- “The Rise of the Bureaucratic State” (pdf) James Q Wilson, Public Interest
- “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of Bureaucracy” (pdf) Pierre Bourdieu, ST
- “State Capacity, Bureaucratic Politicization, and Corruption” (pdf) Katherine Bersch, et al, Governance
- Why are skyscrapers so short? Brian Potter, Works in Progress
- Is there a social history of Indian liberalism? Anirban Karak, JHIblog
- In praise of the liberal world order Freisinnige Zeitung
- The great cover-up of biological weapons Daniel Immerwahr, New Republic
- What on earth is happening in Portland? Jamelle Bouie, NY Times
- Israel’s annexation plans and the United States Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
- Opium: from vice to crime in European empires Diana Kim, Aeon
- An interview with John Stuart Mill Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
- Is the left reclaiming freedom and anti-statism from the right? Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Back in Brazil: bureaucracy Bruno Gonçalves Rosi, NOL
- Turkey at the start of one-man rule Barry Stocker, NOL
- Government isn’t the only problem Rick Weber, NOL
- Urging Cambodians to critique their culture, Chhay Lin Lim, NOL
- Catholicism, America, and the fascist temptation James Patterson, Law & Liberty
- The greatest financial bailout of all time is underway John Cochrane, Grumpy Economist
- Whither the precautionary principle Thomas L. Knapp, The Garrison Center
- Steel-manning lockdown socialism Arnold Kling, askblog
- What will the political outcome of coronavirus be? Niall Ferguson, Spectator
- Thanksgiving, Native Americans, and land theft Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg
- How to get through the “nationalism” minefield Steven Hayward, Law & Liberty
- Rioters of Hong Kong, champions of democracy Martine Bulard, Le Monde diplomatique
- There is no deep state Scott Sumner, EconLog
- “Don’t read that, he is a fascist.” Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
- Trump against the professionals Ross Douthat, New York Times
- What John Rawls missed Jedediah Britton-Purdy, New Republic
- What is a “well regulated militia,” anyway? Brian Doherty, Reason
Hyperinflation and trust in Ancient Rome
Since it hit 1,000,000% in 2018, Venezuelan hyperinflation has actually been not only continuing but accelerating. Recently, Venezuela’s annual inflation hit 10 million percent, as predicted by the IMF; the inflation jumped so quickly that the Venezuelan government actually struggled to print its constantly-inflated money fast enough. This may seem unbelievable, but peak rates of monthly inflation were actually higher than this in Zimbabwe (80 billion percent/month) in 2008, Yugoslavia (313 million percent/month) in 1994, and in Hungary, where inflation reached an astonishing 41.9 quadrillion percent per month in 1946.
The continued struggles to reverse hyperinflation in Venezuela are following a trend that has been played out dozens of times, mostly in the 20th century, including trying to “reset” the currency with fewer zeroes, return to barter, and turning to other countries’ currencies for transactions and storing value. Hyperinflation’s consistent characteristics, including its roots in discretionary/fiat money, large fiscal deficits, and imminent solvency crises are outlined in an excellent in-depth book covering 30 episodes of hyperinflation by Peter Bernholz. I recommend the book (and the Wikipedia page on hyperinflations) to anyone interested in this recurrent phenomenon.
However, I want to focus on one particular inflationary episode that I think receives too little attention as a case study in how value can be robbed from a currency: the 3rd Century AD Roman debasement and inflation. This involved an iterative experiment by Roman emperors in reducing the valuable metal content in their coins, largely driven by the financial needs of the army and countless usurpers, and has some very interesting lessons for leaders facing uncontrollable inflation.
The Ancient Roman Currency
The Romans encountered a system with many currencies, largely based on Greek precedents in weights and measures, and iteratively increased imperial power over hundreds of years by taking over municipal mints and having them create the gold (aureus) and silver (denarius) coins of the emperor (copper/bronze coins were also circulated but had negligible value and less centralization of minting). Minting was intimately related to army leadership, as mints tended to follow armies to the front and the major method of distributing new currency was through payment of the Roman army. Under Nero, the aureus was 99% gold and the denarius was 97% silver, matching the low debasement of eastern/Greek currencies and holding a commodity value roughly commensurate with its value as a currency.
The Crisis of the Third Century
However, a major plague in 160 AD followed by auctions of the imperial seat, major military setbacks, usurpations, loss of gold from mines in Dacia and silver from conquest, and high bread-dole costs drove emperors from 160-274 AD to iterative debase their coinage (by reducing the size and purity of gold coins and by reducing the silver content of coins from 97% to <2%). A major bullion shortage (of both gold and silver) and the demands of the army and imperial maintenance created a situation where a major government with fiscal deficits, huge costs of appeasing the army and urban populace, and diminishing faith in leaders’ abilities drove the governing body to vastly increase the monetary volume. This not only reflects Bernholz’ theories of the causes of hyperinflations but also parallels the high deficits and diminishing public credit of the Maduro regime.
Inflation and debasement
Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to “print” money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best “test” of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.
Given that the silver content of coins decreased by over 95% (gold content decreased slower, at an exchange-adjusted rate shown in Figure 1) from 160-274 AD but inflation over this period was only slightly over 100% (see Figure 2, which shows the prices of wine, wheat, and donkeys in Roman Egypt over that period as attested by papyri). If inflation had followed the commodity value of the coins, it would have been roughly 2,000%, as the coins in 274 had 1/20th of the commodity value of coins in 160 AD. This is a major gap that can only be filled in by some other method of maintaining currency value, namely fiat.
Effectively, a gradual debasement was not followed by insipid ignorance of the reduced silver content (Gresham’s Law continued to influence hoards into the early 3rd Century), but the inflation of prices also did not match the change in commodity value, and in fact lagged behind it for over a century. This shows the influence of market forces (as monetary volume increased, so did prices), but soundly punctures the idea that coins at the time were simply a convenient way to store silver–the value of the coins was in the trust of the emperor and of the community recognition of value in imperial currency. Especially as non-imperial silver and gold currencies disappeared, the emperor no longer had to maintain an equivalence with eastern currencies, and despite enormous military and prestige-related setbacks (including an emperor being captured by the Persians and a single year in which 6 emperors were recognized, sometimes for less than a month), trade within the empire continued without major price shocks following any specific event. This shows that trust in the solvency and currency management by emperors, and trust in merchants and other members of the market to recognize coin values during exchanges, was maintained throughout the Crisis of the Third Century.
Imperial communication through coinage
This idea that fiat and social trust maintained higher-than-commodity-values of coins is bolstered by the fact that coins were a major method of communicating imperial will, trust, and power to subjects. Even as Roman coins began to be rejected in trade with outsiders, legal records from Egypt show that the official values of coins was accepted within the army and bureaucracy (including a 1:25 ratio of aureus-to-denarius value) so long as they depicted an emperor who was not considered a usurper. Amazingly, even after two major portions of the empire split off–the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire–continued to represent their affiliation with the Roman emperor, including leaders minting coins with their face on one side and the Roman emperor (their foe but the trusted face behind Roman currency) on the other and imitating the symbols and imperial language of Roman coins, through their coins. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Roman coins were more debased (lower commodity value) compared to Gallic ones, the Roman coins tended to be accepted in Gaul but the reverse was not always true.
Interestingly, the aureus, which was used primarily by upper social strata and to pay soldiers, saw far less debasement than the more “common” silver coins (which were so heavily debased that the denarius was replaced with the antoninianus, a coin with barely more silver but that was supposed to be twice as valuable, to maintain the nominal 1:25 gold-to-silver rate). This may show that the army and upper social strata were either suspicious enough of emperors or powerful enough to appease with more “commodity backing.” This differential bimetallist debasing is possibly a singular event in history in the magnitude of difference in nominal vs. commodity value between two interchangeable coins, and it may show that trust in imperial fiat was incomplete and may even have been different across social hierarchies.
Collapse following Reform
In 274 AD, after reconquering both the Gallic and Palmyrene Empire, with an excellent reputation across the empire and in the fourth year of his reign (which was long by 3rd Century standards), the emperor Aurelian recognized that the debasement of his currency was against imperial interests. He decided to double the amount of silver in a new coin to replace the antoninianus, and bumped up the gold content of the aureus. Also, because of the demands of ever-larger bread doles to the urban poor and alongside this reform, Aurelian took far more taxes in kind and far fewer in money. Given that this represented an imperial reform to increase the value of the currency (at least concerning its silver/gold content), shouldn’t it logically lead to a deflation or at least cease the measured inflation over the previous century?
In fact, the opposite occurred. It appears that between 274 AD and 275 AD, under a stable emperor who had brought unity and peace and who had restored some commodity value to the imperial coinage, with a collapse in purchasing power of the currency of over 90% (equivalent to 1,000% inflation) in several months. After a century in which inflation was roughly 3% per year despite debasement (a rate that was unprecedentedly high at the time), the currency simply collapsed in value. How could a currency reform that restricted the monetary volume have such a paradoxical reaction?
Explanation: Social trust and feedback loops
In a paper I published earlier this summer, I argue that this paradoxical collapse is because Aurelian’s reform was a blaring signal from the emperor that he did not trust the fiat value of his own currency. Though he was promising to increase the commodity value of coins, he was also implicitly stating (and explicitly stating by not accepting taxes in coin) that the fiat value that had been maintained throughout the 3rd Century by his predecessors would not be recognized going forward by the imperial bureaucracy in its transactions, thus signalling that for all army payment and other transactions, the social trust in the emperor and in other market members that had undergirded the value of money would now be ignored by the issuing body itself. Once the issuer (and a major market actor) abandoned fiat currency and stated that newly minted coins would have better commodity value than previous coins, the market–rationally–answered by moving quickly toward commodity value of the coins and abandoned the idea of fiat.
Furthermore, not only were taxes taken in kind rather than coin, but there was widespread return to barter as those transacting tried to avoid holding coins as a store of value. This pushed up the velocity of money (as people abandoned it as a store of value and paid higher and higher amounts for commodities to get rid of their currency). The demonetization/return to barter reduced the market size that was transacted in currency, meaning that there were even more coins (mostly aureliani, the new coin, and antoniniani) chasing fewer goods. The high velocity of money, under Quantity Theory of Money, would also contribute to inflation, and the unholy feedback loop of decreasing value causing distrust, which caused demonetization and higher velocity, which led to decreasing value and more distrust in coins as stores of value kept this cycle going until all fiat value was driven out of Roman coinage.
This was followed by Aurelian’s assassination, and there were several monetary collapses from 275 AD forward as successive emperors attempted to recreate the debased/fiat system of their predecessors without success. This continued through the reign of Diocletian, whose major reforms got rid of the previous coinage and included the famous (and famously failed) Edict on Maximum Prices. Inflation continued to be a problem through 312 AD, when Constantine re-instituted commodity-based currencies, largely by seizing the assets of rich competitors and liquidating them to fund his army and public donations. The impact of that sort of private seizure is a topic for another time, but the major lesson of the aftermath is that fiat, once abandoned, is difficult to restore because the very trust on which it was based has been undermined. While later 4th Century emperors managed to again debase without major inflationary consequences, and Byzantine emperors did the same to some extent, the Roman currency was never again divorced from its commodity value and fiat currency would have to wait centuries before the next major experiment.
Lessons for Today?
While this all makes for interesting history, is it relevant to today’s monetary systems? The sophistication of modern markets and communication render some of the signalling discussed above rather archaic and quaint, but the core principles stand:
- Fiat currencies are based on social trust in other market actors, but also on the solvency and rule-based systems of the issuing body.
- Expansions in monetary volume can lead to inflation, but slow transitions away from commodity value are possible even for a distressed government.
- Undermining a currency can have different impacts across social strata and certainly across national borders.
- Central abandonment of past promises by an issuer can cause inflationary collapse of their currency through demonetization, increased velocity, and distrust, regardless of intention.
- Once rapid inflation begins, it has feedback loops that increase inflation that are hard to stop.
The situation in Venezuela continues to give more lessons to issuing bodies about how to manage hyperinflations, but the major lesson is that those sorts of cycles should be avoided at all costs because of the difficulty in reversing them. Modern governments and independent currency issuers (cryptocurrencies, stablecoins, etc.) should take lessons from the early stages of previous currency trends toward trust and recognition of value, and then how these can be destroyed in a single action against the promised and perceived value of a currency.
A Small Reason Why I Don’t Want Big Government
Santa Cruz, California is really Silicon Valley Beach. It’s the closest; the next one is quite far. That’s in addition to drawing visitors from deep into the Central Valley of California, and a surprising number of European visitors.
One attractive beach close to its municipal wharf has only two (2) toilets. On Labor Day weekend Sunday, one of the two toilets was out of order. I estimate there were between 500 and a thousand people on that particular beach.
The day before, Labor Day weekend Saturday, the same toilet was already out of order. It was still out of order on Monday, Labor Day itself.
It was only a few months ago that the City of Santa Cruz joined a class action suit by a number of government entities against major oil companies for causing climate change. The first judge to look at the suit send the plaintiffs packing, of course.
So, this city of 60,000 wants to stop global warming but it does not have the ability to place two working toilets at the disposal of hundred of visitors who leave thousands of dollars in its coffers. The city cannot afford to hire a competent plumber on an emergency basis to fix the problem immediately. It does not have the timeX2 that would be required. Make it timeX3 on the outside. The total would come to $500 tops. Make it $1,000. It does not change anything.
The same happened last year or the year before. Surprise!
This is pathetic. We are governed by morons. Their gross incompetence is not natural, I am guessing. It’s learned stupidity. Our fault. We vote them in – with big help from UC Santa Cruz undergraduates who don’t care one way or the other, just want to feel good by electing “progressives.”
No one told our City Manager that Labor Day weekend, and its crowds, were coming. How was he supposed to know?
- Criticizing libertarianism (meh; racism is a much bigger problem) Arnold Kling, askblog
- The Black Boys’ rebellion Michael Taube, Claremont Review of Books
- Rudyard Kipling’s American years John Butler, Asian Review of Books
- The strangling of European democracy Daniel Ben-Ami, spiked
- Trump’s “Salute to America” is a salute to government employees Ryan McMaken, Power & Market
- Oligarchs and oligarchs Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- The deleted clause of the Declaration of Independence Kevin Kallmes, NOL
- Class and optimism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- Working in President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers Casey Mulligan, Supply and Demand (in that order)
- How not to use percentages in a news story Joakim Book, Power & Market
- Climate change denialism Jacques Delacroix, Liberty Unbound
- The Mahabharata in South Asia, Europe, and East Asia Michael Kinadeter, JHIBlog
Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 3): Evolutionary drift
The affirmation that one should not judge the historical past with current values forms a topic as widespread as the disobedience to it. However, a conscious exercise of the evaluative critique of the past allows us to identify continuities and disruptions in institutional patterns, i.e., in systems of incentives that are considered legitimate, whether by virtue of a question of social utility or principles.
Caste systems are obvious examples in which a differentiated attribution of rights, that is to say the legal protection of the interests of individuals assigned to a certain ethnic group, was interpreted as legitimate because it was a matter of principle.
While a caste is defined by an ethnic component, or at least with respect to its physiognomic marker, in the status system the ethnic differences lose preponderance, to transfer it to the different private orders or privileges that determine a function within the society. In both cases, both in the system of castes and status, it should be noted that they not only define privileges for its members but mainly establish obligations: war, worship or field work, for example. While the cult is reserved for a certain caste, in the status societies the cult is an institutionalized function, an order, whose members fulfilled certain procedures of admission and permanence.
In any case, beyond the similarities and differences in the systems of castes and status, what matters in this case is to emphasize that such attributions of rights and obligations, that is, of legal protection of interests, collective or particular, do not respond to a question of social utility but of principles. In the first place, because in such societies the power is fragmented and therefore there is no central power that can perform a critical judgment on the social utility of a given system of incentives; at the most, if there is a king, he assumes a role of primus inter pares, an arbitrator between castes or statuses or protector of order.
The emergence of central governments demanded the emergence of stable bureaucracies supported by a tax system to be systematized in a public accounting, that is, a calculation of utility. On the other hand, the incorporation of abstract procedures from private law to the administration of the government, displacing the systems of sages, mandarins, humanists, etc., allowed a better centralization and control and rational administrative decisions. However, what is important to note here is that such institutional innovations did not necessarily depend on a disruptive change, such as a revolution, but that many cases occurred through an evolutionary process, in which more efficient institutions displaced obsolete ones.
The emergence of central governments replaced fragmented political and social systems, because centralization allows a calculation of utility in decision making, which yields better results -not always but most of the time- than a decision system based mainly on honour. Most of the time but not always, since there is the possibility that, in a situation of extreme complexity, the calculation of utility has a wide margin of error and, in contrast, in such situations, a pattern of decisions based on emotions, traditions, or moral principles work as a kind of heuristic better adapted to the circumstances. After all, for the calculation of utility to be viable, it must have tools such as an accounting system, a literate bureaucracy, an abstract procedural system, among others. If you do not have such means, hardly a decision based on utilitarian issues is far from whimsical and arbitrary. Faced with such cases, traditional structures could be more efficient.
Another issue to consider is not to be confused between the rationalization of political power in a central administration – public budgets and control of their execution, a neutral and efficient tax system, administrative decisions of a particular nature adopted according to abstract and general procedures – with the rationalization of each subsystem of society and even of the individual in particular.
It is true that, as indicated by Max Weber, the bureaucratization of political power leads to the gradual bureaucratization of the rest of society: the generalization of the same accounting system for all companies, in order to verify compliance with tax obligations, the public instruction of the whole population, to name a few examples. These processes of rationalization are extremely beneficial and generate a jump in productivity. This is what William Easterly, in his work The Quest for Economic Growth, highlights as a phenomenon in which knowledge leaks and spreads throughout society. In this way the relations of complementarity generated by the knowledge shared with the rest of the individuals that make up a given community are much more important than the substitution effect could give an advantage to a single possessor of such knowledge. For example, having knowledge of accounting represents an advantage over the competition, but that all companies are organized according to reasonable and homogeneous accounting principles allows a jump in productivity throughout the system that yields even greater individual profits. Likewise, not only the leaking of knowledge is beneficial for all members of society, but reached a point is inevitable.
However, this does not mean that a rationalization of the society as a whole and of the individuals that compose it is necessarily possible or desirable; much less that such process is directed from a central political power. A process of compulsive and totalizing rationalization is not always modernizing. Both in biological and cultural terms, the evolution occurs in the margins, it is the mutations of small isolated populations that allow them to adapt to changes in the environment.
Moreover, the totalizing political systems, which not only seek to define from a central power each one of the functions of the social subsystems in function of a supposed calculation of utility, also seek to build a notion of “citizenship” that stifles the sphere of autonomy that defines each individual with civic obligations. Such conceptions are the first to see the processes of innovation and creative destruction and any individual initiative as dangerous. Thus, by cutting off all possible adaptation to changes in circumstances, by mutilating all possible discoveries, it is not uncommon for such political systems to experience stagnation and be displaced by other systems more open to innovation – or at least be invaded by results of said competition, discovery and innovation processes.
[Editor’s note: Here is Part 2; Here is the full essay.]
Back in Brazil: bureaucracy
After two years away, I’m trying to put my life back on tracks in Brazil, and one of the main obstacles for doing so is the country’s crazy bureaucracy. Maybe this will come as no surprise for many, but Brazil is known for its big fat bureaucratic system, and basically, any rational analyst I’ve ever heard or read believes that this is one of the main obstacles for the country’s economic growth.
One of the problems I’m facing is getting the money from my FGTS. FGTS stands for “Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço”, a compulsory savings account that all Brazilian workers are forced to have. The moment you get a job, your employer is responsible for putting a percentage of your salary in the account. In case you are fired (or retire, or get cancer – seriously), you can get the money.
FGTS was created in 1966, at the beginning of the military regime that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Funny enough, people on the left, who demonize the Military governments, are today the main defensors of FGTS. Reality is, as you can probably tell, that this does little to help workers. FGTS has a very low interest rate, lower than the country’s inflation. That means that you actually lose money with it. Any other private investement would be better. Besides, it is clear that its reason to be is not to help workers. FGTS was created because bureaucrats realized that Brazilians had no culture of savings, therefore the government had to create one in order to have some money reserve to use. And using it government did. FGTS accounts have frequently been used by the government to try to boom the economy Keynesian style. Trying to get your FGTS money is crazily hard. Bureaucracy turns into a maze and can win you by fatigue. Perhaps I should just leave my money with the government.
The Bolsonaro government is trying to modernize the economy, and part of the process might involve putting an end to FGTS and other peculiarities created by Brazilian bureaucrats in the past. The left, however, complains that workers are losing rights. I can tell by personal experience that I would be losing my right to have a very poor savings account that I didn’t choose and that I have a very hard time to get access to. But try to explain this to millions of workers that are still hostages for labor unions and left-wing political parties.
The Centre Holds: European Union Election
There is no populist right anti-EU surge. Voting participation increased. The old centre-right and centre-left in the European Parliament declined but the centre holds with a stronger role for Greens and Liberals. The European Union is not anti-democratic and does not impose its will on member states. Its decision-making is complex, but that is to achieve consensus, not to eliminate democracy. The EU and the Euro currency are more popular. At least for the moment, the EU’s institutions, democracy, and projects are strengthened.
Elections for the European Parliament (the Parliament of European Union) the took place between 23rd and the 26th of May this year. The official results can be found here. The turn out was the highest since 1994 at 51%. This is higher than for the US Congressional Elections of last year, though that was the highest turnout in an ‘off year’ (a year in which the President is not up for election) for over a century. There is no equivalent figure to the President of the United States in the European Union. Roughly speaking the US President is equivalent to a combination of the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council, neither of which are directly elected, and have a tiny bureaucracy compared with the machine of the United states federal government, at their service. There is no reason then for European Union elections to generate as much voter participation as US elections when the President is elected. Even so, such elections in the United States have only generated marginally more participation than EP elections, 55.5% in the 2016 election. It seems reasonable to conclude that the European Parliament has had some success in establishing itself as a representative institution, even compared with an elected body as old as the Congress of the United States.
Political Groups in the European Parliament
The European Parliament is mostly composed of Members (MEPs) who sit in transnational political groupings, which usually have a transnational party, essentially serving as a framework for co-operation between national parties. The political groups in the European Parliament are prone to change in their political boundaries and composition, but the four biggest groups have existed in a mostly stable way over multiple elections. They are:
- European People’s Party (EPP, also referred to as Christian Democrats, centre-right),
- Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, often referred to as the Socialists, centre left),
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, also known as the Liberals, containing classical liberals, left liberals, various moderates and centrists),
- Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA, often referred to as the Greens, left leaning environmentalists plus leftwing regionalists).
The other groups, which have been less stable so far or have not existed for very long are:
- European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, left socialists, communists and left-wing greens),
- European Conservatives and Reformists (Eurosceptic right),
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, Eurosceptic right and centrists),
- Europe of Nations and Freedom (EFN, nationalist right).
I take results from here, focusing on percentage of seats as the easiest way to understand the proportional support of these groups both within the EP and the EU electorate. It makes comparison with the last Parliament (elected in 2014) easier as the number of seats has slightly increased (from 749 to 751) and most importantly because defections, expulsions and reconstruction within and across groups means that a comparison with the seats for political groupings of the 2014 parliament at the end of its term is easiest. Percentage of seats in the outgoing EP in brackets.
- EPP 23.83 (28.84)
- S&D 20.37 (24.70)
- ALDE 13.98 (9.21)
(This result relies on assuming Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list in France and and the Save Romania Union will join ALDE though this has not been confirmed. It does seem overwhelmingly likely. )
- G/EFA 9.85 (6.94)
- ECR 8.39 (10.28)
- ENF 7.72 (4.81)
- EFDD 7.19 (5.61)
- GUE/NGL 5.06 (6.94)
(the remainder is composed of non-aligned MEPs)
Stories and Trends
The big story in the build up to the election was whether there would be a populist right/eurosceptic breakthrough. The political groups that could be classified as such are ECR, ENF and EFDD. Their total at the end of the 2014 Parliament was 20.7%. Their total now is 23.3%. There was a swing in this direction, but only of 2.6% of seats which is a good deal less than a breakthrough. It is a long way short of the 30% which might have enabled them, presuming they could co-ordinate, to block the EP from progress in the wrong direction, from its point of view, though the way committee memberships and chairs are distributed. GUE/NGL is sometimes classified as left populist/eurosceptic, though it contains a variety of views. It fell back and if we add it to the right-wing eurosceptic seats, we still only get a total of 28.9%. There is little prospect of the right-wing groups co-ordinating closely and none at at all of close co-ordination of these three plus GUE-NGL.
The big story as the results came in was less the right-wing eurosceptic swing than the swing within the groups which support the EU with as much power as it has now, or movement towards more EU powers.
There was a notable shift from EPP and S&D to ALDE and G/EFA, so from the centre-right and centre-left to the liberal centre, greens, and regionalists.
Generally speaking the EPP has moved from previous domination by a grand coalition of EPP and S&D to a more fragmented or pluralist situation in which a centre ground, pro-EU middle ground requires ALDE for a majority and is also likely to bring in G/EFA, with the place of the Eurosceptic right consolidated.
The Liberal swing is largely based on Liberal Democrat success in the UK and the new Macronist list in France. The Green swing is based in northwestern Europe. S&D remain comparatively strong in Spain and Portugal, with a good result in the Netherlands. ENF is dominated by the League in Italy and the National Rally in France. ECR is dominated by PIS in Poland.
Traditional centre-right and centre-left parties had very bad results in France and the UK. The radical and populist left has fallen back, particularly in France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland.
Despite what some reporting might lead you to believe, hard Brexit did not win in the UK and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally did not have a big success in France. The Brexit Party was the single most popular party in Britain, but even if its vote is combined with the United Kingdom Independence Party (from where its leader Nigel Farage came from), the no-deal hard Brexit vote (33.8%) was distinctly less than the combined vote for second referendum and remain supporting parties (39.8%): Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Alliance Party (Liberal Democrat partners in Northern Ireland). The European trend for the traditional centre-right and centre-left to collapse was heightened by the inability of both the Labour and Conservative parties to find a clear direction on Brexit and achieve internal unity on the issue. UK participation in the election was the result of the failure of the pro-Brexit Conservative government to find a Brexit policy with majority support in the UK Parliament.
In France, despite transforming the National Front into the National rally with the aim of broadening support, Marine Le Pen lost ground compared with the 2014 European election. National Rally was slightly ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, but given Le Pen has not increased her base and given that Macron is clearly ahead of all non Le Pen forces, it is likely that the next Presidential election in France will be between Le Pen and Macron again, with another victory for Macron.
Democracy, Law, and Bureaucracy in the European Union
Two ideas circulate widely about the European Union that cannot both be true, though the same people often state both. 1. The EU Parliament has no power. 2. The European Union imposes over-regulation and bureaucratisation on member states to an oppressive degree. As the European Parliament’s main role is as co-legislator in matters of regulation, it is a major actor in this issue. It co-legislates on regulation with the European Council, an assembly of government ministers from member states varying according to the policy area in question.
The European Council and the European Parliament act under the direction of the Council of the European Union, which is composed of heads of governments of member states and the heads of EU institutions. The European Commission drafts legislation. It has the sole power to initiate legislation, but only under the direction of the Council of the EU and with the agreement of Parliament and the European Council.
Despite what is frequently assumed, the Commission is not an oligarchy of unaccountable permanent civil servants commanding a vast expensive, complex bureaucracy. The Commission is nominated by member states and is very largely, if not entirely, composed of commissioners who have been elected politicians at a senior level and not civil servants. The Commission has to be confirmed by the Parliament which can also forced the Commission to resign. The Commission did resign in 1999 before the Parliament could force it to do so. The Parliament has the right to suggest legislation to the Commission, and since it can sack the Commission, it cannot be ignored. The bureaucracy of the Commission is no greater in numbers than the larger units of local and municipal government in the UK.
The EU structure of decision making is complex and indirect. It is not anti-democratic rule by bureaucrats. Laws and decisions are made by bodies which are either directly elected by the citizens of the European Union or are made up of members of elected governments. The Commission can only exist through the will of elected member state governments and the Parliament. The President of the Commission tends to be the public face of the European Union, though recently that has been shared with the President of the Council of the EU. This public role tends to create confusion and exaggerated ideas about the power of the Commission. Though in EU thinking, the Commission is the civil service of the Union, it also a political body appointed to guard the treaties that have constituted the EU. The role of defending agreed basic law is not obviously an anti-democratic conspiracy, it is surely part of a stability of law necessary to the functioning of any political institution. Clearer lines of decision making would be preferable in some respects, but is difficult to achieve so long as the EU operates on a consensus between member states.
Those who are most hostile to the idea of a fully federalised European Union with strong decision making powers are also those most likely to claim that the EU is a bureaucratised conspiracy against member states, lacking clear and direct lines of political decision making. Decisive decision making by directly elected bodies would go beyond what is politically feasible now or in any feasible future. Such clear decision making would require a far far larger bureaucracy and much more intervention in member states. The EU works by consensus between member states and institutions. Unfortunately at any one time it tends to suit some people to claim that the EU is a conspiracy against member states, or a member state supposedly under siege from other members state, or the Commission turned into some monstrosity of unaccountable power which has no basis in reality.
I would certainly welcome less enthusiasm for regulating from above in the European Parliament and other institutions. The drive to the administrative and regulatory state long precedes the European Union and is a universal phenomenon across the globe of the last two centuries. There is no reason to think the member states of the EU would be less regulatory outside the Union. By creating common regulation, the EU at least ensures that regulation does not impede continent wide trade.
The EU does things to promote trade that no existing free trade agreement has ever done. It has uniquely achieved a single market in services and human capital (that is labour), as well as goods, over a continent, over hundreds of millions of people. The creation of regulation at the EU level is a necessary aspect of this, which still leaves considerable scope for countries to have a relatively less statist approach, with a wide variety within member states regarding the scope of the state in the economy. This can be confirmed by careful examination of the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index.
The Political State of the European Union
Despite fears and hopes of a eurosceptic ‘populist’ right surge in the European Union leading to its weakening and possible disintegration, these political forces have stabilised at less than one-quarter elected seats in the EP. Support for the European Union and for the Euro currency (frequently pronounced dead in the past by sceptics) has increased in recent years. The continuing political confusion regarding Brexit in the UK has discredited claims about the benefits of leaving and have made it increasingly uncertain that the UK will leave.
Participation in European level voting has increased. The EU has been strengthened in credibility in recent years. Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for trade wars, and bypassing the World Trade Organisation, has undermined claims that the UK could seek a place in the world after Brexit based on free trade with the US. An EU trade agreement with Japan soon after Trump pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, which includes Japan, has undermined the idea that the UK would be better off outside the EU in pursuing world trade. Trumps’s tolerance (along with Congress) of an ever increasing federal deficit in the US looks highly imprudent compared with the fiscal prudence imposed by Euro currency institutions and regulations.
Not everything is great about the EU, there are certainly some things the US does better with regard to innovation and regulation, but the EU is increasingly popular and and weakening or breakup would weaken a single market under a unified, predictable regulatory regime. The concentration of powers in national governments is not advantageous to liberty, as the Framers of the US Constitution recognised when they turned thirteen ex-colonies in a loose confederation into components of a Federation based on balance of powers and consensual decision making across institutions.