Removing Obstacles or Erecting Them?

“[T]he European Commission,” reports the New York Times, “[recently] proposed a dozen measures to dismantle barriers still obstructing the free flow of people, goods and services in the European Union.” The European Union, which has now taken on many of the attributes traditionally associated with statehood, was originally conceived as a kind of free trade zone, replacing the domestic protectionism of the European states with the “single market” of today’s Europe.

Since many criticisms of the state advanced by market anarchists pivot on the ways the state restricts economic activity, one might think that the EU represents a model of the kinds of economic reshaping we envision. And if those impediments to genuine economic freedom are designed to cheat the vast majority of workers and consumers, then we might also imagine that the EU’s “dynamic and proactive” plans to promote trade are a real step in the right direction.

As Myles B. Kantor has argued, though, “European ‘integration’ and ‘harmonization’” are simply “innocuous terms for a pernicious enterprise” conceived for the “homogenization-centralization of political life.” Contrary to the decentralizing prescriptions of sincerely pro-competition market anarchists, the EU is a project in the fortification of bureaucracy and hierarchy.

Where multiple sources of legal rules governing economic activity arguably allow individuals to “vote with their feet” to avoid being exploited, the EU has created a stable, unvarying stage for corporate dominance. By the terms of the EU, “free trade” and “free markets” translate to the adoption of a Byzantine code of arbitrary rules on, for instance, what can be called “chocolate” and what sorts of products pharmacies may sell.

Worse still, like other “free trade” treaties across national boundaries, EU membership requires accession not just to these suffocating rules, but also to many more related to intellectual property. The marquee feature of the EU’s bundle of new laws, then, is — it goes without saying — a uniform system for patents across Europe, making it even easier for Big Business to levy monopoly rents on the public. The new “measures to dismantle barriers” leave the state-fostered corporate trusts unmarked, with the most foundational barriers of the corporate economy also the most immune to empty “reform.”

“Privatization” too has become a byword of EU politicians, but again it means something quite apart from turning the provision of services over to the voluntary workings of the market. Far away from where most Europeans live and work, agents of the ruling class in Brussels make economic decisions on behalf of, for instance, the European Round Table of Industrialists. After organizations are assembled on the backs of the taxpaying public, they are “privatized” for pennies on the dollar; with the greatest of the costs already suffered by the common man, the corporate bosses are free to alight with the profits.

Predictably, the concentration of economic power has attended that of political power in the governing institutions of Europe. As Bertrand Russell wrote, imparting the views of Karl Marx, there has been a “substitution of trusts for free competition,” the “capitalist undertakings tend[ing] to grow larger and larger” as they grow “fewer and fewer.”

Condensing decision-making authority in ever smaller and more remote groups of elites will of course draw society’s wealth toward those few, but the aggrandizement of hierarchy is not without its Achilles heel. Market anarchists look forward to a day when the soundness and justice of voluntary exchange for mutual benefit succeed the unsteadiness of state capitalism. In the meanwhile, take the “free market” rhetoric of the European Union — and all ruling class, government bodies — with a grain of salt.

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