Free Speech, Free Markets, and a Brexit Free of a Deal: an Interview with Rebecca Lowe

Roar talks no deal Brexit, capitalism, and free speech with Rebecca Lowe, Director of FREER, a think-tank promoting economic and social liberalism supported by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Rebecca Lowe also featured in this week’s episode of the Civil Row ‘Politics in the Economics World‘.

Brexit. What’s next?

Roar: As this Tuesday Theresa May’s Brexit plan was voted down by the House of Commons, a no deal Brexit has become the current default option. Is a no deal Brexit inevitable?

Rebecca Lowe: There are many different variables to be taken into account and so many different outcomes. I imagine Theresa May will carry on in her single-minded, centralized approach. Obviously, she needs to bring a plan B forward, but I would be surprised if that plan B is very different from her plan A and I would be surprised if Parliament’s opinion of that plan changes as well.

The obvious potential solution is that we leave with no deal. Another option is that we leave with some variation of May’s deal depending on what May’s approach is, what Parliaments’s response is, and also on the EU’s reaction. Some people are calling for another referendum. I feel very strongly that this would be wrong, and anti-democratic: we had a democratic vote and I think that what people asked for needs to be respected – it is important that we leave the EU.

A no deal Brexit worries people and I obviously think this would have an impact, especially an  economic impact. However, it is important to point out that no deal doesn’t mean no arrangements; there are already some arrangements in place around certain sectors such as aviation, and I would argue such arrangements are in our interest as much as the EU’s. So when we leave at the end of March, even if we don’t have a main deal, we would still have some way of continuing our relationship with the EU before we reach a free trade arrangement, ideally to my mind. Leaving with no deal obviously has some costs, but net short term economic costs cannot be everything we think about.

The free market for freedom

R: Why FREER and why now? How do you see FREER’s role in the current political debate?

RL: FREER is a new initiative – I say new, but it’s been launched last March so it’s almost a year old.  We’re based at Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a classic free market think tank in Westminster that’s been going on for about 60 years, which is an exciting place, a forefront for pushing the idea of free markets. From within the IEA, FREER tries to push the political discussion in favour of economic and social liberal thinking. We’re a think-tank within a think-tank: we put out papers, we have a podcast, we have events, we also have Parliamentary supporters. FREER basically does what it says on the tin: we’re pushing ideas about freedom and our aim is to educate about what good markets can do.

In terms of why now: there is a rise of totalitarianism aborad, a rise of the regulatory state at home. Freedom is something that everyone has an interest in. As it is, the classical liberalism we espouse is most commonly found in certain members of the Conservative party, although we have engaged very succesfully with people from other parties too. Unfortnuately, the Conservative party’s history of classical liberalism is not reflected in its current leadership. So I would argue here is where FREER comes into the scene: we argue against government policies like the sugar tax or energy price caps. These are things that we don’t think are good, either in terms of their economic outcomes or in how they fail to respect the autonomy of individual who have the ability to independently decide the ways in which they live their life. We’re trying to shift the discussion more in favour of individual autonomy, more in favour of economicc and social freedom, free speech, in favour of free markets, free trade. Basically, we’re for all things free.

R: “The pitchforks of socialism are being held aloft by an Asos-draped, Starbucks-drinking, iPhone-using, Instagram-snapping generation. Capitalism is eating itself.” This line is from an article entitled ‘We must fight to sell capitalism to younger generation’ written by Conservative MP Lee Rowley, and published by FREER. How do you explain the rising popularity of socialism amongst the youth?

RL: Lee Rowley’s paper sets out a really compelling way in which we can argue both for free markets and capitalism. It’s a point about listening, recognizing our restrictions and the challenges we’re up against. It’s also about clarifying and recognizing the truth. Often politicians pretend things are not how they are for their own gain. I think we need to be in a game of truth and we need to point out what the situation actually is.

I certanly don’t think it’s the case that all young people are socialists or all opposed to free speech. Some of the younger generations are born in the most economically liberal setting ever. They take for granted a lot of the great goods and services they have because of innovation facilitated by free-market capitalism.

In terms of actual socialism, we can argue all day about what different people understand as socialism. Do we want what Marx’s public ownership of the means of production? I think that we do actually have some Marxists that technical sense in the opposition: Jeremy Corbyn has talked about requsitioning houses. Now, young people may have less access to the housing market than older people had when they were their age, but I’m not entirely sure that most young people want houses to be requisitioned; I think what they actually want more access to the housing market. Looking at the real causes of some of these problems such as the regulatory restrictions on building, we see large supply-side problems that need to be addressed. For example, we had an interesting FREER paper written by MP Simon Clarke MP looking at the in which green belt restrictions prevent more houses from being built. Our job at FREER is not to follow popularity, but to put forward arguments for things that we believe in. We’re not gonna suggest that we have the most popular view, but we are trying to make it the case that our view is popular by making good, strong arguments.

Free speech goes to university

R: There has been a rising, constant debate about no-platforming practices and freedom of expression in higher education institutions. How do you see the role of universities in protecting free speech?

RL: This is a really important and difficult question. I believe at time important issues get conflated, for example questions of free speech and questions of free association. There are billions of people in the world, it’s not the case that King’s is obliged to invite every single one of them. If a student society decides to invite one person over another, that’s not a question of free speech. If someone is invited and then their invitation is rescinded because people would not allow others to hear their views, than that is a different question. It is really important to separate the issue we are addressing, who is responsibile, what is actually happening, and be careful no to exaggerate the problems, whilst recognizing there are genuinely serious issues to be addressed. Just at the moment, there is a case in Oxford about a legal philosopher and professor, John Finnes. There’s an ongoing student petition to get him sacked because of some of his arguments and beliefs set out in papers around homosexuality.

My view is that university should be there to foster debate. If we censor and stop people from saying things, even those things which you think are abhorrent, then you take away people’s ability to fight against those ideas. And I’d like to think universities should be at the forefront of promoting rigorous debate, an adherence to the truth. It worries me when I see that when people don’t personally agree with something or maybe they think they have more skin in the game, they think that can stop others from presenting the alternative view.

R: No-platforming and safe space policies are often portrayed in the media as “millennial issues”. To what extent would you say this is patronizing?

I think it’s very patronizing. Firstly, we see these issues arising again, and again, and again within all societies. Secondly, this idea that we can be determined by these groups, that we’re all going to have the same view because we all have the same characteristics in common like age, gender, nationality: it’s not just patronizing, it’s also inaccurate. Amartya Sen makes this very compelling argument that we have all kinds of different identities: you might be a woman, you might be of this age, you might be from this country, you might have this religion, you might have this kind of job. Once we choose one of these things, and particularly once the state chooses one of these things to pit people other against – in that way lies civil war. These characteristics might be exciting things that we’re proud of and that we want to celebrate, but to suggest that one of those is more important than the others or to suggest the way to go about engaging with someone is just to see them as a part of that set seems, as you say, patronising. But also I think it can be quite dangerous, if you look at the kind of civil wars that arise because, for instance, people are of different religions.

You can also listen to Rebecca Lowe discuss the role of governments in balancing politics and economics in the Civil Row‘s ‘Politics in the Economics World’ episode here.

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