in room that rather than conquer a bunch of neighbours, they reclaimed land from the sea. The Swiss seem to be doing rather well, despite the pressures on their discreet banking sector. In fact, places such as Switzerland are a standing reproach to Transnational Progressivists generally.
And in any event, what all these examples of economically successful small states show is that they can survive and thrive so long as they can trade in a global marketplace, exploiting a wide division of labour. It is not necessary – pace Stevens and his allies – to create a centralised institution such as the EU or anything else in order for this trading to occur. So long as different jurisdictions recognise each other’s rules, trade can proceed. In that sense, any regulatory system that takes hold is a “bottom-up” phenomenon, not one imposed from above.
It should also be noted that if, by any chance, the eurozone does fracture, with some of the “northern” euro member countries operating a stronger currency than in the “south”, then this might ultimately work to the benefit of the people for whom the single currency was purportedly designed: the citizens of EU member states.
As an aside, I was pleased that Prof Booth last night pointed out that for economic liberals/libertarians, the issue that really counts is whether the arrangements we arrive at really do mean more, rather than less, movement of goods, services and people. Or, in other words, more freedom, period. No classical liberal can be happy at the prospect of a eurozone collapse being followed by a descent into autarky, protectionism and xenophobia.
Here, by the way, is an interesting book on the folly of empires.