Like many around the world, I woke last Friday morning shocked to hear that the UK had left the EU. As an American living in the UK, I am hoping to one day gain permanent residency. I adore living in England, but my adoration is inextricably linked with its European identity and culture. For me (and I know I speak as an American), England IS Europe. It’s roots are intertwined with Athens, Rome and Paris. It was a bitter disappointment to learn just how disconnected Englanders feel from their European neighbours across the channel.
In the past few years, the fate of the EU has hung in the balance. Would it continue to be a progressive, stabilising force in the world, or is it destined to collapse? That question may have been settled by Brexit. It is remarkable that such an historic question could have been left in the hands of a fickle, under-educated populace on the basis of a single majority vote. That is the great limitation of democracy: the tyranny of the majority. It makes me appreciate the many checks and balances the United States has which generally protect it from such careless decision making.
As I’ve had time to digest this decision, I’ve looked for a more hopeful interpretation of what has happened. If the EU is such a fragile alliance that the exit of any one member threatens its identity, is it really an alliance that can stand the test of time? Is the EU really destined to be an essential player in the new world order, or is it an over-idealistic and unnatural utopia, doomed to fail long-term?
A God of Unity or Diversity?
The Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel raises similar questions. By all accounts, building a great tower, like the EU or any other public works project, can bring great unity and prosperity to a community. Why would God disrupt such wonderful cooperation and confound the languages, scattering the people in all directions? Mormons say that God confounded the languages because the Tower was a distraction from true religion, which is not about getting to heaven through a tower, but about attaining heaven through obedience to commandments. But I think there could also be a more fundamental interpretation.
Maybe God values diversity. Maybe diversity and competition are sometimes better than unity and cooperation. There is not much unity in nature. Life is a great struggle for survival and dominance between species. This is what brings “beauty and variety to the face of the earth.” For each species, “fulfilling the measure of its creation” means diversifying and standing out from all others.
Brexit will most certainly lead to a new referendum on Scottish Independence, and maybe even Northern Irish independence. Is this rise in nationalism necessarily a bad thing? Are these individual nations “fulfilling the measure of their creation” just as individual species are?
No Headquarters in Nature
Even with all the struggle and competition in nature, there is also remarkable cooperation. There are many interspecies alliances. Our bodies are cooperative ecosystems of diverse cells and bacterias. In these ecosystems, there is no one calling the shots, no over-arching control and command centres. Even in our own brain, neuroscientists tell us that our neurons are not being commanded by anyone. They are simply responding, according to their nature, to random stimulus, and somehow, an amazing order emerges. In ant colonies, ants build elaborate structures to nurture and protect their queen, yet they are not being commanded by anyone. The queen does not command, and the ants don’t even really know who the queen is nor do they have any idea of what they are doing. Individually they are incredibly stupid. They follow scent. That is all. No one commands. No one obeys. Yet, somehow order emerges from chaos.
Could this be the case among nations as well? Could cooperation emerge from the divisiveness of growing nationalism? Could it be true, as the saying goes, “good borders make good neighbours?” I felt hopeful after listening to Boris Johnson’s sober victory speech after the Brexit results. (His genuineness seems more credible after his decision earlier today not to enter the race to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister.)
Too those who may be anxious both at home and abroad, this does not mean that the United Kingdom will be in anyway less united, it does not mean it will be any less European…We cannot turn our backs on Europe. We are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans, travelling to the continent, understanding the languages and the cultures that make up our common European civilisation, continuing to interact with the peoples of other countries in a way that is open and friendly and outward looking. And I want to reassure everyone Britain will continue to be a great European power, leading discussions on defence and foreign policy and the work that goes on to make our world safer.
But there is simply no need in the 21st century to be part of a federal government in Brussels that is imitated nowhere else on Earth. It was a noble idea for its time but it is no longer right for this country.
In 1958, economist Leonard Read wrote a wonderful essay titled “I, Pencil.” Written in the first person, from the point of view of a pencil, a pencil traces the complexity of its own creation, its many components (cedar, lacquer, graphite, ferrule, fictive, pumice, wax, glue) and the many people involved from the sweeper in the factory to the lighthouse keeper guiding the shipment into port. The central thesis of “I, Pencil” is that no single person or organisation creates a pencil:
There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the invisible hand at work.
… Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.
… The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed.
“I, Pencil” is essentially a capitalist manifesto, warning of the dangers of centralisation and state control. Pencils emerge from the chaos without the specific control or command of any one person or organisation. Likewise Leonard Read believed that economic harmony would best emerge without state tampering.
The Importance of State and Union
Even though I strongly believe in the capitalist principles in “I Pencil,” I also believe that a central state or body like the EU does have an important role to play. Pure capitalism can be destructive and exclusionary, trampling on the poor and middle class alike, even as the engines of the economy burn brighter. The State sets ground rules that protect the poor and middle class, that facilitate fair competition, and advocate for values that lack strong economic incentives, like protecting the environment. Pure nationalism can also have terrible consequences, as we’ve seen in our past two world wars. Inter-state alliances like the EU play important roles in facilitating cooperation between nations.
A Balance Between Unity and Diversity
But even if states and alliances are important, is the EU is too much? Does a common currency among nations facilitate economic growth or stifle it? Does it hobble the ability of Europe to emerge from crisis, or enable it? Does it promote unity and goodwill between nations or create more resentments and hostilities? Does it need to be scrapped, reformed, or empowered?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I don’t think the answers are found at extremes. Nationalism with no alliances is not the answer. Nor is an EU that is too strong and centralised. God gave us competitive, individualistic natures. And like the animal species in nature, a remarkable order will emerge. But God also gave us a desire to perfect our natures, to transcend upon the brutality of the “survival of the fittest,” and champion common values for all peoples.
- Was Brexit a good idea?
- Even if you disagreed with Brexit, do you think it could be a good thing in the long run?
- Is the EU the best way to try to achieve unity among nations?
- Would the dissolution of the EU lead to unchecked warring nationalism, or could it facilitate greater cooperation among diverse nations?
- Do you see diversity and nationalism as a source of strength and progress, or a source of potential war and abuse?
A French friend of mine recently told me that whenever she visits England, it feels extremely foreign to her, almost like visiting Morocco. She does have a point.