Electoral choices are increasingly made without due regard for the consequences.
Some of our friends tell us that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This is not really correct. Only bits and pieces of the world are being carried to hell or some place near it, with each in a handbasket of its own. Other bits and pieces duly replace what is carried away. We can observe three particular handbaskets on their way to some place that is not hell, but near enough in their discomfort. One is Catalonian secession, another is Brexit, and the third is "America First." These are noted in increasing order of importance.
Independence for Catalonia is perhaps best understood by thinking of a teacher in a Catalonian village who is a poet writing verse in Catalan in his spare time. He thinks his poetry is very good but not appreciated. He is dreaming of the post of cultural attaché in London or Rome once Catalan gets an independent diplomatic service. There may be many hundreds of Catalonian teacher-poets who hope to become diplomats in a fashionable capital, but the low probabilities of prestigious appointments for a new Catalan embassy will not deter him from becoming a fighter for Catalonia independence. The fight will have an outcome that Catalans and Spaniards will both regard as a regrettable modus vivendi, one in which the European Union is further weakened. Both the Catalans and the remainder of Spain will be a little weaker and poorer than if the independence movement had not taken place at all, and where our teacher poet does not become a cultural attaché. The rule of one man, one vote will in any case have done its work.
An "ever closer union" could be a one-line explanation for why the British people in 2016 decided by referendum to leave the European Union. And now France's ambitious young president, Emmanuel Macron, is doing what he believes to be the natural role of France, that is to lead the union towards an "ever closer union;" and there is some temptation by Poland and Hungary to escape the "ever closer union" by referendums of their own, should the union get ever closer. There might be many more opportunities for one man, one vote in the foreseeable future.
"It is easy to see why universal suffrage and one man, one vote are particularly vulnerable to fact twisting and downright lies."
A referendum attempts to decide a single question. The question can either be to decide what a majority wants as a matter of taste or as a matter of interest. Like a person who prefers blue to green, his decision for one over the other is nothing one can meaningfully argue about. The British public has apparently decided that certain decisions of national significance should be decided in Westminster rather than Brussels or Luxembourg, and in doing so, they reverted to the ancient tradition by which Britons want to govern themselves. The referendum at the same time chose certain other alternatives, mainly of an economic nature, which were not matters of taste, preference, or tradition, but calculations about greater or lesser prosperity. This type of question, unlike the question of liking blue over green is a legitimate question for fact-finding and argument. Unfortunately, there can also be matters of twisted facts or lies. It is easy to see why universal suffrage and one man, one vote are particularly vulnerable to fact twisting and downright lies. Their vulnerability must be weighed against the possible merits that democracy might also have.
Perhaps because it was a decision that brought out many passions, the British referendum of 2016 has proved very vulnerable to fact twisting and lies. An exquisite lie about Brexit was that it would make the National Health Service rich. The British government was paying £350 million per week to Brussels. The British electorate was asked by the partisans of Brexit whether they would like to continue paying this sum to Brussels or to the services of the NHS. It was a matter of a primitive psychological trick to name the sum in terms of weeks and millions rather than years and billions, a much vaster sum, which the average voter could barely envisage. The UK Statistics Authority has explained that in terms of a rebate granted by the Brussels authority, the sum that Britain owed was only £276 million, of which £161 million was spent in Britain itself, with the remainder being spent on EU-wide community services like research, in which the United Kingdom was one of the beneficiaries. With all the adjustments duly made, the residual that might be devoted to the NHS is only pocket money.
Overall, the £350 million to be found is perhaps the simplest instance where the people who have the votes have been misled into using them. There are still other cases where the referendum has led to future outcomes that entail use risks. British foreign trade, for example, would have to compensate for the part lost from Brexit with gains from outside the European Union. They may not succeed fully or indeed at all. For the compensation, or the part (lost) in future trade will depend largely on how the people are using their votes. This is a risk that the exercise of one man, one vote ought not to be entrusted with.
It is strange but true that China is now a champion of an open world economy and the United States a defender of closed fences. Since starting another five year term at the head of the Chinese state apparatus, Mr. Xi Jinping has made a very clear and solemn declaration in favour of "globalisation" and free trade, being the leader of the only communist party in history which is both capitalist in its economic policy and apparently successful in suppressing any opposition. Donald Trump, at about the same time and indeed at all times when he is commenting his own greatness, will only accept "globalisation" and free trade when they are subordinate to "America First."
Being the President of a country in which the Congress has the last word about taxes and expenditures, Donald Trump has only limited power over the economy of what is still the most important capitalist country of the world. Much of his discretionary power is over relations with other countries, where he can menace the post-World War II western civilisation, both in terms of military security (he does not want to tolerate the free-riding of his allies on US armed forces) as well as in international trade, where he thinks that existing arrangements are not good enough for America.
A trade agreement can be conceived as both a trade creation and a trade replacement. In the North American Free Trade Agreement inherited from the Obama administration, America and Mexico jointly created additional flows of automobiles, with some of the manufacturing of automobile part relocated to Mexico. The two partners have benefited from more automobiles, and Mexico has additionally benefited from more automobile parts. Of the two partners, Mexico may have benefited more, although both partners became better off. In what looks like the spirit of America First, this agreement is now to be "renegotiated." In the background of this renegotiation, America wants the trade balance between the two partners, at present "favourable" to Mexico, to be redressed in favour of America. The dream of nine feet of concrete wall on the Mexican border paid for by Mexico, promised in Trump's election campaign, has apparently been forgotten.
For more on these topics, see "Vanity Fair", by Anthony de Jasay, Library of Economics and Liberty, November 6, 2017;
"Brexit!", by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, September 5, 2016; "The Revival of Nationalism", by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, November 3, 2014; and "The Catalonian Mess", by Alberto Mingardi, EconLog, October 3, 2017.
Another trade agreement, which was stillborn because President Trump and his advisers judged it not favourable enough, was the Trans Pacific Partnership. It included twelve countries in Southeast Asia and South America. The United States was merely one out of twelve partners, which was judged unacceptable by the White House. President Trump dislikes multi-lateral agreements where the United States is only one out of many, and must bargain as only one out of many. The remaining eleven members of the agreement are now trying to revive it; if they succeed, the eleven-member agreement would bring important developments in trade and regulation, and will no doubt be something that China will influence instead of the United States, as was originally intended. However, it will not be the first and only failure of American diplomacy and American goodwill that the Trump administration will have suffered.
Donald Trump can be proud of a highly successful career in financing building and letting high-rise buildings. Industry circles and a mainly hostile press reproach him for his methods, which have been controversial. The first year of his presidency has not been heroic because none of his major promises have been completed or are even likely to be realised. His most friendly critics think that he is just not presidential, while his harshest critics call him simply grotesque.
It may be that Donald Trump, a property speculator all his life, does not really deserve the criticism that he receives as President. The really blameworthy criticism should go to one half of the American men and women who have used their precious vote for electing the President of the most powerful nation (at least for the time being the most powerful) of which they have the great good fortune to be citizens.
* Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State as well as other books, including Social Contract, Free Ride, Political Philosophy, Clearly, Political Economy, Concisely, Economic Sense and Nonsense, and Justice and Its Surroundings. His books may be purchased through the Liberty Fund Book Catalog.
The State is also available online on this website.
For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.