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Like the Ming empire before it, bureaucratic tyranny is immiserating a beautiful and cultured place

My article for The Telegraph:

There is something rather apt in the coincidence of an Italian ban on vaccine exports to Australia and the negotiation by Liz Truss, the trade secretary, of lower tariffs on trade with the United States. One is as pure a demonstration of spiteful EU protectionism as one could imagine; the other a clear demonstration of mutual gains from freer trade.

Supporting Brexit used to be difficult to explain to foreigners. I remember a Mexican friend flatly refusing to believe I voted for it. “Surely you are joking,” he said, finding it hard to imagine me as a racist, isolationist xenophobe – the only kind of Brexiteer recognised by CNN, the Economist and the New York Times.

Not now, not after the vaccine fiasco; now it is easy to explain Brexit. Britain signed up early to buy the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine and approved it swiftly. The EU’s leaders: first, accused us of cutting corners on safety, thus encouraging anti-vax nonsense; second, found themselves at the back of the queue after incompetently negotiating a bad deal; third, took an age to approve it in a display of astounding bureaucratic lethargy; fourth, castigated AstraZeneca for failing to give in to pressure to allow them to jump the queue; and fifth, tried to impose a hard border in Ireland just to stop the Northern Irish getting vaccines. These are not the actions of an ally and friend.


In part two, despite wanting the vaccine so badly they were prepared to tear up contracts and treaties, in a fit of pique at the fact that it was British, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel started speculating falsely that the Oxford vaccine was ineffective in the elderly, thus putting their population off it so much that millions of doses accumulated unused. And now Mario Draghi stops exports of this supposedly unsafe and ineffective vaccine. Has there ever been a more petty – and contradictory – display of populist isolationism? Donald Trump must be open-mouthed with envy.

The funniest take on this came from the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who argued that if we had stayed in the EU we would have ensured that it did a better deal on vaccines. This argument managed simultaneously to sound arrogant, make the case for Brexit and exaggerate our past influence in Brussels. When a Dutch friend reprimanded me for Brexit a few years ago, saying that Britain’s influence was much valued by northern Europeans, so it was irresponsible of us to leave, I responded: “Then why did you not try harder to listen to us when we requested reform?”

This is not a cause for rejoicing. It was no fun being locked in a continental cupboard with people who thought in such a Napoleonic way, but it is not much fun being their near neighbours either. Back in December, we recalled Parliament to ratify the trade “and cooperation” agreement with the EU. They have not had the courtesy to ratify it yet, in March.

Here is a beautiful and cultured continent being run as if it was the Ming empire: with mandarins deciding what should be done and how, with the same inflexible rules in every corner, with a distrust of enterprise and innovation, and with a mercantilist, zero-sum approach to trade that beggars both belief and neighbours.

At the time when the early Ming emperors were stifling China’s prosperity with centralised bureaucratic tyranny, backward Europe was transformed into the world’s most innovative and wealthy continent. It did so precisely by not being unified and centralised: by being a quilt of different countries so that entrepreneurs, inventors and artists could shop around for a congenial regime, as David Hume was the first to argue.

China, he wrote in 1742, was one vast empire, governed by one law so “none had courage to resist the torrent of popular opinion. And posterity was not bold enough to dispute what had been universally received by their ancestors.” By contrast, Europe was “broken by seas, rivers, and mountains” and so was “naturally divided into several distinct governments” to the benefit of enlightenment.

In harmonisation lies stagnation: innovation comes from variety. Britain must not be afraid to be different: to offer alternative opportunities, smarter regulation, divergent priorities. That is not a hostile act toward the European Union: it would be good for them too. In differentiation lies the chance to experiment and find opportunities for mutual gains, mutual recognition and mutual respect.

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How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley is available in the US and Canada, and now in paperback in the United Kingdom. The first chapter is available to download for free.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Brexit  telegraph  trade