"Whatever the cost may be..." Really???
By Alberto Mingardi
“I’d rather be a poor master of my fate than having someone I don’t know making me rich by running it.” So says Sir Michael Caine, one of the great actors of our times, and I find it difficult not to sympathize with that. Yet Sir Michael isn’t speaking about his own personal freedom, but rather about Brexit. If quitting the EU requires the English people to pay more for imported goods, and perhaps even the costs of a recession, so be it.
Brexit is a terribly complicated issue, much more than it seemed at first, and I think this is hardly a proper way to discuss it. My gut feelings are pro Brexit: I’m an unrepentant Anglophile and tend to think that most Brexiters simply reasoned that self-government worked quite well for England, and were not up to trade it for EU-made laws. This is also the spirit of Sir Michael’s words.
Yet if people voted thinking that Brexit was the equivalent of seceding from a political body, they only later figured out that it actually required disentangling a variety of international treaties, which involved more than managing borders. In some areas (standards for the production of particular goods and services, for example) it is questionable that being out of the EU will involve any potential benefit: British-produced teapots to be sold in European markets will need to comply with European safety standards, but now the UK won’t have a say in determining then.
More generally speaking, I fear the debate is too easily divided between those who think politics is just about having principles and those who think it is just about avoiding them. They are both wrong.
On this matter, I shall again defer to Ilya Somin’s excellent discussion of why we need an ideological framework of sorts, even to interpret our own interest. Let me just add a point on the sin opposite to pragmatism, that is “principlism”, adherence to principles no matter what.
In the real world, we have tradeoffs. I may be generally in favour of secessions and a smaller state, but if the price to pay for Catalan independence is a civil war I may revise my stand. We may be for or against Brexit, but it hardly matters to be for or against it if we do not take into account what it might actually cost us. We may have different opinions on the European Union, what it meant for Europe and economic prosperity, we may have considered it “good, on balance” or “bad, on balance”. But that has only a certain degree of relevance, as we need to decide what to do in particular historical circumstances. In other words, we may believe even believe that the EU was “bad, on balance” and yet the cost of getting out of it, now, in the world we live in, would be just too high.
There are instances in which we may want to do something no matter what. But talking as if we were Winston Churchill and as if it were 1940 won’t help. In those speeches so beautifully recently portrayed in The Darkest Hour, Churchill preached victory “at all cost”. But he was confronting Hitler, something which doesn’t happen every day.
Making decisions like an adult is always reasoning about trade offs. The problem with modern politics is that understanding such trade offs is all the more complicated. Regulations and taxes are difficult to disentangle, and changing one often has consequences very difficult to foresee. The beauty of decision making by individual consumers on the market is the ability she has to take into account different options and to choose between them according to her own experience. Most bad choices, when it comes to individual consumption, are also relatively easily reversible. When it comes to politics in states that dominates half of a nation’s GDP, things are quite different. This is why we need an open discussion on principles, but we also need caution and moderation in applying then. Ideally, small scale experiments are great exactly for this reason: to test a contention before applying nationwide. But they are not always possible.
What we should try to avoid is magniloquent rhetoric like we are at the early stages of the battle of Britain. Most of the time, we are not. Talking as if we were won’t do any good neither to the public debate not to our principles.