Saturday, 14 January 2017

Beware the cult of free trade

As some of you are probably aware I spend more time on Twitter than a well adjusted and sane person should. But then I never claimed to be any of those things. What I have noticed is that very few people are actually arguing with me. The comments from Brexiteers tend just to be the usual nostrums either in caps lock or with spelling errors.

Now I know a certain amount of assertive ignorance is only to be expected but it does tend to be centred around three central notions - that we can and should get out as fast as possible, we don't need cooperation from the EU and that we must control our borders.

If Brexiteers along the way acquired a reputation for being crass, thick and spectacularly under-informed then it is well deserved. The tweets directed at me are just so profoundly wrong it would take too much energy and time to address them.

I won't address the core issues here because this blog is mostly devoted to doing that the rest of the time. Instead it helps to understand the motives. As far as the Brexiteers are concerned a large motivation is to set about their ambition of unfettered free trade.

As we know in their minds, regulation is just pettifogging restrictions that business hates - which is not actually true and hasn't been for some time. Regulation is a pain but you're better with that without.

Essentially we are dealing with intellectually underdeveloped children with no analytical capabilities. The fact is that on a densely populated island such as ours commercial activities have externalities where the needs of business must be balanced against the needs of a properly functioning society. Effectively we have free trader zealots who have only ever really exposed themselves to one political idea and spend the rest of the time reading anything which reinforces that view.

It's easy to understand why. Libertarian and liberal theory is highly seductive in that it requires no real thinking. It is a binary consideration that government intervention of any kind is bad, and that we would all be wealthier if only people were free to do exactly as they please, winner takes all and pity the loser.

Except that if the aim of libertarianism is to extend liberty then the task of government is to ensure that someone exercising their liberty does not infringe on your own. That is especially required in a diverse high tech busy economy such as our own. Some things have to be safeguarded in the common good. Without planning our cities would have no green spaces, and without agricultural subsidies to ensure agriculture is sustainable then we would have strop farming where habitats essential to wildlife would be wiped out.

So when did I become a bunny hugger? Well, I didn't really. It's just that the way we farm shapes the countryside which is essential to leisure and tourism and our inherent culture. This is a perfectly normal conservative outlook. It's the basic rule of not shitting where you eat - a rule that humanity regularly disregards if given the opportunity.

As it happens, as much as I am highly critical of free trade zealots, I am not anti-free trade. But effective governance is is the first priority and we have to regulate in order to produce certain outcomes. We can either be slaves to capitalism or we can be masters of it.

I have always viewed capitalism not so much a a system as a natural behaviour pattern, albeit distorted by computerise hyper-capitalism. We each interact and exchange what we have for things we need. But like any force of nature man has learned to harness it and capitalise form it and control it for its own needs. It that regard the accumulation of wealth is not an end in itself. In a social democracy the aim ought to be to improve our surroundings and maintain them for the benefit of everybody. Unfettered capitalism does not do this.

A canard I heard just recently goes something like "who is happier? the Ferrari driver on roads full of potholes or the Porsche driver on well maintained roads". And that to me pretty much surrounds the issue. The function of government is to do those things that the private sector cannot or will not. In this you could point to some examples of private munificence but for society to function there needs to be continuity. That is why we have regulations.

To take one example, agriculture, I am particularly concerned by the free trade lobby seeking to open up markets post-Brexit. This is to take an entirely commercial view of agriculture where the only concern is food production. The problem with that is that we have an entirely different culture where we have different attitudes to farming practices and animal welfare which are not observed by other countries. Were we to compete on an entirely level playing field then the net result would be that we have no farming at all and very soon we would have a derelict countryside or, like Poland, vast industrial farming which doesn't maintain hedgerows or drains and the resultant flooding becomes everyone's problem.

Before you can apply free trade theory you first have to establish what your social objectives are and what protections are necessary for continuity. That may need either protectionist tariffs or regulation - but the result would be the continued management of land inside a rural policy according to our customs rather than one geared strictly to compete in food production.

In this regard, any sweeping policy changes must be carefully examined and measured against certain realities. None of this matters to free trader zealots though. These people would go at it like a bull in a china shop - believing radicalism is the only cure. In order to do this, like their views on Brexit, they have to pretend something which is deeply interwoven and complex requires only simple solutions and it's only nannying bureaucrats standing between us and prosperity.

As ever, what goes hand in hand with this wilful self-nurtured ignorance is a profound combative arrogance with which there is no reasoning. This is why I now block on sight when it comes to Twitter. We are dealing with cult like behaviour from people who would vandalise our economy on an article of faith - that free trade trumps all.

For all that has been said about globalisation causing disenfranchisement and social exclusion, I cannot imagine anything more likely to make it worse than to let toryboy free trade dingbats anywhere near the levers of power. They are children and should not be trusted with so much as the TV remote.

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