Is money the key to everything not only in economics, but also politics, nationalism, and the very notion of personal liberty? It sure seems that the politicians think so, especially when it comes to the crucial Brexit vote. Britain is just about two weeks away from its historic referendum on leaving or remaining in the European Union. The polls say the vote will be extremely close, but the "stay" forces have already won a tremendous victory because the debate is almost exclusively being waged on immediate economic terms. While the pro-EU forces say leaving will hurt the UK economically and the pro-leave camp disputes that, the supposedly objective international news media has uniformly taken it as a given that the immediate economic impact will be negative for Britain. And even the news outlets that don't strongly emphasize those negative economic predictions are still handing the pro-stay side a big win by making this referendum as much about economics as possible. There is almost no newspaper, website, or TV network that doesn't spend at least 90% of the Brexit story focusing solely on jobs, trade deals, and overall investment.
That's unfortunate because while economic debates are certainly worth having, boiling down the pros and cons of EU membership simply in terms of money misses the real point: this vote is more about the future of democratic freedom and sovereignty. Keeping it about immediate dollars and cents, or in this case pounds and shillings, is a huge advantage for the pro-stay forces who are counting on the British people not looking past their wallets or taking the longer view. And here's the kicker: leaving the EU will be better for Britain economically too, but you have to have some historical knowledge and perspective to see it. Those who have that wisdom are keeping this debate in the proper order; it's about freedom and democratic accountability first, and economics second.
The prevailing economic argument, such as it is, isn't exactly compelling. The "pro-stay" elites that include the leadership of both major British political parties, most corporate leaders, and even the most famous British celebrities, are cynically selling the EU as some kind of ATM that just might stop spitting out whatever pittance it gives to the great British unwashed if they don't shut up and comply with this massive, powerful body in Brussels that none of them elected. Never mind that these EU officials have only a small fraction of British interests, if that, in mind. Never mind that Britain gives up control of its borders even in the midst of a scary Middle Eastern migrant influx and crisis. No, none of that is important folks… it's really all about a few percentage points here and there in the 2017 British GDP, multinational corporate profits, and maybe your job, (but we can't be sure). Oh but if you happen to be a small business owner or employee who doesn't get the benefits the EU showers on large corporations, well these economic arguments don't refer to you but you should go along for the good of the overall country, er I mean federated Europe, or whatever.
But let's get out of the 24 hour news cycle and look at the real historic data. And let's pretend the "stay in the EU" folks are right about a short term economic loss if the Brexit camp wins the June 23rd referendum. A wise response to that would be: "So what?!?" Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither." In this case, those who sacrifice freedom and true democracy for promises of better financial results also deserve neither because they'll get neither in the long run. And in the short run it isn't so rosy either. Take the massive funds the EU can simply order its richer nations to pay the poorer ones with little or no say from the voters. That's what Britain, Germany, and France are facing now that the EU says it needs 50 billion pounds more to shore up the costs from the migrant crisis. Can we be sure the short term hit from leaving the EU, (if there is one), will exceed Britain's share of that new 50 billion pound bill? Of course not.
And these are the things that will continue to happen because we know from the days of feudalism to the USSR, nations and empires that offer less political freedoms almost never thrive economically for any long period of time compared to those that do allow more political freedom and accountability. Sure, even Nazi Germany enjoyed an initial economic burst from its descent into fascism, but that regime eventually destroyed all that progress and more by booting out some of its most productive citizens, blocking all but government-approved businesses, and of course starting the most costly war in history. Unaccountable governments tend to do stupid things like that. Putting economic gain before personal and political liberty, as if you can have one without the other, is ludicrous. Real democracy and accountability are all much more important for long term economic growth in addition to being a moral right.
The above argument may be winning you over if you're a free market capitalist with historical knowledge, or even an economic liberal who happens to be a fan of political liberty and democratic accountability,(remember those people?). But it turns out the big divide in Britain over this referendum is very much like our current presidential election dynamic here in the US; it's based on generational lines. Younger Britons from every political party and economic background are much more likely to favor remaining in the "big government" EU. One recent poll shows an eye-popping 75% of UK voters aged 18-24 will vote to stay in the EU. Meanwhile, 67% of voters 65-years and older want out. Usually, it's the younger people who want to overturn the status quo. But Millennials, who have come up in a world of everything from constant parental supervision to intellectual "safe spaces" on campus, are not surprisingly quite willing to give up a freedom they've never experienced anyway for continued and even increased government control of their lives. Thanks to government-controlled education and a compliant news and entertainment media, the words "freedom and liberty" sound a lot like "risk and danger" to British and American young adults.
Older Britons certainly don't show any desire to weaken government public services like the National Health Service, but perhaps the rise of terrorism in Europe and their memories of the Soviet Union and other tyrannical regimes in European history have aroused their nationalism and desire for more local government sovereignty. You'll notice that these issues have nothing to do with money; they're about freedom and how comfortable different generations in Britain are with the idea of trading that freedom in return for a large multi-national body that promises to "take care" of everyone.
Doesn't this sound familiar? In America, voters are falling along similar generational divides on the issues of freedom, sovereignty, trade, and big government. Younger voters make up the bulk of Bernie Sanders supporters thanks to his promises to expand big government "protections" and entitlements. Meanwhile, older voters make up the bulk of Donald Trump's supporters as they mirror the older voters in Britain who value nationalism and border security above most other issues. It's important to remember that the older pro-leave voters in Britain and the older voters supporting Trump in the U.S. are very concerned about economic issues. It's just that they can't be won over with threats about GDP numbers or promises of free college or healthcare. The pro-EU forces and too many younger voters don't get that, because they don't get that economic security is a result of political freedom, not the cause. And why would they? It's not like the key aspects of political liberty are taught anymore in most of our schools here or in Britain. The good news is younger people in the UK and the US can get older and wiser one day. The bad news is that if this referendum to leave the EU fails, career opportunist and cynical politicians will make wisdom and its corresponding desire for more freedom and political accountability much harder to attain.