Mark Littlewood: Brexit the only option for a shot at Liberty

About half a decade ago, I attended a dinner at which Mark Littlewood was the speaker. He had just become the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and he talked about that. I was greatly encouraged by what he said, and did a piece for Samizdata to that effect.

But you know how it is. When you do a piece about someone who really impresses you, you look around for a minor insult to begin with, to add credibility to the major non-insults that follow. In this spirit, I mentioned early in my piece that Mark Littlewood was “rather too EUrophile for my liking”. Given that Mark Littlewood’s talk to Libertarian Home was about Brexit, this little insult of mine got dragged out of obscurity by Simon Gibbs as part of his introduction. Let’s see if Mark Littlewood is still a EUrophile, said Simon, knowing already that he no longer is. And then, in his preliminary rapport-establishing chit-chatting before he got stuck into his first proper point, Littlewood mentioned that I once gave a talk about libertarianism at Cambridge University which he attended, and he said to himself: that’s me. So, I helped Mark Littlewood to become a libertarian. I did not know that. This just goes to show how valuable it can be simply to tell anyone who is interested what libertarianism is.You never know how much of a someone that anyone might turn into.

Here is Mark’s talk:

Mark Littlewood’s first big point was that we libertarians should think about the EU, and about all other international organisations, in a “contingent” way. We should not assume them automatically to be evil, or for that matter automatically to be good, but rather by thinking if this or that organisation is “on balance” a force for good or for evil. He mentioned the World Trade Organisation in particular as an international body whose influence upon the world is, on balance, in his opinion, good. Not perfect. Not “optimal”. Just doing that bit more good than harm. The WTO is, said Littlewood, on balance, “benign”.

In this spirit, Mark Littlewood said that he had at first been quite  attracted to the European Union. He talked, most entertainingly, about tractors, and about the regulation of tractors. Yes, the EU emits an elaborate and arbitrary definition of what a tractor is. But the choice faced when it came to tractor regulation was not between, on the one hand, one intrusively absurd definition of a tractor, or on the other hand, total freedom for all manufacturers of tractors to make and sell whatever tractors they please, to the rest of Europe and to the rest of the world. The choice was between one regulatory definition of a tractor for all of Europe, or about a dozen mutually contradictory definitions of what a tractor is, each emitted by each of the national governments of Europe. Replacing a multiplicity of tractor definitions with just the one definition struck Littlewood as being, although certainly not the perfect arrangement, at least a quite big step in the right direction. Hence those earlier EUrophile tendencies.

But, Littlewood went on to say, he had since, not changed his mind exactly, but rather had watched the EU itself change into something rather different. The EU regulatory mechanism stopped being a reason to be in favour of the EU, and instead degenerated into a gigantic “displacement activity”.

The EU, said Littlewood, faces two basic threats to its existence. There is the migrant crisis. And, there is the economic crisis of southern Europe, unleashed upon it by the Euro. However, the EU, instead of directly addressing these issues, has become instead a vast machine for not thinking about such things, but instead for discussing every imaginable sort of regulation, of absolutely everything, in the minutest possible detail, in order to avoid those big questions. Instead of continuing to move in the direction of greater flexibility and greater mutual recognition of different regulatory systems, regulation has become a “mania” for regulatory uniformity. Littlewood didn’t claim to have solutions to those big crises. But neither, he said, did the European Union.

However, Littlewood further cautioned, don’t imagine that the Sir Humphrey Appleby tendency in Whitehall is champing at the bit to unleash anarcho-capitalism on the British economy, just as soon as we can escape from the EU. If we vote Brexit, that won’t mean an immediate libertarian nirvana on the morning of June 24th. On the contrary, the Appleby tendency has been in the habit of using the EU as an excuse for its own home-grown dictatorial impulses. For instance, the EU, a few years back, made some pronouncements about uniformity in measurement. It would have sufficed had Britain’s regulators issued a pamphlet asking Britain’s traders to ponder the benefits of greater uniformity of measurement. Instead British local trading standards officials started arresting people, creating those famous “metric martyrs”. Remember them?

Littlewood did not say at this point that if Britain left the EU, then using the EU as an excuse for such home-grown regulatory tyranny would no longer work. But, he might have. He then mentioned workers’ rights and dirty beaches. It is silly to suppose, he said, that Britain outside of the EU would unleash filth upon all its beaches and bring back slavery. Such “mundane” issues can perfectly well be sorted out locally.

And finally, there is the “absolute nonsense of David Cameron’s renegotiation”. “What a fiasco.” “Apparently the issue that detained our Prime Minister … was whether he would be granted the right to disperse about thirty million pounds a year worth of child benefit, in a different way to the one that was prescribed by EU rules.” Cameron got this concession! All thirty million pounds of it. “Chump change. Absolute chump change. … I question the Prime Minister’s ability to add up.”

Are we really to believe that had Cameron not got this concession, he would have lead Britain out of the EU, a process he now describes as being catastrophic for the future of Western Civilisation and “the sort of outcome that Islamic State would warmly welcome”? This episode reveals a political elite is detached from reality. This referendum is turning into: Do you like the political establishment? Yes, or No? And if it continues to do that, said Littlewood, then Leave will win. And if that happens, there could be a domino effect, with Sweden, for instance, now already inclined to leave if Britain does. And if that happens, a libertarian nirvana is not guaranteed, but it at least gives us a chance.

During the Q&A, Littlewood made further points:

He said that the Leavers are probably right not to be too specific about what the alternative should be. “We should take it quite slowly.” We should “slowly and methodically work out what to do next”. Not least because the impact of Brexit on the EU as a whole is so hard to predict.

There might be that domino effect, but there might not. In general, when asked about what might happen after Brexit, Littlewood tended to say: I don’t know. He said that this referendum is not automatically going to be the end of this argument. If Leave is only rather narrowly defeated, the Leave argument will hang around. If big EU changes then happen, of the sort that the Remainers have not even argued for let alone argued for successfully, changes which most Brits regard as bad, then the argument for Leave will be strengthened. See also: the Scottish referendum. But whether we Leave now or not, he said, we will be leaving soon, within about a decade. I can’t help interrupting this report by pointing out that this contradicts lots of commentary from both sides to the effect that this is a “once in a lifetime decision”. It’s actually only a once in a lifetime decision if the decision is Leave. As my fellow Samizdata writer Perry de Havilland recently put it, Remain has to keep winning, but Leave only has to win once. And one way or another, Leave will win, said Littlewood. He even gave us a date: 2025.

Someone asked if, in the meantime, Leave will really mean Leave, given that the EU has form in ignoring referendum answers it doesn’t like.  Littlewood’s answer was that a country just saying that it doesn’t like, say, the Maastricht Treaty, doesn’t include a vote about anything else.

Okay, so you hate the Maastricht Treaty. But, what do you propose we do about that? Voting for Leave is an actual vote for something else. That will not be so easy to ignore. We are not merely being asked if we like the EU. We are being asked if we wish to Leave it. If we say we do want to Leave, that will be far harder to ignore than a mere expression of disapproval, for some mere aspect of the EU.

Chris Mounsey asked about whether the EU was really the problem. For is there not another and globally inescapable layer of decision-makers, whom the EU are merely channelling. Well, said Littlewood, at least we’d be able to decide such things. And at this point, he did mention that EU-as-an-excuse-for-local-tyranny argument, neglected (see above) when he might have mentioned it earlier.

The order in which I have listed some of these points varies from the order in which Littlewood himself made them, not least because they all intermingled with and reinforced each other, and thus some of them got said several times. I’ll end this summary of what Littlewood said by repeating the point with which he ended his main talk, and which he also repeated several times. Voting Leave won’t bring a libertarian nirvana.

But, it will give us a far better chance of progress towards our nirvana than Remain.