Phillips: Brexit means trouble for Democrats and Republicans

June 29, 2016

Originally published in the North State Journal.

The critical lens for understanding the ‘Brexit’ vote is sovereignty: the foundational right to govern. In the United States, this natural right to self-determination is vested in the people, who created the several States and a national government for the purposes of defense, interstate commerce, and foreign relations.

When the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the EEC still had most of its original character as a trade cooperative with little impact on the sovereignty or national identity of its member states. As the EEC became the European Union in the early 1990s, it evolved into a government and legal authority—a sort of ‘United States of Europe’—and it claimed increasing shares of its members’ sovereign power. The British, perhaps more than other Europeans because of their distinctive sovereign history, no longer felt in charge of their own destinies. Desperation is the mortal enemy of the status quo.

The Scottish and Northern Irish felt the same emotions with more intensity and a different target. They engaged in a double rebellion, voting to ‘Remain’ because they are more grieved over London’s appropriation of their sovereignty than they are concerned about Brussels doing the same thing to the English.

Meanwhile, as the American presidential cycle stumbles forward, the two leading candidates demonstrate an approach to American sovereignty that is surprisingly similar to that of the EU. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both presume the extraordinary power of the United States government and argue about how it should be wielded. Whether to use the federal government’s power to regulate commerce, create more extensive education regulations, curb immigration, or seize private property is the wrong place to start the debate. Both political parties have skated past the question of how much sovereignty the federal government should claim from the states and their people.

That’s the core error of the EU’s lumbering bureaucracy: its multiple unelected presidents, opaque commissions, diplomatic corps, and scores of regulating staff. Just because a government can claim power doesn’t mean that it should. From John Locke forward, classical liberals have advocated for the starting assertion that people have a right to govern themselves—sovereignty starts with the people—and working from that point to determine the nature and limits of government.

History has proven over and over again that where there is more opportunity, there is more prosperity, and seizing opportunity requires knowledge of local circumstances and competitive advantages. However tempting it may be, those who would centralize sovereign power curb opportunity for the lives they claim to protect. We need to shift our own political discussion: what do the American people need from their government? At what level of government are those needs best met? Refusal to face those questions might be our own path to desperation.