Economic Theory

While Brexit stands still, the rest of the world keeps turning


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I can only assume that Netflix is bidding for rights to Brexit: The Saga.

You might as well download the past 48 hours’ worth of news coverage, upload to the streaming site, and advertise it as how Breaking Bad would have unfolded if set in Westminster instead of New Mexico.

The news is pure entertainment. Arguably, that’s a bad thing – yet we can’t tear our eyes away.

However, for all the resignations and revelations, this political period is fundamentally characterised by stagnation. Parties are torn in half. No one can agree on a pathway forward. The past two and a half years have not been spent on meaningful negotiations with the EU, but rather bickering among one’s usual allies.

Now, progress on Brexit which should have been delivered months ago looks very likely to stall again. This is fundamentally a characteristic of politics – which is why it remains so important that it doesn’t dominate our lives.

On Wednesday night, we got a nice reminder that this is not how the rest of life operates. The Institute of Economic Affairs had the pleasure of hosting Viscount Matt Ridley as the keynote at our annual Hayek Lecture.

Ridley’s optimism about the future tends to leap off the pages of his books and articles – and his personal delivery of this year’s lecture was no exception. Entitled “How many lightbulbs does it take to change the world”, he argued that humans will always innovate, and those innovations will move us forward, advancing human welfare and prosperity.

“Nobody saw the lightbulb coming”, he began, “yet the closer you look at the history of its creation, the more inevitable it seems.”

While most people credit Thomas Edison for the lightbulb’s invention, it turns out that there were nearly two dozen inventors, placed all over the world, on the edge of the discovery at the exact same time.

What enables the cultivation of ideas to spring into discovery and innovation is the “bottom-up phenomenon that emerges through the minds of ordinary people”. Contrast that to the systems of big government, dominated by rules and centralisation, and it is no surprise that it is often ordinary folk – not politicians – who create the extraordinary.

While the UK and EU governments have spent months debating the difference between “the” customs union and “a” customs union, breakthroughs have been made on 3D metal printing, artificial embryos, diabetes treatment, and surgical procedures.

Millions of people continue to rise out of poverty thanks to the free interactions enabled by markets, yet political airtime is granted to whether Brits will be able to make a sandwich post-Brexit.

Forging a path to leaving the EU is a not an easy or carefree job that can be done overnight. But while politicians have had one task to get on with for several years, ordinary people across the globe have been putting them to shame, developing and improving the world in an infinite number of ways.

Politics may have our attention, but it is a sluggish, hindered faction of our society. While Brexit stands still, the rest of the world keeps turning, getting faster, more efficient, and more remarkable by the day.

This article first appeared in City AM.

Kate is Associate Director of the IEA. Kate oversees the IEA’s Media Centre and digital platforms, creating and commissioning content for the website, social media, and ieaTV. Kate regularly features across the national media, including appearances on BBC News, Sky News, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV and BBC’s Question Time.


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