No, there’s not a market-liberal case for Brexit

I’ve been dismayed to see how many– not a majority, but a long way above “none”– of my libertarian friends on social media are either enthusiastic about British exit from the EU or indifferent-leaning-favorable.

(Note: this post is addressed to libertarians and market liberals, and it takes for granted libertarian policy preferences. I’m going to go ahead and use contestible conceptions of, say, economic liberty, without using scare quotes or offering justifications. This is “given the market-liberal conception of economic liberty, is there a case for Brexit?” not “how do I defend the market-liberal conception of economic liberty?)

The market-liberal case for Brexit blends together a view that eliminating a level of government is usually good; generalized skepticism of distant and central authority; and specific beliefs about the planning, socialist, or overregulatory propensities of the EU in particular relative to the UK. For there to be a good market-liberal case for Brexit, the weight of these arguments had better be overwhelming, given the obvious goods of liberalized migration and trade across the EU. (“It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people…. As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market.” Adam Smith, WN.) In this post I’ll offer my reasons for doubting that there’s any such overwhelming case on the pro-market side to weigh against the losses in terms of extent of market and migration– and indeed for doubting that there’s any reason for confidence that there’s any significant gain in expected-value economic liberty to weigh against the losses.

Now, the “one less level of government/ distant bureaucrats” hunches should only ever be hunches. With Madison, Acton, and Hayek, I think there’s a great deal to be said for compound systems in which a relatively distant and unloved center exists to check the relatively local units that engender too much enthusiasm for state power, and that when “decentralization” means “vesting sole power in a Weberian nation-state,” the virtues of decentralization will be very hard to come by. The natural skepticism of a level of government like that found in Brussels gives way to considerable overconfidence in the level of government like that found in London. An system of both institutional checks and balances and popular vigilance against abuses of power is replaced by a system that has neither. Sometimes the particular character of the nation-state or of the transnational entity will be enough to outweigh those concerns; but as far as market liberals are concerned, I think at best these very general centralization/ decentralization concerns are a wash. There’s no reason for us to start with some enthusiastic assumption that secession is always better and that more-local, more-homogenous levels of government are friendlier to freedom than larger and more pluralistic ones. Nor is there any reason to assume that removing a level of government just makes its whole system of regulation stably disappear; we need to think about what’s likely to replace those regulations at the nation-state level.

The single-market rules and regulations have some genuinely market-friendly features. One of the most important of these is the set of policies that prohibit subsidies and trade distortions favoring national-champion firms. Think about the competition to lavish subsidies on professional sports teams in the United States… applied to much bigger and more important sectors of the economy. That kind of crony capitalism is ruled out by the EU. (This is why it especially galled me to see Gary Johnson hailing Brexit as a bow against crony capitalism.) And Brexit supporters are well aware of this. See this pro-Brexit editorial from an important British newspaper:

11) We could support British companies in trouble. EU single market rules discourage governments from giving financial support to private companies, to make sure “national champions” do not have a commercial advantage over rivals. Those rules meant that ministers couldn’t directly bail out Tata Steel’s UK plants.

There’s a level of popular belief that the EU enforces illiberal and market-unfriendly policies on Britain. On the fiscal side, here’s a comparison of British public spending as a share of GDP just before entry into the EU, and just before the Brexit vote:

1971: 42.0
1972: 40.8

2014: 41.8
2015: 40.8


Even when you add in the <1% of GDP that is paid to Brussels, this is just not a picture of a system that has forced Britain to become a big-spending social democracy. (Neither, of course, is it a picture of a system that has forced Britain into neoliberal austerity, a charge one hears from the left.)

On the regulatory side– which is what the right-leaning British press talks about a lot– there's the usual number of silly and micromanaging stories that emerge out of any regulatory system. Bananas and vacuum cleaners and light bulbs, oh my. But these are anecdata, and any regulatory system (public or private) that governs by rules will have some silly ones. (Any reader who works for a large bureaucratic private organization, whether a for-profit firm or a non-profit university, can easily come up with three silly policies from it, I'm sure.) We don't have great aggregate measures of regulation, but we do have some that libertarians are generally willing to use.

According to the 2015 Economic Freedom of the World report’s overall measure for regulatory burden, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Ireland, and Romania are all less regulated than the UK. The most recent Heritage index of “business freedom” ranks Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden ahead of the UK; for labor freedom, Denmark, Austria, and Ireland. In all these cases, these relatively-liberal EU countries compare favorably with other developed countries in or out of the EU.

None of these measures are perfect, but they shouldn’t be systematically biased against the UK. And what they tell us is:

a) Membership in the EU is perfectly compatible with maintaining a light overall regulatory burden by developed country standards; and

b) the UK is not pushing the deregulatory envelope inside the EU, is not running into an EU constraint in its attempt to minimize the regulatory burden.

Once we move beyond anecdata about light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, and bananas, I don’t see any reason to think that there’s some tremendous unmet demand for deregulation in the British political system, or that overall leaving the EU will much lighten the total regulatory load when the UK is often above the EU floor anyway.

One final thought, since many of my indifferent-or-pro-Brexit libertarian friends are non-Brits. I can understand why British voters should think in British terms. But for us evaluating matters from the outside, the effect on Britain shouldn’t be the only thing that matters. British withdrawal from the EU will, from a market liberal perspective, almost certainly change policies in the rump EU for the worse. The UK has been an important part of the relatively liberal bloc (that includes the Low Countries, Denmark, Sweden, and some of the ex-Communist countries) to counterbalance what has often been a relatively dirigiste bloc led by France and Germany. And the desire to placate Britain has put brakes on some of the most statist tendencies in Brussels. (This is similar the kind of thing I argue about federalism in general. A pluralistic federation like Canada is probably freer with a skeptical Quebec on the inside and always threatening to leave than either rump-Canada or Quebec would be post-separation; see also my Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.) For us North Americans, the balance of considerations should include not only what British policies will be like after separation, but what the rest of Europe’s policies will be like. Shared language and culture mean that sometimes anglophone North Americans imaginatively project ourselves into Britain– but as outsiders, our evaluation should be more disinterested than that. And from a market-liberal perspective, the likelihood is that overall economic freedom will decline even if there’s some increase in it in Britain— which, again, I don’t see any reason to expect.

(Footnote about the Economic Freedom of the World report and the Heritage index: I don’t trust these indices for global comparisons, or their aggregates much at all. But one dimension at a time– say, regulation– among comparable countries, I think they can be useful. “Jordan has more economic freedom overall than Britain” is an almost purely meaningless claim. But “Ireland has less burdensome regulation on starting new businesses than Britain” is meaningful. Anyway, I don’t see any reason to think that both the EFW and Heritage measures would be biased against Britain and in favor of the liberal EU countries.)

  • Joe Place

    As a libertarian/market liberal Brit I do share the concern of centralising power. When one considers loss of access to single market I also am concerned for loss of economic freedom. I did vote remain but can’t help but think the eu has elements which ar at odds with libertarians. The issue of non eu migrants, the laws passed from secretive commissions, the EUs treatment of Greece, the rejection of the Irish referendum on the lisbon treaty to name a few. I wanted to work within the eu to help it, but I can understand concerns from libertarians about the eu (though not UKIP who occaisonally as libertarians but are nothing short of reactionaries) . Now brexit is happening, those who are concerned about liberty need to rally for it outside the EU and to ensure economic freedom amongst free movement between the uk and Europe (and everywhere). But I do share the concerns and its refreshing to see a pro EU article from a libertarian perspective as I thought I was the only one.

  • Scientific Fatalist

    This is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the worst.

    The EU is one of the best examples of what a free market, free of tariffs and with open borders, can do for people. This should be a terrible blow from a libertarian perspective – going back to closed borders and possible tariffs. It’s unfortunate that one of the side effects was a centralized regulatory body that made it happen in the first place…but that can eventually be reformed – specifically by libertarian leaning politicians, without messing up the free markets.

    But no, libertarians will scream about government and celebrate sticking it to the man over any real gains. Then again, libertarians were never known for their pragmatism or common sense.

    Brexit has always been about “the other people”. All the economic justifications were just there to make the leave vote look respectable – and when called out on their economic idiocy, the answer was “we’ve had enough of experts”. And I should remind people that closed borders are incompatible with libertarianism. People who tend to think they are, are people who just want to oppress and drive out “the other people” in peace without silly government protecting human rights. Most of these so-called “paleolibertarians” are no more than neoconfederates in disguise.

    • NL7

      You are right that Brexit was highly correlated to anti-immigrant sentiment. It was not correlated to opinions on capitalism.

      But to be clear, the most prominent Leave campaigners want to model the post-EU situation on Norway or Switzerland, both of which are in the European Free Trade Association. EFTA is basically most of the same parts of the common market, including the Four Freedoms. So no tariffs on EU goods, mandatory openness toward EU migrants, and generally must accept free movement of goods, services, capital, and workers.

      It’s most likely that the UK post-EU will seek to join EFTA, and that’s what many of its leaders have signaled.

      So, luckily, the Leavers probably won’t turn to high tariffs, closed borders, and isolation. Unluckily, they turned for votes to socialists and xenophobes who apparently didn’t realize that EFTA is ~90% the same as the EU. And now those crazies are expecting a new UK that’s anti-market at the same time the elite Leavers have signaled they want a pro-market UK.

      • jmdesp

        But leaving the EU to join the EFTA makes no sense. EFTA members pay almost as much for the EU budget as UK, and they have to apply most of the EU regulations, *but* they have a lot less political power to influence that legislation since they can’t vote on it.

      • FlameCCT

        You were doing well until stating they turned to votes from socialists. The Socialists and other Marxist derivatives, including USA type Progressives, were firmly in the Remain group.

      • ac456

        Both sides were identical on the question of capitalism. Now, that is interesting.

  • Snow Leopard

    I truly don’t think Britain needs the EU. They are subject to its taxes and regulations, but they get nothing worth it in return. When one country in the EU starts to tank, it drags down the others that would have been perfectly fine otherwise. I think independent Britain will prosper under its own leadership.

    • NL7

      Taxes? Not sure what you mean. There is no EU taxing agency. By that, do you mean contributions to the EU? Or do you mean the EU requirements for a VAT? Or income tax harmonization?

      There are lots of EU tax rules, and the EU is funded by member governments, but there isn’t actually an EU-wide tax. Unless you mean “tax” euphemistically, in a way that includes the non-cash cost of complying with regulations.

      • Lee Moore

        This is either misconceived, or at cross purposes. EU customs duties are an EU tax. VAT is levied under EU directives, with the member states allowed to vary the rate – but not below an EU prescribed minimum. And the ECJ has voted itself the power the regulate member states’ income and corporate taxes, in blatant defiance of the member states theoretical rights to decide these for themselves, by pretending that nationality and residence are the same thing.

        Moving on to regulations – there are plenty of cash costs of regulations. In the first place, EU directives are required to be implemented, and policed, by member states. Consequently a healthy chunk of each member state’s own government administrative costs are actually spent on implementing EU regulations. The net / gross EU contribution numbers bandied about in the referendum campaign all include these costs at zero. One of the key points of the EU is to disguise EU commands as domestic commands. Moreover some regulations come with a giant cash cost in compliance. The water quality regulations of the1990s cost UK water companies, and so in the end their customers, $100 billion. But the UK had neither a water quality problem in the first place, nor any cross border water flows. The regulations may have been a good thing for countries with poor water quality, like France and Italy, but they were a pure matter of tearing up banknotes for the UK. Imposed on the UK solely to meet the goal f having a common EU policy.

  • zjohn

    Not all libertarians are alike just like not all conservatives or progressives are alike. There is a strong contingent in both mainstream U.S. parties that embraces illiberalism (especially recently) even though neither party is inherently necessarily objectively illiberal in terms of a general point of view. I suspect that libertarians divide along a line of favoring either a paradigm of individual sovereignty over centralization (populist far right style) or preferring to be more preoccupied with a freer society regardless of where the authority to foster this free society comes from (more mainstream market liberal style). I know both kinds of libertarians. I tend to believe there are far more of the latter than the former but that’s just my opinion. I liken it to rothbardian anarcho-capitalists (former) vs. hayekian minarchists (latter). I think the latter….people like Jacob perhaps?…..tend to over-estimate the former in terms of size and influence. Just my 2 cents. I think the former tend blend in with the more populist Alt-Right in many ways and can appear indistinguishable at times. Indeed many that supported Ron Paul and later helped for the Tea Party movement were this sort of Alt-Right/Rothbardian Blend. There is indeed something in both of these elements (Alt-Right and Rothbardian Ron Paul-style libertarians) that is mutually appealing. We see it manifest in these types of issues. A preoccupation with the Fed and gold is one such issue. I’d be willing to bet without having looked it up that Ron Paul probably looks favorably on Brexit. As a member of that latter Hayekian Minarchist group, I’d have preferred to see England stay in the EU but I get the sentiment that wanted to pull away. Not sure I’d call it a purely libertarian sentiment but I get it. I just don;t agree with the course of action to leave. That being said, purely illberal-minded people with no libertarian impulses of any kind are what drove Brexit….not a certain flavor of libertarianism.

    • Theresa Klein

      I think the division is nationalist versus internationalist.
      Yes, there are nationalist libertarians. I find it to be internally contradictory, but in the US, there’s definitely a significant contingent of self-identified libertarians who patriotically favor the US and don’t care for international ties, immigration or even free trade agreements. These tend to be very right leaning. What’s happening right now seems to be a new rise of nationalist sentiment everywhere, which is peeling these people apart from the main libertarian movement.

  • Nkaplan

    As a British Brexiteer with libertarian sympathies I’m afraid this article could not be more worng.

    Leaving aside issues of democracy (admittedly not always a priority for libertarians) here are my top reasons why libertarians ought to dislike the EU:

    1. The EU is not merely or even primarily about economic intergration. It is a system of political intergration directed in a top down manner by an unelected bureaucracy, often expressly against the wishes of the citizens of that continent (witness numerous referenda in which results have been overturned when people have been asked to ‘vote again’ to get ‘the right answer’ – this may yet happen to the UK). Any liberatarian ought to be against top-down political systems imposed in this manner. Libertarians ought to prefer bottom up evolution – this is very much not what the EU has been or will be if it continues.

    2. There are better liberatarian ways of achieving the economic benefits associated with the EU. The EU is not a mere free trade area, the EU directly intervenes in multiple areas of social and other policy affecting member states (e.g. It’s working time directive which stipulates maximum working ours in certain industries across the continent – there are numerous other examples). The option of a mere free trade area does exist already – it is called the EFTA – Switzerland, Iceland and Norway are all members without being members of the highly centralised political system of the EU. Any liberation acquainted with these alternatives should favour the expic intergration of the EFTA over the political intergration of the EU.

    3. The single market – this sounds like a libertarian benefit. It is not. While it does stop certain practices like nationalisation of the favouring of various nationalised industries it also seeks to impose a one size fits all policy of regulation across the entire continent. In itself that is bad from a libertarian perspective which should favour experimentation in regulatory regimes so that we may learn and evolve through trial and error. Worse still this has been used as an excuse or guise under which the centre can involve itself in ever more areas of economic and non-economic life (witness regulations governing the curvature of bananas).

    • NL7

      How much real benefit is there to being in EFTA/EEA versus EU?

      Assume that we entirely discount the value of signaling, including symbolic value of independence, democracy or sovereignty, since the weight of anti-migrant and anti-market signaling among Leavers was also quite strong. I figure you can negotiate some stuff separately, like fisheries, maybe reduce the contributions (but not necessarily), and some other things devolve like certain tax rules, welfare reciprocity, etc. etc. And of course, some dumb EU rules only apply to exports into the single market, rather than all UK products.

      Is that the whole of the case? And for that, the UK MEPs are tossed? UK leverage over the market and indirect influence over the Euroland is tossed? The markets are given loads of signals about regime uncertainty?

      Telling me that you want variation in policy at first sounds good, but only if we assume that policy will be flexibly made more market-oriented, more pro-migrant, more pro-Four Freedoms. But in practice, greater sovereignty is the rallying cry of conservatives, progressives and socialists as often as liberals and libertarians. The US promoter for the phrase “laboratories of democracy” was a progressive Justice who thought it was a great way for states to promote restrictions on speech, forced sterilization, command economics, and other state-enlarging projects. The judicial standard at the time was a relatively pro-contract and relatively anti-regulation Lochner standard, and the Justice wanted to free states to create all sorts of regulations. So saying that we want states to experiment sounds good, but to a great degree it’s only as libertarian as your elected officials. It may be that the single market is more free-market than the average state would otherwise achieve.

      I’m anarchist enough to not really feel partisan about either side. I’m certain that both the benefits and costs both of leaving and of remaining are heavily overblown. But is it clear that Leave is a step forward for market liberalism, if perhaps the main effect is to vindicate anti-migrant sentiments?

      I mean, it may be that EFTA would be the best equilibrium point for the UK, even if the transition backwards from EU to EFTA is very painful. But are the benefits terribly substantial? And do those benefits really outweigh the costs of transition, like market uncertainty, loss of influence over market rules, etc? Do they outweigh the costs of allying with racists and socialists who flocked to Leave for decidedly illiberal reasons?

      • wh09

        Well EEA countries are exempt from the common external tarriff, common agricultural policy, common fisheries policy and some other common policies and also can negotiate their own trade agreements

        • NL7

          What are the odds that the UK will substantially lower tariffs towards most of the world? Maybe they’ll do a few FTAs, but some of the Leave rhetoric was that leaving the EU would allow them to INCREASE tariffs to protect domestic industries.

          Leaving the EU is neutral – it means more flexibility to UK policymakers in either a positive or negative direction. It’s not very clear that this will mean, on balance, an increase in pro-market policies. It could mean a mixture of new policies, it could mean worse policies. Given the current political trends in the developed world, we might expect greater flexibility will cater to some bad impulses.

          We’re seeing rising popularity of both socialism and hard-right nationalism in the Western developed world. The US will see the rise of a racist/nationalist nominee for President and will narrowly avert nominating an unreconstructed 1930s-style socialist as his opponent. The UK has seen rising support for Corbyn and also for anti-migrant sentiment. The trend is also in evidence elsewhere in Europe, e.g. the Austrian election for the first time ever wasn’t between the center-left and center-right but between a hard-right nationalist and a left-Green. Something’s in the air right now and it’s very plausible to think that rising support for protectionism, nationalism, socialism, and populism could prompt legislatures to be less market-oriented, less classically liberal, and more authoritarian.

          So I hope that the UK announces its intention to drop its VAT rate (the EU requires all members to have a VAT in a certain % range) and I hope the UK pledges unilateral free trade towards the entire world. But given their rhetoric, given the political climate, and given the composition of Leave voters, I suspect that we’re far more likely to see protectionism and nativism than libertarianism.

          • wh09

            With regards to leaving the EU as being neutral, could say the same for staying in the EU, I don’t think anybody is arguing that the EU is moving towards more free market policies. Brexit was a vote to leave the EU, not a vote to limit immigration or whatever some portions of the leave side were basing their arguments on. We also have to acknowledge that the result of the vote was very close and that just because leave won, doesn’t mean they should get everything they want. In fact, how sure are we about the reasons why leavers voted they way they did? Whilst it cannot be denied that immigration was a key issue, there were many other issues for voters to consider when choosing what side to vote for like sovereignty. In fact recent polls have shown that nearly 50 percent of leavers who hold an opinion would support consideration of an EEA option which runs counter to what many of the remain side think of the leavers. Obviously it will be disappointing for those who wanted more control over borders, both sides have to accept compromise due to the how close the vote was and I have no doubts that the majority of the country would support an EEA option as there were many reasons for which to vote leave and those who support the EU will obviously support an EEA option.

          • FlameCCT

            The US will see the rise of a racist/nationalist nominee for President and will narrowly avert nominating an unreconstructed 1930s-style socialist as his opponent.

            Narrowly averting a 1930s-style
            socialist, instead choosing a 1920s-style Progressive ala Wilson who segregated the federal government.

    • Also, the real-world consequences of the EU, especially the Euro: Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal either wrecked or on the verge of being so, very high youth and immigrant unemployment across the continent, and the consequent rise of far-right parties. Things will only get worse unless the EU breaks up, which Brexit might bring about.

      • Nkaplan

        The EU is a grand Utopian project directed from above. Its break up may well bring disaster. However I suspect the whole thing is untenable in any event – using an unaccountable bureaucracy to slowly force 28 counties as socially, politically, culturally, legally and historically diverse as the 28 member states into a one-size-fits-all polity is plainly madness – a Utopian dream idea that could persuade only a child (http://www.city-journal.org/html/european-crack-13459.html). In my view its better that the whole thing break up sooner rather than later. It is, perhaps, not too late for an orderly transition to what it always should have been – a system of international co-operation rather than supra-national governance. I hope the brexit result will encourage that, for I fear the long-term consequences of the EU project will be a disaster.

      • NL7

        I’d probably lay youth unemployment on the terrible labor policies of many European countries. Many of them are notorious for making it terribly costly to hire a bad employee who you can’t fire and who gets loads of benefits and protections.

        It becomes easier to avoid hiring, or to keep a business small enough to stay less regulated by the labor code. When you have to hire somebody, you pick somebody you know, somebody with experience, or somebody with a great CV. All those things skew hiring towards older, richer, and whiter employees than would otherwise be the equilibrium.

        My reading is that Spain, Italy, France and Greece are well lubricated by the black market in labor. When laws are as stupid as in those countries, everyone becomes a violator because it’s impossible to get along otherwise. I’d assume a significant portion of youth in a place like Spain are working under the table. Just like Greeks are mostly cheating their taxes. When laws are egregiously dumb or unfair, people feel no compunction about violating them.

  • The market-liberal case for Brexit blends together a view that eliminating a level of government is usually good; generalized skepticism of distant and central authority; and specific beliefs about the planning, socialist, or overregulatory propensities of the EU in particular relative to the UK. For there to be a good market-liberal case for Brexit, the weight of these arguments had better be overwhelming, given the obvious goods of liberalized migration and trade across the EU.

    This is a strong claim that you never really justify. I understand that you personally place a higher premium on liberalized migration, but that doesn’t mean libertarians in general should. One could just as easily claim that the right to meaningfully impact one’s political system is more obviously good than a top-down liberal migration policy. There is no reason a libertarian is required to choose one preference over the other.

    The natural skepticism of a level of government like that found in Brussels gives way to considerable overconfidence in the level of government like that found in London. An system of both institutional checks and balances and popular vigilance against abuses of power is replaced by a system that has neither.

    I think you really over-extend your claim here about London. Do you really believe – and could you clearly demonstrate – that London “has neither institutional checks and balances nor popular vigilance?”

    Once we move beyond anecdata about light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, and bananas, I don’t see any reason to think that there’s some tremendous unmet demand for deregulation in the British political system, or that overall leaving the EU will much lighten the total regulatory load when the UK is often above the EU floor anyway.

    But you’re ignoring the impact of locality. It’s easier to change regulations in your own country than it is to change regulations in an entire continent. Assuming part of the justification for Brexit is that people want some regulations changed, this should have a net-positive impact toward enabling that goal.

    A pluralistic federation like Canada is probably freer with a skeptical Quebec on the inside and always threatening to leave than either rump-Canada or Quebec would be post-separation

    So it’s good to threaten to secede, but only if that threat is empty?

    In sum, I think you make a lot of reasonable claims, but they can just as reasonably be argued the other way. I’m not certain that Brexit will be net positive for the UK, but I think it at least provides an opportunity for a certain set of good to be possible in a way that couldn’t have happened otherwise. I’m not confident that that set of good will actually happen, but we should at least be happy that it’s now possible.

    • Nkaplan

      This is exactly right. Within the confines of the EU a free-market liberal polity is not possible (note, for instance, that the EU sets the trade policy of every member state – outside the confines of the EU Britain will once again be liberated to enter free trade deals with the rest of the world – in particular the common wealth and the US with which the UK has strong historic, legal and linguistic ties). Outside the EU it is possible, though not inevitable, that politics may take a more free-market direction. It is now up to us free-market minded Brits to make that case – this is a Golden opportunity not to be wasted.

    • Reasonable Extremist

      “One could just as easily claim that the right to meaningfully impact
      one’s political system is more obviously good than a top-down liberal
      migration policy. There is no reason a libertarian is required to choose
      one preference over the other.”

      I’m not sure you can easily claim this within a libertarian framework. There is no strain of libertarianism of which I am familiar that places a lot of value on people being able to impact their political system. The advocacy of severe and sweeping constitutional constraints on majority power that prevent people from impacting the system in unlibertarian ways is much more familiar. I could see justifying immigration restrictions on the grounds that they might expand liberty on net. For example, one need not to be any sort of bigot to fear that allowing vast numbers of Muslim migrants to enter might make for a less free society. Limiting immigration on those grounds may well be compatible with libertarian principles. But impact on one’s political system is a value that I think you would struggle to locate within the libertarian tradition. From Mill to Mencken to contemporary writers like Caplan and Brennan today, there is not a lot of regard for this sort of thing.

      • There is no strain of libertarianism of which I am familiar that places a lot of value on people being able to impact their political system.

        How about anti-federalism?

        • Reasonable Extremist

          Yeah I’m not sure I would classify that as libertarian per se. In my view, libertarians are much too sympathetic towards state’s rights. Of course the term itself is abhorrent from a libertarian perspective. Only individuals have rights. A lot of the worst oppression in our nation’s history came from the states and not the federal government. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come up with a lot of state’s rights politicians who were libertarians. When I think of people like Calhoun or much more recent figures like Wallace, Thurmond, Helms, and the like I see populist right-wing authoritarians, not freedom lovers.

          Just ask yourself this: would you favor a set of institutional arrangements which gave a lot of power to the states if, overwhelmingly, the states used that power to pursue unlibertarian policies? Or is your support for state’s rights based on a set of empirical assumptions holding that transferring power away from Washington and towards the states would lead to more libertarian policy solutions? If it’s the latter, you don’t place a lot of weight on people being able to impact their government as such.

          • I don’t think your hypothetical question really works. What you ought to be asking is, assuming exactly the same set of policies, would I favor more centralized or decentralized power? That’s the question that gets to the meat of the matter. Phrased that way, it’s easy to see why so many libertarians favor decentralization, isn’t it?

            In that case, you might even be right that authoritarians tend to be states-rights folks, but it doesn’t matter because the whole point of decentralization is to localize the remedy. It’s a lot easier to change the town’s opinion than it is to change the nation’s opinion. And if we manage to preserve a freedom to migrate – which is admittedly difficult – the combination of decentralization and freedom of migration presents with an opportunity for political competition – exactly what an-caps want. I’m not an an-cap, but I do think competition does political systems a great deal of good. So that’s my logic.

            More broadly, don’t you find it odd that the very moment when human society is best-equipped, from a technological standpoint, to become almost totally self-governing is the same moment when people in general are most highly skeptical of democracy? I’ve always been of the opinion that political institutions lag behind society by 10-20 years. Centralization is a thing of the past. Society is becoming more and more decentralized, and this is a good thing, from a libertarian perspective. Or at least from mine.

          • Reasonable Extremist

            I get all of that and I’m sympathetic to a lot of it. I just think you value decentralizing for instrumental reasons and that is at odds with the idea of people having an impact on their system as being an end in itself. If it was an end in itself, you’d favor it even if it led to less libertarian outcomes. Just want to keep that distinction clear.

          • If it was an end in itself, you’d favor it even if it led to less libertarian outcomes.

            This is a false dilemma. Decentralization is not automatically at odds with liberty. It is an element of it. If I asked you whether you’d support freedom of migration or of religion or of etc. etc. “even if it lead to less libertarian outcomes,” you’d probably respond in a very reasonable way, as follows: “No, but I don’t happen to believe that freedom of religion is at odds with liberty.”

            Well, that’s how I feel about decentralization. Yes, it is possible to pursue decentralization and then follow that up with a bunch of local authoritarianism, but obviously nobody who calls themselves libertarian supports that kind of idea. You either need to sell me on the notion that decentralization is itself authoritarian, or you should agree with me that, ceteris paribus, decentralization is pro-liberty.

          • Reasonable Extremist

            I guess here’s what I have in mind. Imagine X country. It has a fairly libertarian national majority. No authoritarian could get in power nationally. But in some states, say a quarter, the majority is authoritarian and would happily pass a vast majority of freedom limiting laws. In this environment, would you not want state power to be limited to ensure that those people living in those states would not have to endure violence being done to their liberty. All things being equal, 100 percent pro-decentralization but I do worry about small scale tyranny.

          • Ron H.

            You have a legitimate concern about small scale tyranny, but as a libertarian I would always prefer small evils to larger evils. Your example clearly highlights the basic problem with majority rule, and that is that the interests of some people, even if it’s on a small scale, will not be represented.

            You seem to be recommending that a larger majority in country X should impose it’s will on a national minority (the majority in those tyrannical states). How is that an improvement in terms of liberty and self determination? A common notion among large central government enthusiasts is that the biggest bully on the block should be hired to keep all the lesser bullies in check, but it’s not clear – at least not to me – why that necessarily leads to more liberty. In my view it’s those living in tyrannical states that are best qualified to judge their own needs and to make whatever changes they believe are in order. As an outsider, I have no right to interfere with the choices or actions of of others. They might ask for my help as an individual, and I might help them in that capacity, but I won’t call down the power of the state for any reason.

      • Isn’t it important, from a libertarian perspective, that the people have the power to eject their current
        government peacefully, i.e., through an election? Without that impact
        on their political system, the abuse of power seems almost guaranteed. Constitutional arrangements are not sufficient, as we know from American experience, because of judicial activism. I am no fan of democracy; but it seems to be a necessary evil (roughly paraphrasing Winston Churchill).

        • Reasonable Extremist

          Right but I see this as instrumental. Without elections, we would have greater authoritarianism. So, from a libertarian perspective, elections are good. That’s fine. But I don’t place much value on popular political engagement as such. If having fewer elections, fewer elected offices, longer time periods between elections and so and so forth happened, as a matter of empirical observation, to lead to a more libertarian society I’d be happy with that sort of system. If having more elections, less time between elections, and more elected offices happened, as a matter of empirical observation, to lead to a more libertarian society I’d be happy with that sort of system. Ultimately, for me it’s just about seeing democratic engagement as a means and nothing more. Not sure if you’ve read of or are familiar with Bryan Caplan’s ‘Myth of the Rational Voter’ but in its pages he argues that an unelected body of professional economists should have a great say over the economic policies that the US government adopts. In his estimation, this would lead to more libertarian policy outcomes since the median economist is far more market friendly than the median US voter. Now clearly this reduces popular political participation. But assuming the argument about outcomes is correct, I’d be all for that whereas someone who places great weight on the ability of the masses to shape their political system would not. I see the latter camp as having an argument, just not a libertarian one.

    • martinbrock

      Freedom requires a right to exit but only if no one ever exercises the right.

  • JohnThackr

    So is there a market liberal case against Canadian-USA political union?

    • urstoff

      I think a Canada-USA union is a great idea. Each country could stand to become a bit more like each other.

  • Joshua Woods

    The title of this article suggests that there are no good reasons for a libertarian to support Brexit. Yet given the existence of the EEA/EFTA and the significant likelihood that Britain will end up there with the free movement of labour intact I don’t think that is justified. Yes free movement is important to us but we were not asked that question and given a chance to opt out of a highly centralised bureaucratic system, which is clearly heading further in that direction despite Britain’s objections, I think leaving should be celebrated. I feel like this pro immigration rhetoric is often justified but can become contaminated by utilitarianism which leaves us with no good arguments to resist a world government. After all a global government would have essentially open borders (no borders), free trade and probably fewer wars, so how can libertarians using this moral calculus possibly object! I think most of us would rightly object but I’d be curious to hear how you would argue against a world govt given the views expressed here. I agree the issue has exposed a divide amongst self described libertarians so is fascinating to discuss but would not want to make claims about moral certainties given what I think are valid arguments on both sides

    • NL7

      EFTA has free movement of workers. The Swiss still have it even though technically they voted against immigration. It’s a pre-condition for the common market.

      • Joshua Woods

        I know, that’s why I said we could end up there with free movement intact

        • NL7

          Hmm, not sure why I interpreted you as implying otherwise. Sorry. Probably because I’ve been pedantically pointing it out for days. Apologies.

          You’re like the innocent guy who jumps into the line of fire in the shooter arcade games; after shooting 9 bad guys in a row, sometimes you slip up and fire at the good guy out of habit. Sorry, good guy. I deduct 50 points from myself.

      • Nkaplan

        The Swiss have free movement of workers because they chose to sign up to it, Had they not committed themselves to that in a treaty they would not have had to accept it (see for example the situation in Guernsey, Jersey and Lichtenstein).

        In any event free movement of labour is very different from what EU membership requires. In the EU any citizen of any member state has the automatic right to citizenship in any other member state. EU citizens can travel freely between all member states and take up residence without having to have a job offer or job. The national government of any member state may not discriminate in favour of its own national citizens and must treat any immigrant from any member state in the very same manner it treats its own citizens. That means that anyone immigrating from the EU into the UK has an automatic right to claim any of the benefits available to British citizens – including unemployment benefits, NHS services, state schooling etc. Free movement of labour simply means anyone offered a job will be free to enter for the purpose of that job, the government can adopt whatever policies it chooses in terms of the benefits such individuals would be entitled to. That is a notable difference and arguably more desirable from a Libertarian perspective.

        • NL7

          So libertarians should oppose the EU in order to defend the budgets and popularity of the welfare state?

          Ethnic homogeneity tends to increase irrational faith in the welfare state. Diversity tends to promote skepticism of the welfare state. Diversity is most successful when it doesn’t come with excessive wealth transfers and only requires live-and-let-live attitudes. By that token, diversity is a great way to undermine interest in and support for a system of wealth redistribution.

          But I’m not sure we can say that most Britons are exclusively concerned about migrants getting welfare. A fair number of them also object to Eastern and Central Europeans coming as workers, like the Polish Plumber. Ashcroft’s polling suggests that Brexit voters overwhelmingly had negative feelings about immigration generally, not just welfare usage, and also overwhelmingly displayed negative attitudes towards feminism, social liberalism, and multiculturalism. There’s far more evidence that this is broadly cultural and nationalistic, not just concern about welfare budgeting.

          As an anarchist, I’m not terribly swayed by the argument that the EU is that it hampers nationalist feeling and socialist welfare.

          • martinbrock

            We aren’t defending a particular formulation of a welfare state. We’re opposing a monopolization of this formulation across all of Europe.

            The UK is far from ethnic homogeneity, but a free association is necessarily homogeneous to some extent. The homogeneity need not be ethnic, but it is cultural/ethical, i.e. every member voluntarily subscribes to specified standards of propriety.

            A free association may have any welfare system it wants. Libertarianism does not oppose a welfare system. It only opposes a welfare monopoly. If members of a community contribute a progressive share of each member’s income to a fund for widows and orphans, their community is perfectly consistent with the libertarian ideal as long as membership is voluntary.

            Voluntary respect for standards of propriety is the libertarian ideal, not individual sovereignty over the fruits of individual labor or anything similar. Lockean property is common in free communities, but it isn’t necessary for a free community.

        • Lips


          your description of EU-law concerning benefits for citizens of other EU-states is not correct.

          First, the member states can still have laws concerning residency, they just have to follow certain standards.

          According to directive 2004/38 (“Free Movement Directive”), any citizen of any member state (“EU-citizen”) has the right to work in any state. Otherwise, he has the right to stay in any state for up to three months (see Article 6).


          Also, if they stay longer to seek work, there must not be any “expulsion measures”, see Article 14 (4). This does however not mean that such people have the right to residence.

          Now, the member states must not discriminate concerning benefits against those who have the right to residence.

          The states have however the right to restrict the benefits to other people, including to those who fall under Article 14 (4).

          This right of the member states is uphold in the following ruling of the European Court of Justice:


          “Article 24 of Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States, amending Regulation (EEC) No 1612/68 and repealing Directives 64/221/EEC, 68/360/EEC, 72/194/EEC, 73/148/EEC, 75/34/EEC, 75/35/EEC, 90/364/EEC, 90/365/EEC and 93/96/EEC and Article 4 of Regulation (EC) No 883/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the coordination of social security systems, as amended by Commission Regulation (EU) No 1244/2010 of 9 December 2010, must be interpreted as not precluding legislation of a Member State under which nationals of other Member States who are in a situation such as that referred to in Article 14(4)(b) of that directive are excluded from entitlement to certain ‘special non-contributory cash benefits’ within the meaning of Article 70(2) of Regulation No 883/2004, which also constitute ‘social assistance’ within the meaning of Article 24(2) of Directive 2004/38, although those benefits are granted to nationals of the Member State concerned who are in the same situation.”

    • Reasonable Extremist

      Well I think the obvious concentration of power concern would prove pretty overwhelming. I’ve always been sympathetic to a lot of right-wing sovereignty arguments because it seems to me that many of the transfers of sovereignty that have been proposed would make the US less free. For example, giving the UN more authority. But I don’t have any great regard for the nation-state per se. If some North America Union led to lower taxes, less government spending, less paternalistic social policy, freer movement, fewer regulations, and so on and so forth I’d be for it. In other words, libertarians should value the existence of a world order defined by nation-states to the extent that such an order promotes liberty. If a more globalist arrangement is empirically better for libertarian values of economic and personal freedom then I’m pro-globalism. I can imagine a number of arguments against my stance from communitarian/ nationalist proponents but, from a libertarian perspective, it seems to me that the only question we ought to ask is whether stronger nation-states or weaker nation-states advance liberty. Once we have the answer to that, we know where we ought to stand.

  • NL7

    I think the libertarian/anarchist case against Brexit is best made by the Leave campaign. The people who want more activist government to protect them from economic change, from migrants, from cultural change, they voted for Brexit.

    Their most correlated issues were about UK control, migrants, borders, control of UK welfare, and welfare fairness. Issues like investment and the economy were more correlated with Remain voters. Leave voters were more pessimistic about the economy, about the ability of individuals to rise through their own efforts, and about the prospects for their children. Nearly two thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave (i.e. loosely akin to housing projects in the US).

    In addition, Leave voters in England were more likely to identify as English than British (meaning more likely to have strong feelings about a narrower cultural identity). They were overwhelmingly, by 4 to 1, concerned about migrants, and almost as likely to be concerned about social liberalism, feminism, and multiculturalism. But overall they were no more capitalist or anti-capitalist than the Remain voters.


    It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Brexit was supported by a lot of people unhappy with the economy, unhappy with immigration, unhappy with cultural change, and expecting the UK government to do something about it. In other words, lots of hopes and desires for assistance from an activist government freed from foreign influences.

    And this is before pointing out that Leave’s signature pitch was to redirect 350M pounds from the EU into the NHS, bolstering the UK’s premier social welfare program.

  • rrelph

    “For there to be a good market-liberal case for Brexit, the weight of these arguments had better be overwhelming, given the obvious goods of liberalized migration and trade across the EU.”

    This presupposes facts not in evidence. That is, why assume that the “obvious goods of liberalized migration and trade” with the EU or with specific EU members will not be available to Great Britain after the exit?

  • 虚心学习!!

  • JH

    There is a great deal of naiveté in the “libertarian” case for Brexit. Nationalism, xenophobia, and economic illiteracy are clearly a major part of the reason people voted for Brexit. But these same forces make it unlikely that Britain will pursue free trade and immigration policies in the future–or deregulation in general. Voters and politicians who rejected the EU for nationalist reasons will favor nationalist policies going forward.

    • martinbrock

      If Scotland and North Ireland now secede from the U.K., then some current residents of the U.K. may return to the E.U. and have the E.U.’s trade and immigration policies while the English and Welsh have the EFTA or whatever relationship with European nations the U.K. negotiates. If the Welsh eventually prefer the situation in Scotland, they can also secede from the U.K. and rejoin the E.U. Why are these more granular decisions to belong to the E.U. a problem for anyone outside of Brussels?

      • pravinvarma

        unfortunately, scotland, given its sad budget deficit doesn’t even qualify to apply for EU membership. no game

        • martinbrock

          If it can leave the U.K., it can adopt a happier budget deficit.

  • Terry Hulsey

    This site wins the prize for dissentient obstreperousness. I’m waiting for some bleedingheartlibertarian genius to extol the virtues of cannibalism. But Dryden had your number over two centuries ago:

    In the first rank of these did Zimri stand,
    A man so various that he seemed to be
    Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
    Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
    Was everything by starts and nothing long;
    But in the course of one revolving moon
    Was chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon;
    Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
    Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
    Blest madman, who could every hour employ
    With something new to wish or to enjoy!
    Railing and praising were his usual themes,
    And both, to show his judgment, in extremes:
    So over-violent or over-civil
    That every man with him was God or Devil.
    In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
    Nothing went unrewarded but desert.

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  • António

    Leave arguments:
    Controlling borders => Xenophobia
    Protect some sectors (fishing, dairy, etc) => Protectionism
    Xenophobia + Protectionism = National Socialism

    I find it hard for a Libertarian voting for Leave.

    Right wing Conservatives would do that, without blinking. But they should come out as what they are, not commenting here saying they are Libertarians.

  • urstoff

    The case I see conservatives pitching to libertarians is that people from other countries (particularly the Middle East) have a bad, anti-liberty culture. Therefore, letting in too many of them will destroy liberty in the admitting country, resulting in a net reduction of liberty. Thus, the UK needs to leave the EU to keep out these anti-liberty immigrants. I don’t think the premise or conclusion is true, but at least it’s an argument, I guess (even though it’s marred by much of conservatism being anti-liberty itself).

  • lmcquaid

    “A pluralistic federation like Canada is probably freer with a skeptical Quebec on the inside and always threatening to leave than either rump-Canada or Quebec would be post-separation.”

    In what way is Quebec “skeptical”? They aren’t, they are self interested and their threats are merely a vehicle for free rides. They are the only have not provence which should be a have provence.

  • Theresa Klein

    I think this is another example of a strange phenomenon developing around the world that is splitting libertarians. Many people have drawn parallels between the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump in the US. What seems to be happening is the rise of a kind of nationalist conservatism, people are pulling back from immigration, trade, and rallying around national identity. It’s very wierd since it doesn’t seem to have a strong motivating force behind it. Libertarians have often allied with conservatives on economics, but we also tend to be internationalist. We’re universalists. We think rights belong to everyone. We think all men are created equal. We think tribal and national affiliations should be discarded. But the new nationalist movement highly values national ethno-racial-cultural identity. Maybe it’s an offshoot of left-wing identity politics, maybe it’s a reactionary movement. In any case, this movement peels apart nationalist and internationlist parts of the libertarian movement and pits them against one another. Or perhaps it’s just exposing the incompatibilities between nationalism and libertarianism.

    • I think it is part of the results from what has been a lopsided economic recovery over the last few years. Many people have not seen their economic situation improve, and the de-industrialization wave in the West has resulted in a lot of blue-collar jobs (and white-collar jobs too) disappearing from Western economies, seemingly for ever. A lot of people feel (correctly or not) that they have been screwed over economically, and history tells us that they will tend to blame outside forces for that outcome. Immigrants fall squarely into the “outsider” category. I cannot recall a time when the old conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and the Jews controlling the entire world economic order were so popular.
      “Free trade” to somebody with that mindset is now being interpreted as “our jobs are disappearing to some other far-flung country and all we get is bullshit retraining and promises of new employment at lower wages”.
      So yes, libertarianism and nationalism are at odds right now. However, since a percentage of self-identified libertarians are authoritarians sailing under a flag of convenience, we will find libertarians espousing and rationalizing variants of narrow and ethnic nationalism, usually under the umbrella of the “local democracy is better” argument.

      • Theresa Klein

        What’s screwing them over economically is not immigration or trade. It’s regulation, of every kind. Labor and environmental regulations are what is really responsible for pushing manufacturing jobs out of the US. That’s going to happen with or without free trade agreements, because the export market is at least as important as the domestic market. We can’t protect US products from competition in foreign markets. And making the domestic market more expensive is going to hurt US consumers worse than whatever benefit it provides to working class labor.

        Also note that right-to-work states are faring considerably better in manufacturing than the unionized northeast.
        Also a big part of the problem is housing prices which have risen back to pre-crash levels. A lot of people see immigration as a force that is driving up housing prices, and blame that instead of government policies restricting development and substituting looser loan terms to make housing “affordable”.

    • martinbrock

      Libertarians espouse society organized by the choices of free human beings. Human beings are familial and tribal by nature. New Individualist Man is an abstraction of political elites (who may label their ideology “libertarian”), not a free human being. A libertarian does not want tribal or national affiliations discarded. A libertarian wants as much tribal affiliation as free people choose. Libertarianism is multicultural, but this multiculturalism does not imply a forcible integration of tribes.

      Libertarians want gay people free to couple as they choose but don’t want anyone forced to bake them a cake. A voluntary community may require members to bake a gay wedding cake, but the community does not impose anything on its members. Rather, its members choose to belong to the community because they want to celebrate gay relationships.

      Libertarians espouse mobility between communities, but the E.U. is too large, by orders of magnitude, to constitute a single, voluntary community. So is the U.K. for that matter, which is why we’re discussing Scottish secession again.

      Brussels itself, like D.C. and other centers of authority, doesn’t oppose tribalism as much as it seeks to impose standards of its tribe across Europe. Within the U.K., London is similar, and not surprisingly, people in London often have more in common with people in Brussels than with people in the U.K. outside of London.

  • martinbrock

    Judging by the rapid recovery in U.S. markets, at least, the reaction to the Brexit vote was an overreaction. The bout of selling mirrored the bout of thinly informed blog posts, but sellers can become buyers much more rapidly than bloggers reconsider their published opinions.

    The U.K. is the cradle of classical liberalism, but I’m now supposed to believe that a U.K. more independent of a European superstate will descend into national socialism, because British nativists predictably ally with liberals in their opposition to the superstate. I don’t believe it.

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  • Leonardo Jordão

    Actually, there is a strong market-liberal case for Brexit. Daniel Hannan has presented it in “Why vote leave”. Please read it.