This blog is in part dedicated to something I’ve called “liberalism, classical and pragmatic.” The phrase “classical liberalism” is code in certain circles for “libertarian.” The question of what pragmatism requires shall engage us shortly. The more immediate question is, shouldn’t a libertarian rail against Brussels and cheer without restraint at the comeuppance its bureaucrats just received by the British referendum which demands that the United Kingdom leave the European Union altogether? As it happens, I’m quite opposed to “Brexit” which has given me some rather strange bedfellows today, and all this demands some explanation.
The easiest question to answer is, if the EU redistributive schemes and the Commission regulations are bad, but free trade is good, then why not see exiting and replacing membership with a free trade deal between the UK and the EU as an unalloyed good? And the short answer is, I don’t believe that will happen. Part of the problem here is because the EU serves a multiplicity of functions, and its members have lots of reasons for not wanting to see it unravelled. If it is perceived as easy to leave and just re-negotiate trade agreements, it will unravel. Since the other member states don’t want that, they have a pretty good incentive to punish the UK as much as possible for leaving to disincentivize others who might want to leave. The fact that there is a long long history of little love lost between the UK and the Germans and French will make this an easy step to take. You might think that the other 27 countries would be as concerned about losing the British market to export to as the British should be concerned to lose access to their markets… but they’ll be far more concerned about the prospect of losing access to the other 26 markets. Better to cut off the gangrenous limb than to let the infection spread.
The broader historical question is, how do you understand what the EU is fundamentally. Well, here’s a question for you. Suppose I gave you this choice: you could have the United States exactly as it is, with all its shortcomings, or you could have 50 independent nations run by populist demagogues: which would you prefer? A lot of conservative antistatist rhetoric resembles anti-abortion rhetoric: it’s safe because you’re pushing back against something so powerful (the federal judiciary) that you don’t have to worry about any possible downside to pushing back too hard and actually destroying it. But suppose you could? Suppose that the next time you turned on Fox News, the United States simply ceased to exist? Hurray! No more onerous regulations! No more abortion rights! No more same sex marriage! Yes, but at the same time, 50 foreign policies, 50 currencies, 50 borders with barriers to immigration, and (if Etel Solingen is to be believed, and I do believe her) eventually endless war. What, after all, characterized Europe for 1500 years before the EU? If you’re a Nietzschean a return to endless war would have its upside I suppose.
When discussing domestic politics I almost invariably favor keeping things at the state level–for example I supported same sex marriage but believed that it should be created on a state-by-state basis. This emphasis of mine should not deceive you: I think our system of federalist dual sovereignty is awesome, even if the federal level has gotten too big for its britches. If you agree, it is worth noting that the burdens imposed by the EU are far less onerous than those imposed by the US federal government. If we had a constitutional convention tomorrow and replaced the US constitution with an “American Union” treaty, and 50 co-signatories, we’d have more local control, not less. The downside is that Congress would have less power. But you hate Congress anyway, right?
The EU emerged out of Europe’s encounter with totalitarianism. One of its crucial functions was to facilitate the transition of former communist countries in Eastern Europe to becoming “normal” European nations. If you look at the accession criteria, they are organized around a broad consensus of what it means not to be a totalitarian country: free markets, multi-party democratic elections, rule of law, civil liberties. It is not just about peace and immigration: it’s about everything that we are. And holding out the carrot of access to markets as an incentive to adopting these core Western political values actually spread these values more effectively than anything short of Allied troops physically occupying a former totalitarian country ever had. Some might say more so.
The people of the Ukraine had a revolution just for the privilege of being able to have a relationship with the EU. Vladimir Putin hated that. Today Vladimir Putin is a little happier than before.
But the deeper philosophical question is: why can’t you simply be 100% pro freedom and direct limitless hatred at the slightest deviation from it? The short answer is pragmatism, but why is that? Why can’t we just all agree to be 100% pro freedom? And what possible harm can come from being uncompromising? Simply this: it is a Hobbesian, or if you prefer, a Nietzschean world. The appetite for power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to concentrate power is ineradicable. The tendency of states to compete with each other for power is ineradicable. The only way you can carve out a space for individual freedom in the world is through institutions and the institutions themselves must possess a minimum requisite amount of power themselves, or else those who would be free become easy prey for those who care nothing for freedom.
In a way, Europe’s conundrum is analogous to our own. There was a time when the burden of federal power on the states was lighter, and that meant that people power could prevail on the state level. One of the things the people did with their people power was support slavery. Emancipation came not from the slaveholders being persuaded that slavery was wrong, or even that it was not in their very long term best interests–it came in the form of Union troops. It came from a MORE POWERFUL GOVERNMENT. Because if the Union government had been less powerful, it would not have come… oh perhaps someday, but cold comfort to those who would still die in chains in the meantime. Whether all this was a good thing or a bad thing is easy… if you think slavery was awesome, or if you think one legacy of Lincoln’s achievement, a government powerful enough to enact FDR’s and LBJ’s social policies and a federal judiciary powerful enough to impose its values against people’s will, is awesome. That is, if you don’t care about freedom much at all, but about other things. If you do care about freedom, the question becomes FAR MORE DIFFICULT, but on balance, I’m glad the Union won the Civil War, I’m glad that we won WW2, I’m glad that we won the Cold War… and that, as a result, the EU exists.
The solution to the problem that the EU represents is not its destruction, but its improvement, its all-too-slow movement towards greater democratic accountability: a stronger European Parliament to balance the Commission and the Council. And I think that will probably be one of the results of Brexit, because while the previously arrogant elites running it will be keen to punish the UK, or even help tear it into its component bits, it will also see the warning for what it is and move to accelerate democratic accountability out of fear. That’s all to the good.
American conservatives today are cheering Brexit for the same reason that they blithely talk as if the absolute abolition of the United States government would be a good thing, as if all the things that happen because it is there would continue to happen if it weren’t there… because there is no prospect that calling for such a thing will have any real consequences for them.
In postscript let me say a few words about alternative responses to everything I’ve said. If you are a real Marxist, then you will presumably agree with me that the EU is ultimately both an effect of and an instrument of capitalism and American power, and as a result anything that weakens it would be a good thing. I respect you, noble adversary! Not only are you honest, but you see certain things more clearly than your kumbaya-singing brothers and sisters who think that the EU is an effect of, and an instrument of niceness. Conversely, if you are a Christian pacifist, and you think that pragmatic compromise with power to enhance freedom is the the Devil’s way, and that the only right thing to do in the face of power is to surrender completely… and hope that at the end of history God will set it all to rights, I also respect you. But if you are a Brexit cheering conservative today, whether in England or the United States, and you aren’t a Christian pacifist, I fear you may be mistaken. We in the United States will not pay much of a cost: we’re going to enter into a trade pact with the EU, not the UK, and so like many conservative reactions, this will be a matter of expressive values, while the hated elites get on with the job of managing capitalism (I almost said “thankless” job but of course there are goodies to be doled out–it’s still “crony capitalism” we’re talking about, yes indeed). But for the people of Britain, I fear that their tantrum will prove to be the absurd conclusion of a century of decline: once, the sun never set on the British Empire. Soon, I fear, the sun will set on Great Britain itself. I pray that it will not set any time soon on the architecture of freedom that a century of struggle, American struggle notably but not exclusively, helped to create, and which still represents the best hope for a decent life for hundreds of millions.