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If France could quit NATO without permission, why can’t Britain leave the EU?

Author’s note: I gave a talk at one of Brian Micklethwait’s end-of-month Fridays on the Brexit process and why and how libertarians should think about it. This is a sort of distillation of my views, with added material from events of this week. Thanks again to Brian for giving me a chance to hash this out in a congenial atmosphere, along with the likes of Patrick Crozier, also of this parish.)

I haven’t anything particularly original to add to the immediate furore about Mrs May’s plan but thought I would set out a few thoughts here, particularly as people on the pro-liberty side of the fence are often divided on the Brexit question. (Yes, there are libertarian Remainers, and may the Lord have mercy on their souls.)

Mrs May’s “deal” is awful, in my view, and my former editor, Allister Heath, says what needed to be said yesterday in a typically trenchant Daily Telegraph column. To paraphrase (the DT is behind a paywall), he notes that, for example, members of NATO are free to leave without having to get permission from the others first, whereas under this “deal”, the UK would have to ask Brussels’ permission to leave the Customs Union. (In the 1960s, De Gaulle took France out of NATO in certain respects at the height of the Cold War, let it be noted.)

In all walks of life, people can and do end agreements – they get divorced, change jobs, leave membership organisations of all kinds. I even cancelled a gym membership once – I don’t recall asking any civil servant’s consent. And the world continues to turn. Only the EU, it seems, wants to lock the UK into an indefinite arrangement, like a form of involuntary servitude. The only way that such a deal would ever be overturned is by extra-legal means (yes, and that might even include military action). The fact that the EU demands such terms from a country that is making very few other changes to its post-EU situation and paying £39 billion for the privilege, is so evidently unjust that one wonders if there is a secret agenda for the UK to crash out. (I sometimes wonder if this is what is going on, but then remember the more obvious reason which is that Mrs May, who supported Remain, does not and did not want Brexit to happen, other than superficially, such as getting blue passports and being meaner to immigrants, as part of her generally authortarian mindset.)

The oddity about our situation is that while the EU moves on towards becoming ever more centralised – assuming the euro-zone doesn’t crack up under its contradictions – the new technologies and ideas shaking up business and creating our future are going to come from free, open economies, where the State is relatively small, taxes are low and flat, regulations are strict but not wide, and where entrepreneurship and grit are prized qualities. The EU, by contrast, trundles on, poisoning national politics, stirring up ugly populism, and lining the pockets of a group of people who are so convinced of their own virtue that they express open contempt for democracy. We forget, for instance, how the EU recently helped to stamp out seccession of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. The Scottish independence folk who think Brussels is their friend should take note.

My dislike of these forms of bullying and obduracy are in general the reasons I voted for Brexit over two years ago. This was never going to be a clean or easy process – there’s too much invested psychologically in this project of an EU state for its architects to give up easily. For some on the Remain side, this goes deeper than “market access” or the ability to hire a Polish cleaner without fuss. It’s about virtue, modernity, of being part of the progressive side of history.

For those on the Brexit side like me who hew to classical liberal ideas on society, in the tradition ranging from John Locke all the way through to Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, it is also important to acknowledge that some on the Brexit side are as collectivist, and fans of Big Government, as some Remainers appear to be, while some on the Remain side hold broadly liberal views and genuinely worry that Brexit will mean the return of socialism and protectionism. Those worries should be taken seriously.

Brexit does not have to involve any diminution of a drive towards a freer society – ultimately, what will make the difference are the values of the people who make up a political construct. To those libertarian Remainers who – rightly – object to the idiocies that we Brits are capable of inflicting on ourselves (and the list is long) I make this point: it is a damn sight easier to chuck out a national government than it is to chuck out a whole political class from 28 separate countries, with different languages and political traditions. And that, for me, is the most important argument of all.

Samizdata quote of the day

“There’s a cost for everything. And the ultimate payer of every cost imposed by government is not only the individual member of the mass of taxpayers who does not benefit from the scheme, but likely, also, its intended beneficiaries (cf., welfare, busing, affirmative action, urban planning).

The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet, Page 60. (Published by Sentinel, 2011.)

A statement of corporate philosophy I can get behind

These days, there is a lot of effort behind what is called the corporate social responsibility movement to inject what some of us might see as Leftist political ideas into the ways companies operate. (There is debate about this among free market folk, it ought to be conceded. See an article at Reason magazine.) Some of this is mandated by state regulation; some of it can also come from pressure certain types of shareholder (if there is consent involved, libertarians can’t object to that in principle). The old idea, put forward by the late Prof. Milton Friedman, that the primary obligation of company management is to maximise shareholder value, is shocking to the modern mindset. During my time in writing about and following the modern investment and financial industry, I am relentlessly bombarded by calls for firms to be more mindful of their social, environmental and related obligations. Making profits is all too often treated as a tad vulgar, even immoral. (This perspective might change a bit as and when the next recession bites.)

With that in mind, it’s refreshing to read a statement of corporate philosophy like this, from the Asgaard (as in the Vikings) business that runs the Starting Strength weight training operation, associated most famously with barbell lifting trainer and wonderfully plain-spoken Mark Rippetoe. The whole statement is great, even if you have never been to a gym or aren’t interested in lifting weights (full disclosure: I am doing the barbell lifting programme (in the UK) and it has already changed my health for the better).

Here are a couple of paragraphs:

We don’t like big government, government regulation of the workplace and personal space, and government safety nets for those who decide not to finish life’s heavy sets of 5. We don’t appreciate people who are constantly offended for other people at no cost to themselves, and who feel the need to force us to agree with their opinions, which we cannot be made to do. We like people who take personal responsibility, who do not ask for charity, and who give freely when they feel compelled to do so. We appreciate an honest effort toward a worthwhile goal, and we will help if we can.

We like nice guns, good food, strong drink, talented musicianship, thoughtful art, and the effort it takes to create them. We appreciate beautiful women and handsome men, masculinity and femininity, and we know the difference. We also understand that some people have different opinions about these things, and we respect their opinions at precisely the same level of enthusiasm with which they respect ours.

As an aside, I came across Rippetoe (or “Rip” as everyone calls him) via Glenn Reynolds. So I owe the law professor and blogger supremo for putting me on the path to getting stronger.

At least Americans choose top judges in public

One thought that I have about the whole furore about the Supreme Court and Kavanagh (no, I am not going over the whole bloody thing now) is that the US system is so much more public than in other countries that have something such as a Supreme Court, or bench of wise men/women who get to opine or even rule on constitutional matters. We have our Law Lords in the UK, and indeed the House of Lords (chosen by the government as there aren’t hereditary peers any more). As far as I know Law Lords are appointed from within the legal system and it is not entirely clear who specifically gets to pick them or approve the Law Lords. As for France, it has a Constitutional Council, members of whom are senior retired political folk and others who must be approved by the French parliament. What is interesting in the French case is that I don’t recall much media coverage of the hearings, even allowing for the often lousy state of British coverage of French public affairs (you would think a country a few miles across the English Channel and with whom we have traded, and occasionally defeated or liberated in wars might get a bit more attention). Germany has a federal constitutional court, and the gift of membership to this body is held in the hands of the Bundestag and by the Bundesrat (this body represents the state parliaments at the federal level).

All these systems have their merits, quite possibly, but what is certainly striking to my eyes is that it is only in the US that the decision as to who gets on the bench or not seems to be a matter of great media and public interest. In part, I suspect, this is because of how membership is in the gift, at least in the initial proposed stage, of the President. The US Supreme Court has issued major decisions down the decades, as momentous as Roe Vs Wade, Kelo (a big eminent domain case) and Dred Scott, to name just three. It seems also a more public system, whereas I get the impression that when a judge takes his or her seat in a European country, it registers as much public response as the daily announcement of the shipping forecast. And that, I think, speaks much to the more vigorous temper of American public life. It may not feel like this at the moment, but at least the raucous nature of American public life speaks to a certain health. In Europe, by contrast, so much of what happens resembles one of those dull zombie films of the 1970s or 80s.

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

Any scholarship that proceeds from radically skeptical assumptions about objective truth by definition does not and cannot find objective truth. Instead it promotes prejudices and opinions and calls them “truths.” For radical constructivists, these opinions are specifically rooted a political agenda of “Social Justice” (which we have intentionally made into a proper noun to distinguish it from the type of real social progress falling under the same name). Because of critical constructivism, which sees knowledge as a product of unjust power balances, and because of this brand of radical skepticism, which rejects objective truth, these scholars are like snake-oil salespeople who diagnose our society as being riddled with a disease only they can cure. That disease, as they see it, is endemic to any society that forwards the agency of the individual and the existence of objective (or scientifically knowable) truths.

Having spent a year doing this work ourselves, we understand why this fatally flawed research is attractive, how it is factually wrong in its foundations, and how it is conducive to being used for ethically dubious overreach. We’ve seen, studied, and participated in its culture through which it “proves” certain problems exist and then advocates often divisive, demeaning, and hurtful treatments we’d all do better without.

From the publication Aero. The authors deserve praise for exposing the intellectual disaster zone that so much “grievance studies”, and their denial of the existence of objective truth, amount to. The authors are left-liberals who use the word “social justice” without, I wonder, being aware of FA Hayek’s demolition job on the use of the word “social”. Even so, bravo to them: they obviously have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Further, they highlight how peer review in some higher ed. fields is a shambles.

The more I read, the more urgent it is for parents to really consider whether sending their offspring to these places is a form of harm.

The EU really doesn’t like tech – can we leave yet?

“In an almost direct clash of intentions, the GDPR has effectively banned the use of blockchain technology in Europe because of its immutable nature. The GDPR offers the power back to the individual to edit and delete data which falls into the hands of centralized authorities, but when there is no centralized authority, there is no need for data to be moved around. This is the crux of the GDPR’s clash with blockchain. So, what happens to Europe and the next technological wave?”

Darryn Pollock, columnist for Forbes.

The “blockchain” technology is a distributed ledger that allows information to be securely transferred without the need for third-party authentication, which could mean that many of the settlement and custody functions provided by banks – the sort of “plumbing” of finance we take for granted – could be done far faster, and at less cost. Although the crypto currencies that sit atop of this technology have their fair share of sceptics, the blockchain tech. is seen by banks as a potentially revolutionary one. While people complain that some London-based jobs could leave London if the UK has a clean Brexit and leaves the Customs Union (not to be confused with access to the European market as such), I would wager that blockchain will be far more important in affecting financial employment overall.

And yet the EU, with its usual plodding, bovine way, has enacted data protection rules (GDPR) that could blight this new technology, as well – as we have already seen – add layers of costs to organisations of all kinds. Coupled with the recent vote by MEPs to impose intrusive and costly controls on the internet, I’d hope that all those Millennials whom we are told are full of so much love for Brussels might wake up. This doesn’t of course mean that British politicians aren’t capable of enacting plenty of daft laws, but it’s usually a sight easier to lobby for change at a national level than try to persuade hundreds of millions of voters in 28 countries to change.

So as Tim Worstall likes to argue: can we leave yet?

The IEA’s prescription for Brexit

Some critics of Leavers from the EU like to claim that Leavers don’t spell out the details of what Leave would mean, although that always struck me as disingenuous. Even so, it is good that the Institute of Economic Affairs has issued a paper on what a pro-liberty, pro-free market Brexit will look like:

“We have looked at Brexit in the wrong way, and in so doing we have hampered our ability to get a good deal with the EU. We must execute an independent trade and regulatory policy in order to capture gains from this process, and also to ensure that we have a better framework for negotiations with the EU. This plan offers comprehensive approach which shouldn’t be considered a ‘Plan B’, but rather a ‘Plan A+’ for Brexit.”

So says Shanker Singham, the Director of the IEA’s International Trade and Competition Unit, and co-author of the new IEA paper.

There is a lot of detail to chew over, but this is pretty manageable and sensible from where I can see it. The proposals ought, surely, to be studied closely by government ministers and it would be indeed scandalous if they have not been before. And that, of course, is the worry: Theresa May has, perhaps only now, come to a realisation that a “Brexit in name only” fudge is electoral suicide and a no-go diplomatically.

As an aside, three separate people, all Remainers, told me over the weekend that they were so disgusted by the blank refusal of EU heads of state to even bother considering May’s Chequers plan that it has made them feel that, if a referendum were held again, they’d vote Leave. These views are those of Londoners who work closely with the City, and have been the sort giving the EU the benefit of the doubt in the past. They no longer do so. That’s important.

Those MEPs, eh?

For me, one of the arguments for getting out of the EU (the list of reasons is very long, but this is a Friday, and the pub beckons) was due to the lack of decent democratic accountability of the EU as a structure. That doesn’t of course mean that I am a naive believer in majoritarian democracy (I’m well aware of Tocqueville’s wisdom about the tyranny of the majority). But given that the direction of travel of the EU is towards more centralisation of powers, which may be needed to make the dysfunctional euro work (fiscal transfers, more ability to shuffle money around, etc, etc), such a process requires serious democratic legitimacy. Such a polity does not exist, and an example of its non-existence came this week with the EU Parliament’s vote to agree moves to move against the internet in certain respects.

A big majority of MEPs voted for the directive, and a thousand curses upon them. So here’s a thing: how many European citizens, even if they are interested in this matter around copyright, the internet and use of memes, know who their MEPs are? I’d wager that only a small, single-digit percentage, do. Now I am a Londoner who writes about current affairs a bit and follows these things, and I had to Google up a search to find out who my MEPs are. And given how such MEPs don’t directly represent a constituency as with an MP under our first-past-the-post system but are elected via proportional representation under a list system, there’s no real connection between voters and the chap or woman in suits sitting in the parliament. Add to the fact that the parliament has no great ability to repeal directives as far as I know, and cannot initiative laws, etc, then its value as a break on power appears to be very low indeed. But the parliament does, as this case shows, have the ability to confer a sort of cloak of legitimacy over the law-making engines of the European Commission. The lack of connection between voter and MEP also means the latter’s vote will be a mystery to the electors in whose name the members supposedly act.

There may be other reasons why the UK is leaving the EU that are easier to put into a newspaper headline, but for me this is the sort of reason why the EU is a remote, yet malign force, and not, as far as I can see, a bulwark of anyone’s liberties.

Samizdata quote of the day

“I wasn’t even aware that Corbyn was an expert on the subject of English irony. I always assumed he preferred the robust congeniality of Gerry Adams over the acerbity of a Michael Palin or Ian Hislop. But I am no expert on the mind of Mr Corbyn, which seems like a sort of ball bearing ricocheting around a pinball machine, illuminating one Marxist trope after another. And the face of the Corbyn Labour Party is rarely one that smiles, being both humourless and menacing all at once. It is, after all, the party which includes as High Apparatchiks the likes of Dawn Butler and Emily Thornberry, neither of whom strike one as likely secretaries of the PG Wodehouse Appreciation Society.”

Sean Walsh. The whole article, even though it is about the disgusting subject of the Labour Party leader’s anti-semitism and association with terrorists, is an essay containing several mirthful sentences such as the final one of the paragraph above. My only beef with the comment is that frankly, I don’t find Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, very amusing these days.

Samizdata quote of the day

“What can’t be stressed enough about what happened in 2008 is that for economies to grow and markets to rise, it’s necessary that the mediocre and lousy constantly be replaced by the good and brilliant.”

Real Clear Markets, reflecting on the decade since the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

(Hat-tip, Stephen Green of Instapundit.)

Moderation is often not the best policy

“It’s a crowded space, this search for the so called moderate centre ground. It is defined as going back to Brussels, saying we are sorry for ever thinking of leaving, and accepting the full swathe of laws, taxes, budgets and common policies that characterise the modern EU. What ever is either moderate or democratic about such an agenda? How is it democratic for more and more laws to be made behind closed doors, drafted by officials we cannot sack or make accountable, and approved by Ministers from 27 countries under pressure not to rock the boat? What is liberal about the austerity policies of the EU’s budget controls, requiring higher taxes, lower spending and lower deficits from countries mired in unemployment in the south and west of the EU? How is the EU’s policy of helping pay for Turkey’s heavily defended borders with the Middle East moderate? What is green about the fishing discard policy or the dash for diesel and the reliance on coal for power by Germany? Why does everything proposed by the EU get through without a whisper of criticism? When will they apologise for the huge damage the Exchange Rate Mechanism did to the livelihoods and businesses of many in the UK, or for the revenge the Euro crisis visited on Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Spain?”

John Redwood.

A very good article, even if you might not agree with all of Mr Redwood’s politics. His observation that “moderate” Labour MPs (they still want to seize private property, tax us up to the neck and so on) are caught between understandable loathing of Mr Corbyn, and their own foolish Europhilia, is very well made.

As Mr Redwood said, there’s nothing “moderate” about defending a creaking customs union, unaccountable bureaucracy, etc. But then what really does this sort of “moderation” really mean? I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s excellent essay, The Wreckage of the Consensus, where she pointed to the foolishness of imagining that wisdom is to be found in some sort of “middle” between some sort of polar opposites.

Take another case: We are sometimes told to take “a moderate amount of exercise” when, in fact, what we might want to do for better health is high intensity interval training, for instance, or heavy lifting with barbells, rather than messing around by jogging a short distance (and buggering up one’s knees and back, by the way). Sometimes the “moderate” course isn’t really a course at all, but a sort of cop-out.

Back to the subject of Mr Redwood’s post, it reminds me that the voice of genuine political liberalism, to use that fine old word, has been quiet for a very long time in the UK. There appears zero chance of it being encouraged by the current Liberal Democrat Party, which even before its demise, was scarcely connected to the great traditions of Cobden, Gladstone or, even in a more recent example, the late Jo Grimmond.

Samizdata quote of the day

“From a libertarian perspective, the best course of action is not to elevate Trump to Satan or to Saturn, but to acknowledge that he is a mixed bag. In this, he’s perhaps more like Bill Clinton than anyone wants to admit. The major successes of the Clinton years—welfare reform, balanced budgets, capital-gains tax cuts, acknowledgment that the “era of Big Government was over”—came not out of one faction winning but the tension among various factions. If there is a problem to be solved, it’s not a president who, like his predecessors, refuses to cut the size, scope, and spending of government. It’s Congress, which has abdicated its constitutional role of actually writing legislation. And it’s government at all levels, which seeks to control and regulate the hell out of social and economic innovation in the name of some imaginary greater good. There are midterms afoot, so it’s easy to understand why people in the dying Republican and Democratic parties are desperate to view everything through partisan lenses. But the rest of us, especially libertarians, are free of such blinders and do well to remember that independence means first and foremost not making everything about politics.”

Nick Gillespie.