Scott Sumner on Pro-Brexit Intellectuals

28 08 2020

One of my favourite academic bloggers is Scott Sumner. I find that his analysis of economic policy is characterised by a very reasonable, evidence-based perspective, intelligent application of theory, good awareness of developments in China, and refreshingly non-parochial point of view.

In a recent blog post, he observes that the public intellectuals who advocated for Brexit in 2016 did so on the grounds that leaving the UK would somehow turn the UK into a deregulated, free-market type society of the type favoured by US libertarians, Brexit, or at least the Conservative governments that are in charge of the Brexit process appears to be moving the UK in the opposite direction–away from a Thatcherite belief in the superiority of markets over states. The Boris Johnson government has done a little bit of deregulation in the area of local planning reform but it generally speaking a collectivist sort of Conservative government that is intent on using the powers of the state to reduce income inequality, increase the role of public ownership in the economy, and redistribute wealth to the poorer regions that voted Leave. Johnson government has moved in the quasi-socialist system, which is exactly what libertarian opponents of Brexit such as Bjorn Lomborg predicted when he wrote a blog post in 2016 that attacked Brexit.

Sumner argues that the drift of the UK towards collectivist conservatism is because the largely working class people in traditionally Labour towns who voted for Brexit were motivated by opposition to immigration rather than any desire to roll back the state. I think that this statement is largely correct, but I think that Sumner is mistaken when he says that the intellectuals who supported Brexit generally did so on libertarian grounds related to the alleged tendency of the EU to impose lots of regulations on business. It is true that some of the public intellectuals who spoke in favour of Brexit, such as Viscount Ridley, did so using language that would likely appeal to US libertarians, and in online fora that are frequently read in the United States, but many of the other public intellectuals who spoke in 2016 in favour of Brexit (the historians Andrew Roberts  and Alan Sked) did so using arguments that were about sovereignty and  national identity that had nothing to do with debates about the role of state in the economy. It should also not be forgotten that many old school social democrats who opposed UK membership in the EEC in the 1970s and 1980s also supported Brexit, albeit more quietly in 2016.

Bottom line: only some of the public intellectuals who supported Brexit in 2016 did so on libertarian grounds and they were probably not that influential in the UK, no matter how many readers they would have in the US.


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