Britain’s historic decision to leave the European Union represents a blow for political centralization.
However, it’s also a sobering reminder that the work of advancing peace and economic freedom is never done. Britain may be extricating itself from EU political control, but if its goal is genuine progress and prosperity, it will need to do much more than simply sever its ties with Brussels.
What Britain needs most is a return to the ideals of peace and free trade exemplified in the work of Richard Cobden and other 19th-century liberals. Sadly, this philosophy was entirely absent from the rhetoric of the Leave campaign, which was more often motivated by the same protectionist fallacies the classical liberals so effectively demolished. And although it’s uncertain what economic policies Britain will adopt in the next few years, it seems unlikely that protectionist rhetoric will disappear, or that many Brexit supporters will spontaneously abandon their faulty economic reasoning.
On the contrary, it is likely that Brexit, despite its positive effects, will also produce a rise in illiberal sentiment in Britain and in Europe. For example, it’s practically a given that every economic problem occurring in the near future will be attributed to Brexit. Yet this only means it’s more important than ever to stress that leaving the EU is not equivalent to becoming liberal; instead, it’s only one part of that process. Consequently, liberal ideas cannot be held accountable if a more decentralized Britain uses its newfound independence to adopt trade restrictions and other nationalist policies.
Without winning the battle of ideas, the gains from leaving the EU will amount to very little. In this battle, Brexit is not so much a victory as an opportunity. And as Joseph Salerno argues, we must seize every available opportunity to reduce the state and expand the free society. The only way forward for Britain is to adopt a program of economic liberalism. Brexit offers a chance to once again spread those long-neglected ideals of peace and free trade from which all human progress derives.