Why America should envy Brexit
In a White House briefing to conservative media members this week, I listened to President Trump respond to a question about Congress by saying that he has to get everything done without a single Democrat's vote. "They're obstructionists," he said, for emphasis.
That word, "obstructionists," settled over the room like a cloud, reminding us of how resistant Washington, D.C., is to change. The public wanted or feared that Trump's election would work like a putsch. He would "deconstruct the administrative state," as his aide, Stephen Bannon, once put it. But Congress and the courts are an effective bulwark against him. And within 100 days he's already adopted the pained rhetoric of his predecessor.
The only way to create action is for the Trump White House to act with unchecked executive authority. Like launching 59 missiles into an airbase in Syria or sending ships to the Korean Peninsula. Or using the opportunity of an expired trade agreement to slap a 20 percent "mirror" tax on softwood lumber coming in from Canada. Maybe dairy is next, if Trump's Twitter feed is a good indication.
But if you long for real domestic reform of the economy, as voters in most of the Western world outside of Germany do, you can't help but develop a case of Brexit envy.
The government of British Prime Minister Theresa May is utterly crushed by the responsibilities imposed on it by the electorate. They have a two-year deadline to make final the terms of departure from the European Union. They have to come up with a solution for a customs border in Ireland that doesn't kick up old sectarian fears. They have to protect the concentration of financial firms that makes London one of the most important global mega-cities, and they have to make sure that most of the workers that have come from France and elsewhere on the continent to work in the city can stay.
But Brexit's tight deadline and its mandate also means that the government must junk or rewrite nearly 15 percent of the statute book. Nearly one-sixth of the laws that govern Britain come from Brussels. It's a legal revolution in waiting, and they should be thrilled at the chance to do it. Over 12,000 legal regulations of the U.K. economy are just waiting for revision or abolition.
The job is so vast and the timeline so quick that it is possible for politicians to capture the legislative process from the lobbyists and incumbent interests that normally dominate it. It also allows the U.K. to harmonize their laws with the government's own policy.
And the May government will be in a strong position to enact its will. The Merkel and Macron governments will want to extract some punishment from Britain for triggering Article 50, but they will have to convince the Dutch, the Nordic countries, and Ireland to go along with any deal. And those countries are unlikely to want to see Europe become more protectionist than it is. Meanwhile, the implosion of the Labour Party means that the May's Tory government will be granted an enormous mandate after the snap elections this spring.
Of course, they could screw it up. But the Brexit vote gives the United Kingdom a chance to do something that only comes after a disaster like war or worldwide depression, a mandate to scrape away the obsolete statutes and political cruft that accumulates for decades in any modern administrative state. From here in America, all I can do is envy them their chance. Brexit is breakneck, chaotic, and full of potential. It's everything that domestic reform here is not.