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8/24/16

Brexit: The Lesson From Brexit Is That Too Much Market And Too Little State Invites A Backlash - by Kevin H O’Rourke

It has recently become commonplace to argue that globalisation can leave people behind, and that this can have severe political consequences. Since 23 June, this has even become conventional wisdom. While I welcome this belated acceptance of the blindingly obvious, I can’t but help feeling a little frustrated, since this has been self-evident for many years now. What we are seeing, in part, is what happens to conventional wisdom when, all of a sudden, it finds that it can no longer dismiss as irrelevant something that had been staring it in the face for a long time.

The main point of my 1999 book with Jeff Williamson, Globalization and History, was that globalisation produces both winners and losers, and that this can lead to an anti-globalisation backlash. We argued this based on late-19th century evidence. Then, the main losers from trade were European landowners, who found themselves competing with an elastic supply of cheap New World land. The result was that in Germany and France, Italy and Sweden, the move towards ever-freer trade that had been ongoing for several years was halted, and replaced by a shift towards protection that benefited not only agricultural interests, but industrial ones as well. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, immigration restrictions were gradually tightened, as workers found themselves competing with European migrants coming from ever-poorer source countries.

While Jeff and I were firmly focused on economic history, we were writing with half an eye on the ‘trade and wages’ debate that was raging during the 1990s. There was an obvious potential parallel between 19th-century European landowners, newly exposed to competition with elastic supplies of New World land, and late 20th-century OECD unskilled workers, newly exposed to competition with elastic supplies of Asian, and especially Chinese, labour. In our concluding chapter, we wrote that:

A focus of this book has been the political implications of globalization, and the lessons are sobering. Politicians, journalists, and market analysts have a tendency to extrapolate the immediate past into the indefinite future, and such thinking suggests that the world is irreversibly headed toward ever greater levels of economic integration. The historical record suggests the contrary… unless politicians worry about who gains and who loses, they may be forced by the electorate to stop efforts to strengthen global economy links, and perhaps even to dismantle them…The globalization experience of the Atlantic economy prior to the Great War speaks directly and eloquently to globalization debates today. Economists who base their views of globalization, convergence, inequality, and policy solely on the years since 1970 are making a great mistake. We hope that this book will help them to avoid that mistake— or remedy it.

Read more: The Lesson From Brexit Is That Too Much Market And Too Little State Invites A Backlash

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