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Last modified: 29 March 2016

Libertarian protectionism


Sam Bowman is a pleasant and intelligent man. If you dislike him it’s probably because he is so clear in expressing his views. He supports freedom of movement, free trade, lower subsidies, less regulation, and lower taxes.

When the UK buys German trains instead of British ones, when we don’t step in to save steelworks, and when the UK’s immigration figures go up, Sam is on the TV or the radio defending our choices.

Others hide behind “EU rules” that stop us from intervening. Sam, brave enough to be unpopular and unburdened by the need to get elected, is honest that some people lose from economic liberalism. He is clear that many more people gain.


In my lifetime Britain has become much more economically liberal. I think that’s because people like Sam and other pleasant and intelligent people, like Owen Jones, have struck a bargain. The bargain is called the EU.

One side accepts free trade, free movement, and less regulation. In return they get redistribution, state investment, and social protections. The other side completes the bargain.

Neither side likes the concessions they’ve made. Both see the value in the concessions they’ve won.

Compromises are hard to love but they often work. Britain and Ireland’s messy success is one of the world’s greatest examples.


Unwilling to compromise?

In 100 days, Owen will begrudgingly vote to remain in the EU. Sam and many of a similar mind say that they will vote to leave. I'm happy to respond to all of their reasons but here I'll just focus on one; the belief that the EU is a politically centralising union.


In my experience Brussels is less centralising than London. EU projects invest with less bias, MEPs represent their constituents better, and the European establishment is able to function without making you spend hundreds of pounds and a whole day on a train just to have a 30 minute meeting.

But my experiences won’t convince people like Sam. A strong challenge based on data might.


So how do you show, with data, that the EU is less politically centralised than the alternative?

We’ve tried comparing the percentage of laws made in each parliament, but no-one accepts each other’s figures and no-one agrees on the relative importance of cucumber regulations compared to laws on citizenship and taxation.

We’ve tried comparing the budgets of each parliament with some success (the EU’s 28-nation budget is about a fifth of the UK’s national budget.) but not everyone is convinced.


The wisdom of crowds.

Let me propose another method: the market. The market is often very good at resolving complex issues like this and when it comes to political centralisation there is a beautifully simple dataset.

Think-tanks exist to influence policy. As a result they tend to cluster around the people making decisions. In a strongly-centralised political system we would expect this clustering to be strong. In a weakly-centralised political system we would expect this clustering to be weak.

So I downloaded Prospect Magazine’s 2015 think-tank awards nominees list and looked up where the nominees for US, UK, and EU awards were based. The data's here if you want it.

In the UK every think-tank was based in London.

In the US the think-tanks were based in Washington DC and Los Angeles.

In the EU the think-tanks were based in Brussels, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm, Milan, Venice, Viggiano, Berlin, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, Sofia, and Warsaw.

If these location decisions are reasonable reflections of political centralisation then the maths is simple. Taking some power from the UK government in London and entrusting it to the EU government in Brussels represents decentralisation, not centralisation. Sam’s fears seem unfounded.


What's going on?

So why are so many people who support free trade and free movement voting to leave the most successful free trade area in the world? I’ve asked them, listened to them, and challenged. I'm starting to think that I might know why.

Our debates remind me of the discussions I have with people I went to school with. People who still live in remote towns like Pocklington and who work in warehouses, factories, and farms.

These people will be voting to leave the European Union because they are scared of competition. Their skills are globally overpriced and the EU’s freedoms have eroded their privilege.


The protectionists at the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute are similar.

Their income and their influence rely on their position within the UK’s centralised political system. Their actions are similar to those of any dominant incumbent in a mature market; they are leaning on the state to ward off competition from more efficient outsiders.

The UK’s libertarian brexiters preach freedom in exactly the same way my mates at East Riding Sacks do. But their careers and their lifestyles depend on the opposite.

In the coming months, as they decide how to vote in the EU referendum, I hope that British libertarians considering a vote to leave will think again. Are they voting to embrace the world? Or are they voting to protect a safer market for their ideas even if it is less efficient?


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