Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 22, 2021
The curse of getting what you voted for

Since December 31st, 11 pm, Britain is no longer part of the European Union. Three weeks later my newsfeed is full of UK news stories about people who ordered some goods online from Europe, and were totally shocked and surprised when they were asked to pay tariffs and custom duties on those goods. That is literally what Brexit means: Britain leaves a free trade area, and thus trade with that area is not free anymore. It is not some unfortunate, hard to foresee side-effect of Britain leaving the European Union, like lorry queues at the border. Tariffs are exactly and directly what Britain voted for when they voted for Brexit. And the outrage over these tariffs means that a lot of people voted for Brexit without even understanding the very basics of what that means.

While economists generally prefer free trade, there is a political argument to be made for tariffs. The idea is that if the British have to pay extra for goods from Europe, they will preferably buy British goods instead, thus creating jobs in the UK. But in 5 years of Brexit, politicians clearly failed to get that message across. Instead they spouted some nonsense about "taking back control", and decried any reporting of economic consequences as "project fear".

What economic theory tells us is that free trade is good for the average person. Yes, maybe some goods that used to be made in Britain are now made in China. But that means those goods are now cheaper for everybody who buys them. And UK unemployment end of 2020 was 4.9%, despite the pandemic, so the idea that free trade means that all the British become unemployed is clearly false. The four freedoms of the EU single market, free movement of goods, free movement of capital, freedom to establish and provide services, free movement of persons, are also all beneficial for the people who have those freedoms. Again, lots of newspaper articles from British citizens complaining that their free movement to Spain has ended, showing that they didn't understand that they voted against that freedom of movement.

Emotionally, some people are feeling good about Brexit. Politicians talked up some freedoms, like freedom from decisions of the EU, which are largely theoretical. If the EU decides on some manufacturing standards, a British manufacturer has the theoretical choice of not following those, but only if he is willing to forego exports to the EU, which is unlikely. Many of the gained freedoms are actually only important to politicians, while the lost freedoms are more important to the ordinary people. The people got exactly what they voted for, but it becomes more and more evident that they didn't understand fully what they voted for, and in many case were deceived by politicians.

Different systems create different winners and losers. I don't believe in a perfect system since like in the "Matrix" humans seem incapable of accepting a reality where we're not bifurcated (okay, I butchered that a little). I'm curious to see who the winners and losers are with Brexit. It should be pretty easy to follow if we can get trustworthy data (not news feeds). Globalization has been good to me personally, but I do accept it's not good for everyone. Low employment rates aren't great if that employment consists of low paying, low skill jobs. I'm looking forward to reading about this in 2030 to see how this has played out.
I agree that globalization isn't necessarily good for everyone. However, I am bit worried that knee-jerk anti-globalisation actions end up hurting exactly the people who already were the losers of globalisation. Manufacturing jobs in the UK went from 21% of the workforce in 1981 to 8% of the workforce in 2018. I seriously doubt that by 2030 that number will have gone up significantly, just because of Brexit.
It's too early to make any calls on the overall outcomes of Brexit.
You'll obviously see and read all the accounts of the drawbacks because that is what people will notice immediately and it's an easy topic for the media.

Change is hard and people fear change. It requires not only new deals but a mentality shift. It takes longer than three weeks.
The status quo might not be comfortable but at least you know what you have and you don't have to put the time and effort to figure out something new.

I mean, yes Brexit could leave the UK worse off in the long run or it could turn out better. It's full of complexities that won't be solved in a handful of weeks.
What Camo said. As a UK citizen, I was and remain resolutely opposed to Brexit but what annoys me the most about the whole thing is the ridiculously short timescales on which people on all sides insist on assessing the outcome. I've been around long enough to see much of the contemprary history of my own lifetime turn into acacemic history studied in schools, let alone universities.

I can remember the kinds of media debates about events and their potential outcomes, outcomes that have now been actualized, analyzed and by now mostly forgotten. Very few things turn out the way most commentators predicted. Mostly the direct outcome was not much at all and mostly what happened was that other, previously unthought of events took prominence and pushed the supposed crises into the background.

Brexit is a still a hot topic now and the consequences will be with us for a while but what those consequences will be, no one can say. And what the rest of the world will be doing while the decreasing number of people who still care drone on and on about it is something we can't predict either. And most important of all, politics isn't physics. If something doesn't work it will change. It's just a matter of when, not if.
When asked about the impact of the French Revolution on western civilization, Zhou Enlai is said to have responded that it was too early to say.

But while I agree that the long term consequences will need some time to be assessed, this post was about people people being surprised by rather obvious short-term consequences, like tariffs. Obviously some people voted for something they didn't understand even the basics of.
Hence Churchill's quote about democracy.
But it cuts both ways, just that reporting about things that 'remain' voters had no clue about won't yield as many clicks as it's not as relevant.
I'm always reminded of the old proverb "Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it."

I see this sort of thing all the time here in the States, when people vote against infrastructure improvements or school improvements, and then they're shocked when businesses leave a community because of a lack of support for the same. "Aren't low taxes enough?" I typically hear.
What Camo said (which means what Bhagpuss said too). And people distrust media these days because almost everything is spin, or satire addressed to one side. It didn't seem to be so extreme in the past.

Tariff-free trade IS a convenience, undoubtedly, though the level of inconvenience depends on how much you need to import. Indeed, living as I do in Ireland, Brexit will cause some annoyances for me because the UK is larger and culturally similar, so I will want to buy stuff from there. But an existential disaster for either side it is not.
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