Hey, populists: Hire some eggheads

The Western world is in the throes of a populist revolution — or at least an attempted populist revolution. Populists have swept the polls in the U.K., the U.S., Poland, Hungary, and now Italy. And … it hasn’t gone according to plan.

It’s past time the populists hired some wonks.

To understand why, take two recent examples.

On Brexit, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to something called “the backstop,” which essentially means the U.K. will stay in the EU’s single market indefinitely until it figures out how to leave without closing its border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is important because keeping that border open was part of the settlement that ended the Troubles. But you see the problem: If the U.K. leaves the EU and its single market, then Northern Ireland (which is part of the U.K.) will be in one economic area, and the Republic of Ireland (which is independent and part of the EU) in another, which will potentially mean they would need a border, with border checks. Which nobody wants.

The Northern Ireland border issue is one of the trickiest parts of Brexit. But what makes it especially difficult is the sense that nobody in the Brexit camp had even given it much thought until after the referendum.

For the second example, take this recent Times story on Trump’s trade negotiations, relaying how business groups tried to get meetings with Trump’s trade teams, only to find themselves sending emails and making phone calls into the void. Trump’s trade team is riven by infighting as hawks and doves try to set the terms of the debate.

It’s all the sadder given that, on the merits, the Trump hawks are more right than wrong on trade. Behind closed doors, even establishment types admit that the U.S., and the West more generally, is getting robbed blind by China on trade, and that something should be done about it.

Issues like Brexit and trade bring to mind the famous-to-history-nerds quip by Lord Palmerston, 19th century British statesman, on the Schleswig-Holstein Question, an obscure point of international law that Prussia used as a pretext to declare war on Denmark: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

Populist movements have gotten many issues right. We do need to rethink free trade. We do need a better foreign policy model. I think immigration is generally good, but Europe simply throwing open its doors to millions of migrants overnight was insane and will probably have negative consequences down the road. And, yes, political correctness has gotten out of control.

But one thing that too many populists are definitely wrong on is the idea that principles, even excellent ones, are good enough to right the ship of state. Issues like Brexit, trade deals, regulatory policy, and taxes are complex. Understanding them and working them out is …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics


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