What Brexit Can’t Fix

What Brexit Can’t Fix June 27, 2016

Ian Morris puts the discontent with Western elites, reflected most dramatically in Britain’s departure from the E.U., in a larger historical perspective.

“Throughout history, when things have gone wrong, people have blamed their leaders,” Morris writes. “In the West, things are now going wrong more than they used to, and in the decade to come they will go wrong even more. There is nothing that Western leaders can do to turn the clock back; the only way to try to keep up in this brave new world is through innovation, which means the creative destruction of much that many of us hold dear.”

The E.U., he contends, has done a lot for Europe and for Britain. He knows that the E.U. “threatened to destroy a lot, above all the national sovereignty, local democracy, and control over immigration and economics.” But its admittedly “stultifying” bureacratization of all and everything was, he claims, part of its genius. After all, “no one actually dies of boredom.” In 1992, “when the crucial Maastricht Treaty was signed, 500 million people had come together to create one of biggest, richest and safest socio-political units the world had ever seen—all without a shot being fired.” A unified, peaceful Europe without conquest. A Kantian miracle.

What has gone wrong, he argues, has little to do with Brussels or Europe. It has to do with the West’s position in the world, which is declining relative to the East. He sets this in a two-century framework:

“In 1820, most societies were very unequal. Measured on the Gini coefficient—a commonly used tool scoring inequality within a group on a scale from 0 (everyone has exactly the same) to 1 (one person has everything and everyone else has nothing)—most countries scored between 0.5 and 0.6. Economist Branko Milanovic has pointed out, however, that while all these societies were unequal, they were also fairly equally unequal. From China to England, each had rather similar income distributions, and if we compare entire nations rather than individuals within nations, the global Gini coefficient in 1820 was just 0.15.”

That all changed with Western Europe’s charge into industrialization. This made “nations in Western Europe and North America much richer than anyone else, and the global Gini score for income rose steadily until it stood at 0.55 by 1950.”

That trend went flat or started to reverse in the mid-twentieth century: “Since 1950, though, as East Asia and other parts of the world have begun their own industrial revolutions, the global Gini score has stopped rising and might now even be falling. There is mounting evidence that the Western Age is coming to an end as the advantages the West reaped from being the earliest adopter of industrialization run out. . . . we can expect the West to dominate the world for another generation at least, and probably for two, though likely not for another three. Right now, Western nations still get their own way most of the time—just not as often as they did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Morris doesn’t think there’s any turning this clock back, no way for the West to regain its dominant position: “wealth and power will continue moving eastward throughout the 21st century, Britain’s fate will remain inextricably linked with Europe’s, and people across the West will get even angrier at the elites who fail to prevent these things from happening.

Whether that West-to-East shift, if it happens, is good or bad for the world remains to be seen. And that’s not even to mention the possible North-to-South shift.

(Photo by Sandra Troia.)

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