Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
“What would need to happen for ‘Economists for Brexit’ to become ‘Economists Against Brexit’?” the FT’s Chris Giles asked us in July 2016.
It was a good question. And some economically-minded leavers seem near their switching threshold already. Fraser Nelson last week wrote of his disappointment that an ‘open’ leave of expansive free trade deals and deregulation isn’t being delivered by Boris Johnson.
Britain is failing the “testable thesis” of Global Britain, he argued, with the limited ambition of re-heated EU trade deals, modest trade liberalisation with allies such as Australia, and stasis on data and financial regulation leaving him asking: did I vote the wrong way?
For classical liberal Remainers, of course, a free-market Brexit was always a delusion. David Gauke argues it was an anti-Thatcherite endeavour by definition. By erecting new trade barriers with Europe and removing constraints against interventionist industrial policies, our EU exit repudiated the 1980s revolution. Those who supported Brexit for free-market reasons were misguided, as current events confirm.
Prospects for a classical liberal economic revival are undoubtedly bleak for the near future. Nevertheless, Nelson and Gauke’s conclusions seem to me startlingly premature about Brexit’s overall legacy. And the reason why relates to the answer I gave to Giles’s question five years’ ago: the substantive issue in the Brexit referendum was not “what will we do?” immediately after leaving but “who will decide what is done?”
As such, it’s a category error to think “oh, if Johnson does X or Y, then Brexit will have been a mistake/a roaring success.” Brexit is a major shift in our governing system that can only really be judged by looking at comparative outcomes between Britain and the EU over decades, not years.
Brexit, in other words, is a major constitutional change in where decisions are made and who makes them. It was not a simple policy question. Yes, these repatriated powers can be used for good or ill and how they are deployed will wax and wane depending on the zeitgeist at any given time. But Brexit’s success or failure hinges on whether, overall, the institutions of British Parliamentary democracy produce better outcomes over long periods than a Brussels bureaucracy would have.
As a major constitutional change, it’s just as erroneous to judge Brexit by a few initial trade policy decisions as it would be to judge American independence in, say, 1785, or post-communism reform in Eastern Europe in 1995, or UK EEC membership in 1978. As Johnson was a leading leaver, it’s natural to conflate his agenda with Brexit itself. But that is to mistake the current policy winds as immutable laws that will forever dominate our political economy.
Gauke’s take is particularly misguided, because it simply looks at the timeline of what has happened post-Brexit and ignores the broader context of trade policy around the world. The U.S. hasn’t Brexited, but adopted large tariff increases under President Trump anyway, which have been maintained by a Biden administration that is also beefing up “Buy American” rules.
The EU, likewise, is adopting an aggressive anti-American agenda against Big Tech, while Emmanuel Macron has been the driving force of a pan-European protectionism that uses the veil of environmental laws for keeping out poor countries’ agricultural products.
Now it would be churlish to imply that Brexit wasn’t supported by some on protectionist grounds, nor that the act of Brexit hasn’t facilitated some protectionism. But in the broader global context, the free trade rhetoric of the UK government, and Tory member support for vocal free-traders, is an anomaly. And even if the Government’s actions on trade don’t always live up to it, the long-term question is whether Britain will end up more open on trade than the relevant counterfactual where we remained within an EU, not some nirvana that doesn’t exist.
At the time of the press conference, Giles interpreted my argument on this line of reasoning as a faith-based argument for Brexit. Economists for Brexit appear to think Brexit cannot be a bad move, he concluded, because it was merely the freedom to make decisions. Even if Brexit went wrong and led to a socialist Britain, it was the politicians to blame – not Brexit itself. “From that I conclude the group doesn’t really have much of an open mind,” Giles concluded.
But that’s not what this argument says. Some leavers are no doubt dewy-eyed for national democracy in all aspects of life. Giles Fraser has said he’d support Brexit on a point of principle, whatever the consequences. I remember talking to a senior Vote Leave staffer who similarly said he’d rather a long Corbyn premiership in a sovereign Britain than a Conservative government within the EU.
Yet that’s not why free-marketeers supported Brexit, nor the best liberal case for leave. No, the best case said that, over the long-term, Brexit would lead to better outcomes for openness, economic freedom, and liberty here than with Britain in the EU precisely because of the institutional differences between the two.
It would obviously be great if we were making inroads with a free-trading agenda and meaningful regulatory reform. The key question though is whether we were more likely to get that over time in or outside of an EU that itself will be changing.
Despite recent events, I would still take that long-term Brexit bet. The British Parliamentary system, for all its faults, has been shown to error-correct substantively when it’s clear major government mistakes are made, in a way the institutional stasis of the EU often prevents. The prospects for better governance reform here are only heightened by politicians no longer being able to hide behind blaming Brussels for what are usually domestic errors.
I still think Britons’ broad regulatory instincts are more permissive than seen collectively in Brussels (as evidenced by the faster vaccine approval and the more liberal approach to genetically modified foods). So even if active deregulation proves politically infeasible, more open regulatory frameworks on new issues, such as AI, driverless cars, and future service industries can leave us better off than if ensnared in Brussels’ orbit.
What’s more, global markets are more likely to discipline small countries towards attractive tax, trade, regulatory and migration systems – changes often hard to make when coordinating with 28 states first.
Of course, I could be wrong and so in 30 years’ time writing mea culpas admitting Brexit was a fundamental error. But it seems hasty for Brexiteers to want to write-off a major constitutional change less than two years in, or indeed for Remainers to be unable to contemplate a world where the EU is not the absolute pinnacle of economic dynamism forever.