There’s a scene in The Simpsons where the family is trying to make a quick getaway for some reason or other. Homer jumps in the driver’s seat of the car, but before he can do anything, Lisa exclaims “No dad! You’ve lost your licence, you can’t drive!”
“I’ll try anyway,” responds Homer with desperation in his voice. He turns the ignition key and the engine starts. “It works!” he shouts in utter astonishment.
Every time I see that episode I’m reminded of Brexit and of how many of those who voted to remain seemed to believe that the free movement of British people, goods and capital across Europe would be literally impossible without the UK being under EU rule.
Like Homer Simpson, they acted as if they believed some actions were or would be impossible without living under the rule of the EU. Ignoring or denying the centuries of trade and travel between Britain and Europe, which took place long before the EU’s inception.
Almost half of those who voted seemed unable to conceive of how Britain could trade with Europe and of how Britons could travel in Europe without being given permission to do so by a Higher Authority with the power to rule over the UK’s and other nations’ elected governments.
No wonder, then, that the thought of Brexit caused many Remain voters such anxiety. No wonder it drove a significant number of them to the desperately illiberal measure of demanding that the government temporarily abandon democratic rule to hold a second referendum.
Not only permission from a Higher Authority than the UK State was believed necessary, but also thousands of rules (laws) micro-managing the production and movement of goods and services across an entire continent and between half a billion people. One single group of unelected and largely unaccountable people setting the terms for countless economic exchanges between hundreds of millions of people from different environments and cultures. One group believing they know what’s best for everyone and having the power to force a continent of people to act according to their choices.
I wonder how the EU’s power men and lawmakers themselves see it? Do they believe half a billion people won’t move or trade freely (and peacefully) and thus create prosperity unless they are given permission to do so and told how to do it? Or do they believe Europeans shouldn’t trade and move freely in peaceful pursuit of their aims without being forced to do it according to how one group of people think they should? It must be at least one of these otherwise, the EU wouldn’t exist. It could be both.
Believing the former requires massively overestimating oneself relative to all other human beings. Whilst believing the latter requires massively underestimating the goodness of human beings (whilst excepting oneself, of course) and reveals a gross lack of faith in human freedom; one contrary to reason and evidence in the form of economic science.
Some Remain-ers not only believe free and peaceful movement and trade across European borders is not possible without laws granting permission and without coercive control by regulations, but also that governmental agencies can do impossible things. Such as grant people more rights or grow economies and make everyone in them wealthier.
Just because someone creates a law that says you are entitled to x amount of your employer’s property (i.e. money in the form of benefits), above and beyond what the contract you signed entitles you to, doesn’t make that entitlement legitimate or indeed moral. And the EU, like every Authority funded by coercive means, does not and can not create more wealth, it merely redistributes existing wealth.
An irrational faith in the power of government action, one rooted in economic ignorance and nurtured and exploited by power-seeking politicians across the political spectrum, is leading a generation of Britons to believe that the possible (e.g. economic growth and free trade with Europe) is impossible without coercive Authority and that the impossible is possible through it (e.g. growing Europe’s economies by ‘stimulating’ them with low interest rates and new money).
It’s not just Remain-ers who believe government can do impossible things. It’s Brexit-ers too. Sadly, it’s almost everyone in the UK. This is just a sign of the times we live in. Every day we believe government can do impossible things. Every day politicians arrive into the office believing they can do impossible things. This is certainly financially rewarding for them and probably also psychologically beneficial for them, but it’s only harmful to our economy and our society in the long-term.
The problem is that the more politicians attempt to do impossible things, such as helping the poor by raising the minimum wage, solving the housing crisis by subsidising house-buying or creating economic growth by keeping interest rates low etc, the harder it becomes for productive people to do the simple, possible things – like getting jobs, finding places to live, starting and growing businesses – and thus (unintentionally) solving these problems ourselves through profit-seeking economic action. The action that drives the motor of the abundant world we live in.
It’s time for us to stop agreeing with politicians when they loudly claim they can do impossible things and to stop encouraging them when they declare their desire to attempt impossible ends through the means of government action. Because they will keep trying and they will keep failing.
After all, they get paid handsomely either way. This is why politicians don’t really know the meaning of failure because they never pay the price for failure. Even though they spend most of their time doing just that: failing. Think about it. From the local government councillor up to the highest politician, they all spend their time in office failing to achieve their grand plans on a national or local scale.
Why? because they only have one means to deploy: coercion. That is, coercively controlling people’s behaviour (laws) and coercively redistributing wealth (taxation). Both of which fail to solve the problems they are aimed at solving and which always have unintended consequences.
Politicians will continue attempting the impossible and collecting a fat wage packet for doing so until the time comes when a shockingly large number of people will find earning (even a thin) one themselves practically impossible as a direct consequence.
A new prosperity in Britain is possible, of course it is. Our society sits atop one of the largest amounts of accumulated wealth in the world, which was mostly created over the last few centuries by our ancestors and has plenty of productive, innovative and inventive people in it.
But it won’t happen until enough of us stop believing government can do impossible things and start believing in the limitless wealth-creating power of our own profit-seeking, peaceful and mutually beneficial economic exchanges. Only our actions have the power to create wealth and social progress. Government action does not.