As Independence Nears, Matt Ridley Emerges as Brexit Sage

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The year 2020 is but just begun and already the new year is heralded as the “Roaring Twenties.” Such euphoria exemplifies the mood in the United Kingdom as the country prepares to exit, come the end of January, the European Union. Legislation setting out the Government’s “Withdrawal Agreement” finally passed the House of Commons last week; little “effective” opposition is expected in the Lords.

Next comes a twelvemonth transition period to negotiate a UK-EU trade deal. Brexit anticipation lies partly in “taking back” responsibilities that now rest between the two jurisdictions, on issues such as borders, legislative authority, and economic control — as in tax policy and regulatory oversight. There is palpable excitement, too, over the future potential of Britain’s re-emergence as an independent player in global trade.

Not to say that the UK has been absent from the field as a member of the European Union. Membership, however, has entailed certain restrictions on just how innovative Britain could be in respect of other member-states, with “alignment” being a key requisite.

So as Britain prepares to rejoin the global competitive market, Matt Ridley’s new pamphlet “How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take to Change the World?d” is a welcome boost for Brexiteers. Mr. Ridley, author of the best-selling “The Rational Optimist,” is also a Conservative hereditary peer. This pamphlet is based on his 2018 Hayek Memorial Lecture for the Institute of Economic Affairs, based in London.

Mr. Ridley’s purpose is to defend innovation — what he calls a composite of invention, development, and commercialization — from barriers to economic growth: be they government regulations, international “restrictive” trade agreements, or “crony capitalist” rent-seekers threatened by competition. “Hostility to innovation in the European Commission and Parliament,” he asserts, “is the biggest reason I voted Leave in 2016.”

Mr. Ridley is also keen to address the question of why unsuspecting consumers are so often presented with new technologies from different producers at the same time? Taking a step away from the textbook entrepreneurial “genius” as the font of innovation, he argues that we are “too creationist” in this respect.

Instead, he raises the alternative of “simultaneous invention”— when creativity and skill strike upon new technological discoveries at the same time — adapting Adam Ferguson’s observation that advances may be “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Thomas Edison’s light bulb are cases-in-point: several teams were working on these developments concurrently, only our heroic inventors got there first (usually by dint of patent protections) and thereby made the history books.

To say that Lord Ridley ascribes tension to whether the individual or the “collective” is responsible for innovation is to overstep the mark. His characterization is rather more non-committal. “When people began to trade things, ideas could meet and mate, with the result that a sort of collective brain could form, far more powerful than individual brains,” he writes.

Or think of Adam Smith’s division of labor, only in the realm of ideas. Mr. Ridley is open to one misinterpretation by readers unsympathetic to the market economy. Such as those hostile to the prerequisites of entrepreneurship — private property, capital formation, and incentives in the form of profit and loss — who claim we owe our world of abundance to the “Nanny State,” whether manifested by redistributed taxes, public infrastructure, or state-sponsored industries.

Like President Obama, who, following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09, famously scolded wealth-creators chaffing under restrictive policies impeding business growth, “you didn’t build that.”

This antipathy to innovation assumes a more insidious guise by those who appeal to the theory of dialectical materialism. For Marx, we are the mere playthings of “material productive forces,” with one technological age giving rise to another: from feudalism to capitalism to the inexorable rise of communism.

Even with Britain outside the EU, continental bureaucrats refuse to allow the marketplace free reign. Europe’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, doesn’t mince words. “We know that competing on social and environmental standards — rather than on skills, innovation, and quality — leads only to a race to the bottom that puts workers, consumers, and the planet on the losing side,” he confessed in December for Project Syndicate. “Thus, any free-trade agreement must provide for a level playing field on standards, state aid, and tax matters.”

Mr. Barnier doubled-down in the new year, signaling that any trade agreement with Britain would have to adhere to EU standards rather than the more market-friendly rules of the World Trade Organization. No wonder Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party colleagues argue that a “clean break” Brexit is the only option if Britain is to embrace global trade and entrepreneurial freedom.

Doubtless this is Matt Ridley’s message, too for Brexigteers. “Instead of messing around trying to find a magic way to create innovation,” the sage says, “government should focus on removing things to stop it.”

The New York Sun

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