Speech given at the Libertarian International Fall Convention in Prague on November 3rd, 2001.
The abolition of borders, tariffs and other barriers to movement and trade within the European Union has been of great benefit to individuals in Europe. Where once an individual who disliked his country's regime was likely to be unable, for both legal and economic reasons, to evade them, now, he can for many purposes choose an alternative regime. Because EU countries are forced to recognise one another's business laws for example, he may register his business in one country and be confident that it must be recognised as a legitimate trading entity all over the Union. He is free to move to another EU country and work there. A terminally ill English man who wants to smoke cannabis openly, use prostitutes, and obtain physician-assisted euthanasia, is now free to move to Holland. A Dutch or German parent who wishes her children not to be legally compelled to go to school is likewise now free to move to England, where it is legal to give her children complete educational freedom. However, many of the changes brought about as a result of the EU have been in the opposite direction: the EU moves to ‘harmonise’ member countries' laws decreases diversity, entrenches particular laws, and thereby prevents progress towards liberty. EU harmonisation means an alarming increase in social and other control. I explain why this is so and address the issue of what to do about it.
“What's so wrong with the European Union anyway?” challenged a young Europhile I know. “I think it's got great potential! Who knows – in ten years time, we might all have German speed-limit-free roads, Swedish pornography, restaurant food and wine as good as those in France, the Dutch attitude to sex and drugs, Swiss-style banks (once Switzerland joins), and English style policing and educational freedom.”
“That would be nice, I'll agree,” I replied, “but we're much more likely to end up with German education law, Swedish paranoia about drug and alcohol use, fascist French language laws, dreadful Dutch service in restaurants, scary Swiss-style penalties for violating speed limits, and English anti-prostitution and pornography laws.”
Now, I'm sure the Swiss have their reasons for thinking it such a serious offence to go 1 kilometre an hour above the speed limit that they imprison otherwise law-abiding people who do that more than a couple of times – and I'm not saying that you can't get decent service and food in a non-smoking environment in some restaurants in Holland – perhaps as many as... two of them – but the fact is, I don't feel as optimistic about the EU as Ted, my young Europhile friend, is.
“What do you mean about French language laws?” asked Ted, puzzled. “Do you mean like in England a proportion of cable TV output is supposed to be in non-English languages?”
“Well...” I said, “It's not quite like that. In England, they try to make people use other languages; in France, they try to stop people using other languages.”
“Well I'm sure the EU will fix that,” said Ted confidently. “I can't understand what you've got against it. I think it's great. After my little run-in with the law the other day, I'm thinking of going to live in Germany. I was only doing a hundred miles an hour and they gave me a 40 pound fine and three points on my licence. On German roads you don't have to be a pussy driver. Don't you think it's great that we can now go and live somewhere like Germany without any problem? You must admit there are two sides to the Europe question, Sarah.”
“Yes, there's my side, and there's the wrong side,” I said. Which prompted Ted to leap to the EU's defence, like a love-blind knight in shining armour.
“Sarah, look at what the EU's done for us –” he began.
“What, you mean forcibly straightened up our deplorably curvy cucumbers [I SUDDENLY WAVE A CURVED CUCMBER] and thrown an innocent greengrocer in prison for selling vegetables by the pound? Yes, well, we can't have that, can we?” I mocked.
Ted was aghast. “Sarah, you can't say the EU isn't making progress!”
“What, you mean with every new regulation, they come up with a new way to screw you?” I asked.
“Sarah, surely you agree that the abolition of borders, tariffs and other barriers to movement and trade has been a good thing?! Before the Single European Act, if you lived in Europe and disliked your country's regime, tough! You were likely to be unable – for both legal and economic reasons – to find another. Whereas now, I'm free to go and live in Germany without asking anyone's permission.
And what about the fact that EU countries are now forced to recognise one another's business laws?! That means you can register a company somewhere that's easy, like England, and it must be recognised as a legitimate trading entity all over the Union.“
He had a good point, though for the sake of completeness I had to draw his attention to the fact that if you want to trade outside the Union, you're often worse off than you were before.
But then, seeing that Ted was looking at me as though I'd just suggested to his girlfriend that she might want to ‘trade’ outside their union, I hurriedly added that yes, the free movement and free trade laws are excellent because different countries have different traditions, some better than others, and before the EU, these traditions were not only separate but protected from each other by government force.
With what I hoped was a disarming smile, I went on to say that the abolition of borders and so on amounts to exposing the traditions in different countries to genuine competition which facilitates the evolution and liberalisation of the traditions. Because if people are able to move freely between different jurisdictions, they'll tend to choose to live in ones which suit them better. So Dutch and German parents who don't want to force their children to go to school can now move to England, where it's legal to give children complete educational freedom.
“And of course,” I concluded encouragingly, “if you're a terminally ill English man who wants to smoke cannabis openly, use prostitutes, and obtain euthanasia, you're now free to move to Holland.”
“Er, I'll bear it in mind,” said Ted. “But for the moment I'm quite healthy, and I prefer cryonic suspension to euthanasia anyway. If I were terminally ill, I'd be paying someone to freeze my head not give me head.”
“Nevertheless,” I replied, “It is good that people are now free to move to a different jurisdiction if they want to, isn't it? And that's only the case if there ARE different jurisdictions. That's what the EU people now want to change. Their deal with the devil is that in return for free trade and open borders within the Union, they'll make the two sides of the border identical. That's the meaning of all the measures that are now being proposed: Uniform taxes, uniform working conditions. Uniform immigration policies. Uniform drug laws. Uniform curvature of cucumbers. So yes, you'll be able to cross borders, but no, you won't ever be able to gain anything by doing so. The grass will never be greener. That's decreasing diversity, and entrenching particular laws. This will prevent progress towards liberty.”
“How can you be so sure?” persisted Ted.
“Well, what's the difference between the EU and yogurt?” I quipped. “Yogurt has an active, living culture. It's all to do with knowledge, Ted. Some forms of knowledge are particularly important,” I continued. “The knowledge embodied in the scientific tradition, for example – cultural knowledge. Imagine that we somehow forgot all the science we know, but did not forget the scientific tradition, and if the scientific community continued to function as it does now. What would happen?”
“We'd recreate that knowledge within a few generations,” replied Ted.
“Quite,” I said, “Whereas if our scientific knowledge was unchanged, but the scientific traditions were destroyed, then we wouldn't create any more knowledge in the foreseeable future. And we'd probably be unable to use the existing knowledge too. Scientific knowledge itself doesn't do much. That knowledge exists in Bangladesh and Nigeria, but it never grows there and it can't be used very effectively there either, because there aren't the traditions in which it can grow or be used properly.”
At this point, the expression on Ted's face indicated that he wasn't on the same page, or perhaps even on the same planet, so I injected an example that might appeal to him. He's a keen footballer. I said that if I were to bring together a bunch of footballers who were quite good but who had never played together before, call them a team, and have them play a match against Ted's team, it would be obvious that my “team” wasn't a real team.
Knowledge-creating cultures and traditions are more than the sum of their parts. Individuals have the propensity to interact with each other in a highly knowledge-laden way, and some things they do only come out when they interact with each other. But you can't just take a random bunch of individuals and expect them to have a common, knowledge-creating culture. Ted's football team has some distinctive cultural knowledge that mine wouldn't have, or not initially anyway.
Similarly, what makes the difference between a good orchestra and a bad orchestra? Each of the musicians may be able to play well individually, but how well they play together is a separate issue.
In the 1930s, there was an Oxford Union debate whose motion, “This house would not fight for king and country” attracted overwhelming support. Hitler apparently thought this result highly significant and concluded that it was safe to invade Poland. And yet, the very same students who had been so adamant that they would not fight then all rushed to sign up to fight. D'oh!
“What this illustrates,” I said to Ted, “is that you can't predict what the people in our society will do by asking individuals in the society.”
“All right, but what's that to do with the EU?” asked Ted.
“The EU,” I replied, “is like my football team or a bad orchestra: it's not a knowledge-creating entity. It's not even an entity at all. It's an attempt to impose unity by fiat.”
I explained to him that if you have a government that's based on the idea of unity but is not able to create knowledge, then there will be an automatic tendency to try to control everything. Because the only way you can make things the same, other than by all freely progressing towards something good, is by forcing people.
Everything the EU government can get its hands on, it will try to make uniform. And that means replacing laws which allow diversity and the growth of knowledge with laws that enforce uniformity.
Knowledge comes out of political traditions that have creativity in given areas. One of the great dangers of uniformity is that these political traditions will be extinguished.
“Take Britain for instance,” I said to Ted. “Britain, when it comes to, say, education law, has deep knowledge. Education law in Britain is remarkably liberal and thus hasn't impeded the growth of knowledge in educational theory, like it has in some other places. On the other hand, if you look at some other issue, such as sex and pornography laws, then you'd be forgiven for thinking that we British have Deep Psychological Problems...”
“You speak for yourself,” teased Ted. “I think British people are looking forward to the EU bringing our sex laws into line with those of Holland and Sweden.”
“But you're making my point,” I said. “Whether or not ‘British people are looking forward’ to this, their political process has been incapable of delivering it. So here's an example of where Holland and some of the Scandinavian countries have knowledge in their social structure that Britain doesn't have. And when you have this compulsory union, what the union is always looking for is a regulation that can be imposed on everybody, and the regulation that can be imposed on everyone is always the enemy of anyone who knows something – something more than the others.”
So a common European policy on drugs, prostitution, or euthanasia is dangerous for Holland. A common European policy on speed limits is the enemy of Germany. A common European policy on education or defence is the enemy of Britain. And this isn't just a casual thing: this is knowledge that takes centuries to evolve, and destroying it would be the worst thing that could happen to the world.
And of course when I said that it's dangerous for Holland, what that really means is that it's dangerous for everyone in the EU, because it's about systematically impeding or preventing the growth of knowledge in the very place where progress towards liberty in that area is possible, so not only will there no longer be a good example for the rest of us to see, but what is now a good example won't ever become better.
At that point, Ted said scathingly, “I thought you're an anarchist, Sarah. Isn't your newfound support of member countries' laws a bit inconsistent?”
I replied that yes, I am at heart an anarchist, and no, it is not inconsistent – and neither is it newfound.
“What I'm saying, Ted, is that there's something even worse than being ruled by our government, and that's being ruled by the EU acting as a government. Because for all its faults, at least our political system is – or was, anyway – capable of creating new knowledge and liberalising and repealing laws, and unless it's sabotaged by the EU, Britain will gradually progress towards liberty.”
Ted's next question nearly made me choke on my coffee:
“What makes you think the European Union can't create knowledge and progress towards liberty?” he asked.
I struggled silently to assimilate the phrases “European Union” and “create knowledge”, as used within the same sentence.
“Ah...” I replied, eventually: “Because the way the European Union is being constructed, and the whole mode in which it is being constructed, is that it's trying to entrench a fixed pattern of interaction between people for ever.”
I started to give an example, saying that the sort of thing the EU does is to demand a standardisation of laws relating to the workplace, but Ted interrupted rather crossly:
“What's wrong with that?!”
Then, before I could draw breath to reply, Ted explained – in a way that suggested that he considered this so self-evidently true that even his less-than-entirely-bright girlfriend could understand – “That's so that no one country can get an unfair advantage over the others by reducing the safety standards of their employees or whatever.”
But of course, even if that were a good end, the EU methods of doing it are entirely governmental, so they have the tendency to have the exact opposite effect. Ted wanted to know why.
I was beginning to feel a little weary – possibly as weary as you might feel after a ten hour marathon session of trying to explain Einstein's theory of relativity to a medieval flat earther – or indeed, trying to explain just about anything to Ted's girlfriend.
But I digress.
“What all such laws do,” I said, “is first of all, they narrow the possible range of legal relationships between people. There will only be one kind of employee, one kind of employer, one kind of contract between them, one kind of workplace, and so on, and the nature of those things will be determined centrally, by the EU.
And it's not just working conditions, it's everything: tax rates, the curvature of cucumbers – everything – whatever this system gets its hands on it wants to entrench. That's the whole object of the exercise. That's what's meant by ‘unity’.”
“You're against increased unity in Europe?” said Ted. Oh dear.
“That's just it,” I countered, with as much forbearance as I could muster. “It's not about increasing unity at all. It's a union of governments, not unity among the people. Increasing unity among the people would be where two traditions compete freely and as a result, the worse tradition is replaced by the better one, or they each adopt the best features of the other, through freely-chosen actions of individuals.
For example, suppose that the idea that it's cool to smoke is still prevalent in one country – perhaps an old Eastern bloc country – let's call it Ruritania – but it's not prevalent in another country, say, Britain.
Suppose that Ruritania now opens up, and people in Ruritania see the non-smoking tradition in action by being allowed to interact freely with that other tradition. And the people in Ruritania choose for themselves that they like the non-smoking aspect of the other tradition better than theirs, and the smoking-is-cool idea then ceases to be prevalent in Ruritania.
That would be an example of a genuine unification of traditions. That would be an example of something becoming uniform which was previously different in different parts of Europe, but without any coercion, without any loss of knowledge.
When two traditions compete in that way, that's valuable and good, and the better traditions have nothing to fear from the worse ones. But that's not what we're talking about.
The whole point of competition is that the different traditions in Europe will have different answers to questions about, for example, what workers' rights should be, so they'll have different laws.
The EU harmonisation agenda is about the forcible replacement of competing traditions with something that isn't even a tradition! And there's no way of changing it any more, because there's no knowledge-creating political process underlying that last change, and there's no possible political process that can change it. You may as well hand over the control of working hours to the Nigerian government,” I concluded.
Ted asked what sort of political process could do that, so I gave him an example from British history: In the bad old days when the Labour Party of Britain was full of hard-line socialists, the Harold Wilson government introduced the Selective Employment Tax which forced all employers to pay a levy to the government basically proportional to the number of workers they had, with certain exemptions. The idea was that employers are basically exploiters, and the tax was in proportion to the amount of exploitation, and could be used to offset that exploitation through government schemes to improve the lot of workers.
Ted looked a bit incredulous, so I assured him that in those days, that was not an idea held only by a few on the lunatic left, but an entirely mainstream political opinion. I explained that when the economic downturn happened as a result of this and other bright ideas foisted upon us by that Labour government, it became obvious that that tax was creating unemployment, and the Conservative Party noticed that and was able to point that out and win the next general election as a result. Then the political debate moved on.
Ted still didn't get it.
“Why can't that sort of thing happen in the EU, too?” he asked.
I was beginning to feel as though it would be easier to explain Western values to the Taliban, but I kept that unhappy thought to myself and answered:
“Because for one thing, there's no political party in Europe that could make that policy or make that argument. Secondly, the economic crisis would happen at different times in different countries, because the countries have different cultures and different histories, and they also have different other laws that interact with the laws in question, and they are also in different circumstances. So it never happens that an issue like that comes to the forefront of political debate in Europe as a whole, and then that some particular point of view is formed which opposes some other point of view and they fight it out at the next election – that never happens.
EU harmonisation is all about entrenching at the level of Europe the kind of tyranny which in the bad old days was only entrenched at the level of the nation state.
In fact,” I said, “it's actually worse in many respects than before, because at least the nation states – some of them – had functioning political systems which were capable of changing their laws, potentially in a liberalising direction.”
“Doesn't the EU parliament count as a functioning political system?” sneered Ted.
Stifling the urge to groan, or indeed, to run screaming from the room, I replied that what I meant was, the EU isn't a set of institutions that resolve differences, allow cross-border cooperation, allow the spontaneous order to set in across boundaries, and therefore achieve a natural union among people: on the contrary, the EU isn't a union of people but a union of governments.
As soon as you impose a law EU-wide, that means that whatever is wrong with that law in the future, it can't be changed any more, because although there is a Europe-wide system of cooperation between governments, there is no European-wide political process.
The European Union institutions are government level institutions: there's the European commission which is civil servants; then there's the council of ministers, which is a bunch of politicians getting together, but there's no European political process which corresponds to that. There are no Europe-wide political parties, there are no Europe-wide political consensuses or political issues. Europe as a whole doesn't have a political debate. There are no European strands of philosophical thought that contend with each other and so there is no Europe-wide growth of knowledge. There's no European political tradition out of which these things could evolve in the foreseeable future. We might as well form a union with Nigeria!
Now I'll summarise what I've said about how to judge policies of the EU, and say what I think we should do about it.
EU policies whose effect is that the traditions of different countries which have hitherto been protected from competing with each other are now exposed to people freely choosing one or the other, and having a free critical interchange as well, are good. The free movement and free trade laws are excellent because before the European Union, these traditions were not only separate but protected from each other by government force.
But EU policies which involve not the free interaction of traditions but the forcible replacement of traditions by a uniform standard, are bad, because those policies are replacing the previous state of affairs by an even worse state of affairs. And the worst thing about it will be the suppression of the tradition in the country which knows the particular thing best. That tradition – the best one – has nothing to fear from exposure to the other traditions, but it has everything to fear from the EU.
But is Holland ever going to agree to tightening up its sex laws, for example?
They've already submitted in various ways, just like the British have in regard to the curvature of our cucumbers. [I WAVE CUCUMBER AGAIN] We British have been outraged that the EU has forced us to straighten up our cucumbers.
Now, if you want curvy cucumbers, just like if you want porn, you have to get them under the counter, on the black market. Where will it end?
The EU is like love: it always finds a way – to screw you up.
The question is, what can we do to minimise the danger posed by the EU? What should we be against and what should we be for?
What we should do about all this is to argue against it, and argue publicly and often. As individuals, we should always be agitating against any extension of the union.
A fellow anarchist said to me the other day that the EU is the work of the devil and must be destroyed.
I agree, it is the work of the devil, but we aren't going to be able to destroy it any time soon, any more than we have succeeded in creating an anarcho-capitalist paradise. And a tariff-free world is not going to be caused by one country, or even all countries, seceding from the EU. So a more realistic approach – and one that stands a chance of doing some good – would be to adopt a reluctantly in Europe but not ruled by Europe policy, and then to oppose and sabotage every further EU measure.
If a measure can be vetoed, it should be. If a measure can't be vetoed, urge governments to simply not implement it. This will allow the knowledge that is available in the individual countries to grow until either there is a genuine political process which can then allow progress towards liberty, or until the European institutions change so as to let countries which have knowledge of different types evolve in different directions.
At the beginning, I alluded to that old joke about Heaven and Hell. You know – Heaven would be French restaurants, German mechanics, Swedish pornography, the Dutch attitude to drugs, and English policemen. Hell would be Dutch restaurants, French mechanics, English pornography, the Swedish anti-drugs attitude, and German policemen.
Let me end by pointing out that there's a grain of truth in that joke, which is that the way we should judge any new EU proposal is whether the change in question is going to produce opportunities for the French mechanics to turn like the German ones, the Swedish attitude to drugs to turn like the Dutch, the English pornography laws to turn like the Swedish ones, and so on – OR whether it's going to introduce a single type of policemen over the whole EU which is the German, and so on...
2. Dutch service in restaurants is the worst I have experienced anywhere in the world. Apparently this is because of appalling Dutch labour laws.
6. Cryonic suspension involves preserving at a very low temperature the brain structure of persons pronounced dead, in the hope that future progress in science and medicine will eventually make it possible to revive the person. Despite how it may sound, this is a reasonable conjecture, and you can find a good introduction to the idea in a science fiction novel, The First Immortal by James Halperin. For more information about it, visit the Alcor web site.
7. What I mean by this is that I conjecture that the best system will not involve having a government. However, being a Popperian I think that it is a mistake to be utopian, and, as I have argued elsewhere, we do not know how to get from here to there.