Britain & Europe: Accept Decline


Voters in the United Kingdom (UK) are being asked to vote in a referendum on their future membership of the European Union (EU.) In an earlier post I looked at this issue from the point of view of democracy and also racism. Here I shall consider the economy and the environment. It is a curious fact that economists and environmentalists who are, as it were, natural enemies with radically different perspectives have for the most part united around supporting Britain’s EU membership. It surprises me that so few people are surprised about this emergent consensus or have asked why it might have come about.

To begin with economists. A positive avalanche of reports and statements from large international financial institutions, large international bureaucracies and huge transnational corporations have landed on UK voters predicting economic catastrophe should they vote for a British exit from the EU (Brexit.) The Leave campaign response has been to point out that many of these bodies benefit financially from the Union and that this has influenced their conclusions. I think this is too crude and insults the integrity of report authors. What is more significant is that economists and bureaucrats have an instinctive horror of instability. For them stability means growth, uncertainty means decline. If they were asked to express a preference as between a popular revolution in China producing a liberal, pluralist democracy or continued one-party rule producing stable economic growth and improving trade then as economists or bureaucrats they would probably favour the Chinese Communist Party.

Additionally, economics has for long been known as ‘the dismal science’ for a good reason. Gloomy prediction is the stock in trade of economists. Its what they do. Looking to the future they see change and change is what they like least hence their reports are seldom mistaken for rays of sunshine. None of which necessarily means that they are wrong. Leave campaigners are hamstrung by the perceived need to deny, at least in public, that Brexit can possibly have any negative consequences at all. This is simply not credible. At the very least there will be short-term disruption which will have an impact upon the economic life of the UK.

The reason why Brexiteers feel the need to be so Panglossian in their arguments is that like the Remain campaigners they are wedded to the idea that growth is good. I think that this is mistaken. Beyond a certain point acquiring more stuff does not add to the sum of human happiness. Indeed aspiring to possess more goods- shoes, handbags, cars, houses etc.- than we can possibly need or even use makes us more anxious and driven not more at ease with ourselves. In a country like the UK it would be positively beneficial if the economy were to shrink and the living standards of the top 80% or so of the population, with their associated consumption, declined. If we spend less time pursuing material benefits then we can spend more time pursuing emotional and spiritual ones like solidarity, community building, compassion and strengthening family life.

If therefore the forecasts are correct then they represent not a threat but a promise. A managed decline of the UK economy, with the poorest and most vulnerable being protected, will be beneficial to the quality of UK life and will act as a stimulus to drive back the crass materialism, hyper-individualism and long hours working culture that have been such a blight on so many lives. Of course, most front-line politicians are even more horrified at the thought of advocating lower living standards and less consumption than bureaucrats are in the face of instability.

Which brings me to the environmentalists (Greens.) Green philosophy has long been in favour of ending economic growth and reducing consumption. This is not so much because of a desire to promote human spiritual and moral well being; more a concern to protect the planet and the creatures on it (including humans if absolutely necessary.) It seems anomalous then that, for the most part, Greens have lined up behind the option which will promote precisely the opposite outcome. The EU, additionally, is committed to other things Greens are against such as globalisation and centralisation. More parochially the way the Union is structured encourages the economy of the South-East of England to overcook, with associated concreting over of open spaces, while the rest of the country cools down, with associated industrial wastelands and depopulation. A Brexit makes an environmental and economic rebalancing of the country more probable than a Bremain.

It seems that Greens have done a Tony Blair and abandoned their philosophical underpinnings in pursuit of short-term pragmatic goals. Specifically: UK voters (currently) tend to elect anti-environmentalist governments and the EU bureaucracy (currently) favours maintaining a Green-ish regulatory framework. So, in order to protect the country against the people Greens have opted for the centralising, globalising, pro-capitalist, undemocratic structure which is the European Union with the vague hope that it can somehow, somewhen be reformed into a ‘Europe of the Regions.’ As I argued in my previous referendum post it seems to me that the safest way to secure long-term political objectives is to create a consensus in their favour amongst voters such that no government will dare to override them. This has happened with the National Health Service and it seems unduly pessimistic to assume that it can’t be done around other issues too.

To conclude then. The referendum on 23 June offers UK voters, at least those outside of Scotland, possibly the best chance in their lifetimes to vote in favour of reducing their material well-being. This is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Against this is the risk that the economists may be wrong as they often are and that, sadly, after a brief dislocation the economy will once more grow and consumption will continue to rise. There is also the danger that UK voters will continue to vote for governments of which ‘we’ disapprove. The choice is a clear one, Aristotelian pragmatists will vote Remain, Platonist idealists will vote Leave. It is not policies but characteristic outlooks on life which will decide this referendum.


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  1. I’ll note that my instinct is to disagree with your desideratum, but I’ll also say this, you make the most rational case for leave that I’ve read, our market like yours has gone off in a direction that is not desirable, mostly because the center has not held. There was a time when materialism, individualism, and all such were fine, but that was when it was built around a solid moral core, mostly but not exclusively Christianity, although it’s origins indisputably were. But we’ve lost that core, and now, we are merely piling up stuff, to no real purpose, other than to, perhaps, induce envy.

    Me, I’d vote leave, for the most part, I don’t believe the economists on either side, but for me the sovereignty issue overrides, anyway. I simply don’t trust Europe even more than I don’t trust Westminster. But, it’s decidedly something for you guys to decide.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you make an interesting point, and an appealing one, but honestly I think you’re wrong. I can certainly appreciate the desire to roll back the clock on materialism. I think it is a…I wanted to say cancer, but that seems melodramatic. It is a immature choice for a developed society. It reminds me of the prophesy that Siddhartha Gautama’s father was given about the young Buddha, or soon to be Buddha I guess, that his son would be a great spiritual leader, or a great spiritual one. I do not know why one could not be both, but it is interesting that even thousands of years ago the dichotomy still existed. Materialism or spirituality. And I think it is something that comes with age, with maturity, and with experience. It is not something that could be rushed.

    I am considered something of an “old soul”, which is a polite way of saying that I was born 40. I never partied, never caroused, studied hard, volunteered for hall monitor, found my wife at 16, we did not marry until 22, but we dated for 6 years, and based my entire life around wife and children, well before there were wife or children. But I also came from the lower middle classes and when I was around 30, and I was making a decent amount of money, I splurged on a McMansion. The housing crisis helped to crash my personal materialistic bubble, but it was based on experience.

    The Brexit would cause significant economic impact. Of that, there is little debate. I think the problem comes when you say “Remain campaigners they are wedded to the idea that growth is good”, you miss the major point. It is not that growth is good. I don’t necessarily think it is, but I think it is required. We need to forget issues like “good” or “bad” because they have little meaning here. It is that growth is essential for life. Much like sharks, economies have to keep moving, or they die. Growth is a necessary, evil or not, not because of materialism, though that is certainly a byproduct, but because everyone else around you is growing too. Much like plants in a forest fight for sunlight and nutrients, economies do the same, and if the plant loses the battle, they die, and economies follow the same metaphor.

    Imagine the scenario, Britain is excluded from the economic union. Trading falls, revenue streams fall, flow of labor falls, and the economy is restricted. Nothing significant at first, but a little. Certainly, you cannot exclude GB, they are still a player, but everything becomes a little more difficult. Industries where GB leads, have a little more trouble keeping up. Skill sets that are necessary for growth, have incentive to travel elsewhere. Resources that are necessary for industry, are more difficult to acquire. The economy will slow, and there will be less to go around so materialism will be restricted.

    But those involved in the union, involved in the world global economy will keep going. The decline will be gradual, relative at first, but eventually it will take a toll. The problem is not with the idea, it is that the world simple is the way it is, and deciding not to play is not a viable option for a nation. It is for individuals, however. As my kids say “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Globalization, complex interdependence, closer economic unions…these are the game, fortunate or unfortunate as it may be. It simply is what it is. Spain was a major world player. A long time ago. Now….not so much.

    As for materialism, I have been studying Hinduism lately, a friend has been teaching in India and we have been discussing it, and he said (which prompted the study) that in Hinduism, there was an expectation that once a man (or woman I suppose but I am not sure if women did it) had raised his family and gotten older, he would retire from life and dedicate his life to spiritual pursuits. I think this is a very noble and enviable pursuit. I want to do the same, but my family needs more. So I continue to toil away, not because I feel like I need a McMansion anymore, we live rather humbly, solidly Middle-Class though not lower, but because it is necessary. But at the end of the day, our humble lifestyle is a matter of choice, not by force.

    I think your concept is noble, and enviable, but to force it on the society will not work, not is it I think a good idea. Those who will suffer the most will be the lower socio-economic classes, and even if you make efforts to protect them, it will restrict their abilities to improve their conditions themselves.

    So I think a Brexit would be a very bad move, but I honestly cannot say which way it will go. If any of that makes sense.


    1. Thank you for your interesting response. I must confess my post was partly mischievous. Or, to put it more pretentiously, my main purpose was to get people to reflect upon unexamined first assumptions such as that growth, rising living standards and prosperity are necessarily a good. It is possible to advance multiple arguments against these assumptions. It may be that the counter-arguments are better but it is the process rather than the outcome that interests me. I think that if people act unreflectingly upon a supposition, even if that supposition is correct, then they are prone to making errors because they cannot be fully aware of what they are doing.

      The EU referendum is an important but only secondary object of this post. FWIW my opinion is that in the medium to long term the differences between Remain and Leave are marginal because very little actual power is wielded by politicians and constitutions. The margins are important so it is right to regard the issue seriously but in the end the nomenklatura who rule and get by very nicely now will continue to do so regardless of Thursday’s vote.


  3. My inner nihilist is quite pleased but, rather like the temper tantrums of so many Remain supporters, it’s not really sensible to take too seriously what people do and say in the immediate aftermath of a trauma. The two major issues facing us are our divided nation and our relationship with the world.

    For the first, people who hate foreigners need to realise that their feelings are irrational and loathsome. Those who rail against older voters, the uneducated and the English working-class need to realise that their feelings too are irrational and loathsome. We need to encourage ourselves to introspect, examine our frailties and heal ourselves before we pour vitriol on those ‘others’ whom we blame for everything going wrong.

    Second, I still suspect that in the medium to long term the impact of Brexit on economy, cultural cooperation and democracy will be marginal. This will more likely be the case if people quickly stop gnawing each other’s entrails and set about the task of making our new course work for the best.


    1. I think there are a lot of repercussions, though the magnitude is indeterminate at this time, and could be tempered by distance from the event. Nevertheless…

      Immediate market response: The market will likely bounce back, but the instability will be felt for some time. Economists and business were against this from the beginning, and for good reason. Economically it was a bad idea. Oddly the less well off, less educated, and less skilled will suffer more, yet they voted overwhelmingly for the exit. But the long term effects….? It is difficult to determine. Businesses do not like instability.

      David Cameron: Legacy has been cemented, and will go down as a terrible PM, regardless of past accomplishments. It was a very bad political move, but I do have to give him some slack. He could never have predicted the current issues with xenophobia when he proposed this. But still…

      Europe: The biggest problem is the loss of goodwill with the rest of the EU. Even if the UK could work out a Norway-like situation, the goodwill that exists for Norway might not exist for the UK. The EU certainly needs the UK, so maybe this will tilt the balance, but the UK needs the EU far, far more. It is entirely possible that the UK just bought itself the same situation, same open borders, same regulations, but without having a seat at the table. The irony is that nothing may change except a significant loss of influence, a large piece of humble pie.

      Then there is the UK. Scotland is talking about Independence again, and I have read a great deal about Ireland. I am not sure what the situation is on the ground in Northern Ireland, so maybe this is just talk…? Scotland, however, seems unhappy. I am sure you may know more about this, and I have never seen any valid plan for independence (military/IR), but that’s all anyone can seem to talk about. Cameron may be responsible for the dissolution of the Union. I have no idea what Wales wants to do.

      But in the end, this is a victory for the anti-intellectualism that is percolating up around the globe. There was an old Simpson’s episode where the traditional newscaster character said “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, democracy doesn’t work”. There is a reason we have a representative democracy. The complex nuances of international economics, trade concerns, migrant flows, and the associated, are largely beyond the abilities of lay people. This neither diminishes the average citizen, nor does it elevate the representative. It is a question of expertise and where time is dedicated. But the experts were ignored.

      This is one reason Trump has so much support, anti-intellectualism. Nigel Farage admits his predicted savings were smoke and mirrors, which anyone who understood the economics could have explained this, but no one cared. This is slightly terrifying.


      1. Nigel Farage wasn’t part of the official Leave campaign and his contribution via the unofficial Leave EU vehicle was largely seen as an embarrassment at best by most Leave supporters. That hasn’t changed since Thursday. I’ve seen lots of people talking about anti-intellectualism but I don’t think that’s relevant here. There is a well founded cynicism about and suspicion of technocrats which lies behind the mistrust of expert reports and warnings. This is not the same thing as being against intellectuals like philosophers or librarians. It’s possible to combine the two of course, Donald Trump does, but that can’t be said to apply to the heart of the Leave campaign since both Gove and Johnson have pretensions to an intellectual hinterland.


      2. If we accept as a given (and if you disagree please let me know) that…

        1. Most economists and international business experts considered the Leave Campaign detrimental to the UK economy.
        2. The worst hit will be the lower classes, the less skilled, and the less marketable workers (others can simply seek work/opportunity elsewhere, since skills travel well, regardless of visa restrictions)
        3. The same group in 2. voted overwhelmingly to Leave while disagreeing with 1.

        How would you explain it? Most of what I have read, seen, or know from friends, was that the experts in 1. were dismissed. I would call this anti-intellectualism (“They think they know so much…”), and I think the Economist classified the divide as Oxbridge vs the working class.


  4. I think that people who do not believe the technocrats that failed to predict the 2008 crash and who urged UK entry into the Euro voted Leave. I see no reason to call this anti-intellectualism, no one voted against Schiller or Beethoven. The endemic distrust and alienation within so many layers of society has become a spectre haunting Europe and I suspect that it will get worse before it gets better because the richest and most powerful 1%, who lavishly funded the Remain campaign and in whose interests the EU is run, will not reform themselves. Several more shocks will be required before the economic model is fundamentally changed. Sadly it is the populist Right who have been first to perceive this and are the best at exploiting it.


    1. Experts will not always get things right. Medical professionals will misdiagnose. This happens. But what is the alternative? Eschew education altogether? I do not think the distrust is real, or more to the point, I think the uneducated are being manipulated by those using fear as a tactic to harness prejudice. American politics have largely been based on telling people who and what to fear, and relying on poor education to make it work. This is why we have Donald Trump.


      1. It’s not simply that experts get things wrong it’s that experts have a vested interest in supporting a status quo out of which they have done very well. Fields like economics are not exact sciences they involve hypotheses and theoretical constructions. In formulating these things and creating predictive models based upon them presumptions, assumptions and unconscious biases play a part. Those for whom the status quo has been a source of poverty and insecurity will not find these presumptions and assumptions equally convincing and will possess different biases and so, not surprisingly will reject the predictive models presented to them.


      2. Why do you think experts support the status quo? Does Thomas Piketty support the status quo? William White? There are as many people who support the status quo and who oppose it, and more in between. Economics has never been an exact science, and there are a spectrum of opinions concerning the right or wrong thing to do. Are you telling me that “those for whom the status quo has been a source of poverty and insecurity” are operating under a full understanding of the spectrum of these opinions? They are not, in no small part because it is possible to be part of this discussion, of the debate, but education is the required ticket to entrance. They are not rejecting the models, to be rejected they must be understood, they are simply howling where they are told to howl.


      3. I think the Quran might be more appropriate in this situation…

        “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?”

        Fear, prejudice, and intolerance, the motivations behind Leave, are all symptoms of ignorance.


    2. I was catching up on my podcasts and heard a Trump speech. What struck me was how much…

      “I think that people who do not believe the technocrats that failed to predict the 2008 crash and who urged UK entry into the Euro voted Leave…The endemic distrust and alienation within so many layers of society has become a spectre haunting Europe and I suspect that it will get worse before it gets better because the richest and most powerful 1%, who lavishly funded the Remain campaign and in whose interests the EU is run, will not reform themselves.”

      Sounded like…

      “I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another.”

      A lot of your criticism of “the elite” is surprisingly similar to Donald Trump. I was not sure if you were a Trump supporter or not, or if you would care either way. I just thought it was interesting.


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