The reality of Brexit unleashes a flood of questions, most of which cannot be answer for quite a while. The near term consequences of the UK’s exit from the European Union will depend on the details of the divorce, which will take several years to unfold. Divorces can take place smoothly and amicably or not. The result—the new reality—can be seen as fair (but invariably diminished on both sides, at least economically) or not.
My concern in this note is whether the underlying public sentiments that pushed Brexit over the finish line—the fear of job losses and cultural dilution as a result of excessive immigration—herald a retreat from the globalization that has dramatically raised standards of living and reduced poverty around the world in the last several decades.
As we know from Adam Smith, our ability to increase our output and thus income rests heavily on the productivity gains made possible by specialization. But we can only specialize in our work and output if we are able to trade what we produce for the other things we need and want to consume. The freer and more extensively we can trade, the more we can specialize and prosper. As I never tire of pointing out, the boundaries of trading within the family, the village, the province and the country and beyond are largely arbitrary. However, trade requires shared rules and standards. Within the family these can be more informally developed and understood. Even within villages customary understandings of weights and measures and value may suffice among people who know each other. But as the domain of trade expands and buyers and sellers no longer know each other, such standards and rules need to be formalized into laws and their enforcement supported by courts and impartial judges. Parties to agreements need to be confident that their contract will be enforced as agreed.
The U.S. Constitution gives our federal government the power and responsibility to establish standards of weights and measures and the monetary unit without which trade within the United States would be greatly encumbered. Agreeing on the voltage standard for electrical devises is one of thousands of examples. Businesses themselves recognize the benefits to themselves and their customers of harmonizing many elements of the products they produce and trade. Thus bottom up negotiations over many years have produced the Uniform Commercial Code, which removes many unnecessary costs of trading across different legal jurisdictions through standardization.
Trade across national borders could not exist without international laws and understandings about the nature of contracts and their enforcement, the description and measure of content and statements of value (unit of account), etc. Leaving the EU does not free the UK from the need to conform to such standards if they wish to continue trading with the rest of the world.
In their efforts to facilitate free trade within Europe by harmonizing product standards, the European Commission bureaucrats in Brussels got off to a bad start by failing to distinguish between those standards that facilitated trade from those that unnecessarily limited product diversity and competition. Their definition of the acceptable features of bananas has become the poster child of their misguided and laughable efforts. This does not mean, however, that the facilitation of international (or intra EU) trade does not need harmonized standards (weights and measures of food content, length, volume, etc.) in order to remove unproductive and unnecessary costs of trade.
The huge benefits of trade—global trade—also require that each of us can produce (work at) whatever we do best. The fullest measure of such freedom—free labor mobility—would require the free movement of labor to the best jobs they can find and this is what the EU required of its members within Europe. It is also what has raised fears and reactions within the UK of having, for example, too many Polish plumbers. As the vote for Brexit dramatically demonstrates, we dare not ignore these fears and they are not easily dealt with. See my earlier discussion of this challenge: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/the-challenges-of-change-globalization-immigration-and-technology/
The growing anti-immigrant sentiments in continental Europe have little to do with free labor mobility within the EU and are more directed to the refugee problem created by the wars in the Middle East. The British vote to leave the EU seems to reflect some mix of a reaction to ill informed harmonization measures taken by the EU (largely some time ago) and a lack of appreciation of the benefits of properly directed harmonization of codes and standards as well as of fears of losing jobs to immigrants (and on the part of some, a natural fear of strangers). The key question for the future of free trade and globalization and the enormous benefits they bring is whether Brexit is the beginning of a closing of that door. We need to make every effort to address and mitigate these fears so that that does not happen.
The establishment of an efficient international trading order (the international establishment of rules and laws and their enforcement) can come about in a variety of ways. The international agreements and organizations established after World War II to perform this role (e.g., UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank) have generally served this international order well though they are not perfect. The statement by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and possible successor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, that: “I believe we now have a glorious opportunity: We can pass our laws and set our taxes entirely according to the needs of the U.K. economy,” either reflects stunning ignorance of the role of international law in underpinning globalization or blatant dishonesty. The international institutions that oversee our liberal international order need to be preserved and where appropriate strengthened, not destroyed.
The European Union itself was always much more than an economic (free trade) project. Following WWII after centuries of devastating wars, the European project was always more about establishing the mechanisms of political cooperation that would avoid another European war. It has been stunningly successful in this endeavor, but still struggles to find the right balance in the devolution of authority and the best formulation of European wide governments for preserving peace and promoting economic well-being. An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Dalibor Rohac’s Toward an Imperfect Union: A Conservatives Case for the EU.
The consequences of Brexit for Britain (what ever might be left of it) and for the EU (what ever might be left of it) will not be known for many years. But the risks of an inward looking nationalism and a retreat from a liberal international order that it seems to reflect should be taken seriously and resisted vigorously.