When England’s prime minister, Theresa May, signed papers beginning the process of removing the United Kingdom from the European Union, the popular London newspaper the Daily Mail, ran a one-word headline: “FREEDOM!” At the very same moment, Scottish voters began a demand for a vote on leaving the United Kingdom, arguing that May’s actions were forcing Scotland to leave a European Union that they were much wished to retain.
Two things are happening here that provide a picture of where we are going as a global community. The first is that the United Kingdom, or whatever will be left of it if the prime minister’s actions ultimately succeed, will be withdrawing into a small and self-contained community. What a far cry that would be from an empire on which, it was once claimed, the sun never set. England will provide for itself, something that is quite possible, but it will have limits that it probably does not now expect. By withdrawing from the European market, it signals that it will not participate in the global market. So Englanders will withdraw into being the quaint, self-sufficient country that has made it so attractive to tourists. After all, if you are touring England, you would rather see some pub with a colorful name, like The Kilt and Clover, than those tired McDonald arches. They will grow and serve good English food — oats and potatoes and mutton and hearty English wheat. They will work at the trades that any community needs — cobbling and weaving and farming and the making of pots and pans.
What they will not be doing is participating in the global economic community. Isolated from that community, they will find its products too pricey for general consumption. So they will no longer have access to reasonably priced goods from other countries with other climates. No more reasonably priced citrus fruits or pineapples or kiwis. No more reasonably priced meats from other countries. No more reasonably (or even lower) priced clothing or vehicles or machinery. England will be free to be whatever England can make of itself by itself.
That should stand as an example to all countries now boasting of populist self-sufficiency. Imagine, for instance, what the shelves of Walmart might contain if all the products on them were made in America. Imagine also what the price of those products might be. Whatever that imagining evokes in you, it will be so if populism succeeds. I make no judgment as to its success or failure. It just seems to be an interesting direction to choose.
That choice is a fundamental one, and it is one that the world will need to make. Either we will be a global community, with different customs and different faces and different beliefs all mingling around the world, or we will be a collection of separate communities, each filled with similar faces and similar customs and each facing the limitations inherent in their geography and cumulative work ethic and religious and cultural beliefs. One rightfully supposes that each of these will present its own grave difficulties. That is, however, the monumental choice that the world is beginning to face.
The second thing that is happening is that we are developing two notions of freedom. The first, the one behind the Daily Mail’s headline, is the notion of freedom as the removal of constraints. By this definition, freedom is the ability to do what one wants. It is license. It is based on the assumption that freedom is that which serves my self-interest. The freest of people, then, would be he or she who was so wealthy and powerful as to be able to obtain and enjoy whatever he or she wanted. That sounds a tiny bit perverse, but the notion is surprisingly present in our world. Consider for instance the motto inscribed on the Gadsden flag and adopted as the symbol of the Tea Party: “Don’t Tread on Me.” It is the announcement of the ideology of self-interest, and the ideology is most certainly the standard of our financial community, if not the entire market place.
The second notion of freedom is not so obvious. According to that notion, freedom is the unhindered development of what is best in us. A well-designed workout plan frees up an athlete to perform well at his or her sport. A well-designed education frees up a person to perform at his or her best in a given trade or profession. A well-developed morality frees a person from fear and doubt. In general, that person is most free who lives his or her life most in accord with the best that he or she can be.
The difference between these two notions of freedom is startling. Freedom as license is unconstrained but pointless. Freedom as fulfillment is derivative, constrained if you will by the need to fulfill what it means to be human. However, it is also then the source of our deepest meaning, and is therefore freedom in its fullest sense.
So shut your borders, whether as an individual or a culture, and you will be free in the first sense, unconstrained by the demands of others. That will not, however, fulfill you. Time will tell what England becomes. Time will also tell what we become.