In the immediate aftermath of the vote for Brexit, conservatives were quick to cheer Britain’s decision, hailing it as a win for freedom, democracy, and subsidiarity. Many others, however, were just as eager to claim it was a move driven by fear and protectionism.
Standing amidst it all was Daniel Hannan, the British Conservative MEP, who insisted that the causes of national sovereignty and free exchange needn’t conflict. “Being a nation means that we are not just a random set of individuals born to a different random set of random individuals,” he proclaimed in a rousing speech prior to the Brexit vote. “It imposes on us a duty to keep intact the freedoms that we were lucky enough to inherit from our parents and pass them on securely to the next generation.”
Now, over a year into the transition, Hannan continues to champion that view, particularly as it relates to the contentious topic of trade. Having founded a new think tank, the Institute for Free Trade, he seeks to connect the dots between national stability and open exchange, making “the intellectual and moral case for free trade” and using “Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union as a unique opportunity to revitalise the world trading system.”
“We need to recapture the moral case for open commerce,” IFT’s website explains. “Free trade is not simply a way to buy cheaper iPhones. It is the ultimate instrument of poverty alleviation, conflict resolution and social justice.”
The institute recently launched in London, corresponding with the bicentenary of David Ricardo’s idea of comparative advantage, which Hannan describes as “a mind-blowing exercise in logic that demonstrates why free trade is always in the interests of the countries that practice it, however unproductive they are compared to their commercial partners.”
Led by economic thinkers such as Deirdre McCloskey, Mark Perry, and Matt Ridley, as well as political figures such as Jorge Quiroga (former President of Bolivia) and Alexander Downer (Australian High Commissioner and former foreign minister), the event provided a comprehensive vision for the importance of what Hannan calls “our global vocation.” Perry offers a good recap here.
True to form, Hannan’s own reflections buck the rhetorical trends and typical wedges we’re accustomed to, pointing instead to the deeper moral framework and, again, elevating the importance of a shared national vision amid our global giving and receiving.
Not content to unite the conservative factions, Hannan prods the progressives as well, noting the profound disconnect between the modern Left’s complacent protectionism and Ricardo’s more radical, classical liberalism.
How astonished [Ricardo] would be, if he could be transported to our own age, to see that progressives have now turned against free trade, once the ultimate progressive crusade. How bizarre he would find the sight of idealistic young Leftists marching against G20 meetings, protesting trade deals, occupying stock exchanges, thinking that they are somehow standing up for the poor against big multinationals. As Ricardo well understood, no one gains more from distortions of trade than powerful lobby groups, and no one gains more from their dismantling than the most vulnerable people on the planet.
In Ricardo’s day, protectionism was seen for what it was: a way to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Today, we have an extra 200 years of evidence proving that point. Would you rather be poor in North Korea or South Korea? And yet, against all apparent reason, free trade continues to be howled down as something exploitative…Free trade is what lifted us above the run of nations and, in the process, lifted others. It is one of those delightful things – along with smiles and kisses – that enriches both parties. It is time we recovered our global vocation.
As the Brexit transition continues, and as other nations continue to wrestle with the same challenges of national cohesion in a globalized world, Hannan’s efforts points us to the tension we ought to pursue.
Basic sovereignty and local control needn’t be seen only as goods unto themselves. When paired with a healthy view of the global economy and the value of human exchange, they are but the first steps on the path to a renewal of freedom and virtue — social, economic, political, and otherwise.
Joseph Sunde is an Associate Editor and writer for the Acton Institute.