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Dear Brexiteers, free trade does not mean what you think it does

They’re such keen supporters of free trade, that they’re willing to hammer Britain’s trade in the process. 

There’s a concept in linguistics called an “auto-antonym” – a word that can, quite ridiculously, mean its own exact opposite. “Fast”, for example, can mean moving at speed, or unable to move at all. Or consider the sentence: “He tried to cleave them apart, but they cleaved tight to one another.”

Having words which can carry two diametrically opposed senses could, one might think, get confusing, but it rarely does: the meaning intended is almost always clear from the context (at least to a native speaker). Nonetheless, I think I’ve found a term which can carry two completely contradictory senses, in a way which many people seem not even to have noticed. What’s worse, their failure to notice this is about to take us tumbling over an economic cliff.

That term is “free trade”.

A few weeks ago, my old mate Daniel Hannan finally revealed what he’d do with himself once the EU stops paying him large amounts of European taxpayer’s money. His new “Institute for Free Trade” is a pro-Brexit think tank which will, it says, make “the moral case for open commerce”. Its name recalls that of another pro-Brexit pressure group, Patrick “lol” Minford’s Economists for Free Trade.

The funny thing about both these organisations is that they believe the case for free trade is best made by pulling Britain out of the largest and most established free trade bloc in the world. If you were truly a believer in free trade, one might think you’d want Britain to be able to trade as freely as possible with its nearest neighbour and largest trading partner. And yet, no: there’s an entire subculture of free trade fundamentalists who want us out of the single market and the customs union, effectively throwing up barriers between us and the continent.

Several explanations for this apparent contradiction come to mind, many of which you can probably guess. But one which has, I think, received relatively little discussion is that the term “free trade” is surprisingly hard to parse – it can mean, in fact, two things so distinct they’re almost antonyms.

The “free” in the free trade proposed by the fundamentalist right is a negative freedom: the freedom from regulation. The problem these guys have with the EU is (let’s be charitable) not that they’re all a bit foreign, but that it’s a bureaucratic body: it wants to interfere in the market by imposing costly regs on decent, hard-working businesses. If you think that free trade means less regulation, that should mean less EU.

But there’s another form of freedom that applies here: a positive freedom, the freedom to trade. If I want to sell my widget in your market, then the things that stop me might be government-imposed rules like tariffs; but they might also be the fact our two markets have different regulatory regimes, so that none of my potential customers know whether my widget is safe or useful or does what it’s supposed to. In the latter case, increasing the freedom to trade might mean actually increasing government regulation, by imposing common standards.

This, of course, is what the EU has done through the single market. It’s been incredibly, visibly successful, in that it’s increased trade between the members of that market. If you believe trade is A Good Thing in terms of increasing the wealth and happiness of humanity, well, you should support it.

Yet some people, who claim to believe in free trade, don’t. Why? Because it doesn’t fit their idea of freedom – because it conceives of government not as a barrier to freedom, but as the body that facilitates it.

Those people are now in the ascendant, and determined to take us out of this free trade area. They’re such keen supporters of free trade, that they’re willing to massively reduce Britain’s trade to show their support. Black is white, up is down, and words have no meaning any more.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.