A popular right-wing idea briefly explained. It’s free trade, but not as we know it.
Last night, on the British politics TV programme Question Time, right-wing commentator and Brexiter Tom Harwood talked a lot.
He talked about Brexit being an “exciting opportunity” for the UK due to it allowing Britain to be a “regulatory sandbox”, with “regulatory divergence”.
Soon after, Femi fact-checked him and said: “Tom Harwood managed to tell 15 lies/half-truths on #bbcqt in under 2 minutes”. Femi produced a video that picked apart what Harwood said.
I want to look, briefly, at an idea that hovers behind much of what Harwood says about regulation.
Behind “regulatory divergence” is the related idea of “free trade”. For many Conservative commentators “free trade” is interchangeable with “free market”.
What is free trade?
Soon after the Brexit vote, Liam Fox, the Brex-ist International Trade Secretary, gave many vacuous, but representative, speeches about free trade.
Steve Peers, Professor of EU and Human Rights Law at the University of Essex, commented on one of these speeches:
“Fox’s vision demands that the State keep out of private transactions. The free trade which he wishes to champion is in truth unregulated trade.”
Peers continues: “But free trade in this form does not exist. Governments intervene in markets for myriad reasons and in myriad ways, and they have been doing so for a very long time. In England the composition of ale and bread has been the subject of regulation for centuries. Consumers cannot know for sure that the products on offer in the marketplace are wholesome, so the State intervenes.”
Peers concludes: “Seen from the outside one has the increasing impression that those who drove the people of the UK to vote for Brexit and who are now in charge of plotting the future do not even understand the first thing about what ‘free trade’ means today, in the EU or more generally.”
So, for many conservative politicians and talking heads, “free trade” is an overly simplistic notion about deregulated markets. But also: It doesn’t exist in the actual world.
What is free trade, really?
For many conservative politicians and talking heads, free trade is a vague story / talking point that they don’t understand but are incentivised to amplify by the wealthy and powerful who fund their employment.
For the wealthy people who pay for the Conservative and Republican parties and own the Conservative media, free trade is a conceptual device that allows them to promote a vision of society as an unregulated market. Unlike most of the incurious Conservative politicians and commentators “down stream”, many of the powerful know true free trade is not achievable, or even desirable.
The free trade device is useful to the powerful, because when everything is perceived as an unregulated market, everyone becomes a competitor. Everyone except the tiny minority who’ve already won the race, the people who are wealthy enough to own media outlets etc.
The wealthy and powerful use the free trade/market story to reduce the competition for their resources, by encouraging everybody else to compete against each other in a race the wealthy and powerful have already won.
The aim is to leave “the masses” so tired and distracted from the never ending race that they cannot effectively challenge the wealthy and powerful.
Competition as Conservative code etc
I used to think that many Conservative politicians and talking heads were cynical liars. Recent Fox News internal emails suggest that many are cynical liars. But after reading Boris Johnson’s messages to Chris Whitty in which Johnson appears to actually believe The Spectator is a reputable source of medical information, I now think that many Conservative politicians and talking heads are simply incurious. Incurious because it doesn’t pay to think too hard. The old: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Competition is for Losers talk by Peter Thiel.
“The people who have monopolies will pretend not to”