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The Classical Liberal Case Against Brexit

Britain votes on whether to leave the European Union in a month. If I were a British, it would be a difficult decision, but on balance I would vote against Brexit. The benefits of free trade outweigh the costs of the EU’s regulatory regime.

From its birth classical liberalism has been dedicated to free trade among nations. Trade allows nations to specialize at products and services and which they excel, enriching them all. It creates a larger market, providing incentives for innovation and it is innovation that ultimately transforms the standard of living. This latter benefit is particularly important in this era of technological acceleration. More generally, free trade signals an openness to the world and a tolerance of foreigners.  It is a moral as well as economic good.

EU is the largest free trade zone in the world and that counts heavily in favor of staying. But the free zone comes bundled with other more controversial requirements. For instance, membership carries with it the requirement to let citizens of other EU members work in Britain. Classical liberalism has not historically embraced open borders, because mass immigration can be culturally destabilizing particular if large numbers of immigrants come from nations of radically different culture and level of development.

But immigration from other parts of Europe does not pose such risks. Poles, Germans and the French (the largest set of EU immigrants) speak a different first language but come from a Christian, democratic culture that is broadly compatible with Britain’s heritage. And no one nation contributes so many citizens as to be likely to swamp British identity. Immigration from the EU (as opposed to other less developed nations) is also a substantial net benefit, because it makes the British economy more vibrant by bringing in people generally with substantial skills who are eager to work in Europe’s freest economy. Britain’s attractiveness to Europeans from less free economies in fact shows that it has actually sustained substantial economic independence even while staying in the EU.

The most troubling aspect of EU is the need to follow burdensome regulations made in Brussels, particularly those relating to the Social Charter. But these costs are more symbolic than real. Britain’s own parliament has enacted most of what the Social Charter demands, like various labor protections, under Conservative as well as Labor governments. If Britain did follow classical liberal principles domestically, Brexit would indeed be more attractive. And important EU regulations other than the Social Charter, like those on financial services, would be hard to avoid in our globalized world even if Britain did exit. The EU can require UK banks to comply with regulations as condition of doing business in the EU.

The case for Brexit might be stronger if Britain were in danger of being forced to integrate ever more closely with European institutions. But the appetite for more Europe has declined even on the continent with the disastrous introduction of the Euro.

If Britain were able to get the benefits of free trade without other restrictions, Brexit would also be more plausible. But there is no reason to be confident of it getting such a deal. Other EU nations, like Spain, are very concerned about secession. A favorable renegotiation for Britain would encourage the Catalans and others to leave their nations, confident that they could get either membership or association with the EU on favorable terms. Given that Brexit may endanger free trade, one of classical liberalism’s crown jewels, Britain is better off staying in and working with other like-minded Europeans to create a Union more focused on that great good.

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