The economic dangers of Britain’s exit from the European Union are probably exaggerated. The U.K. is in a bit of trouble, since falling real estate prices might spark a recession there. But it seems unlikely that the spillover to the global economy will be severe. British trade policy probably won’t change much, and extremists in the U.K. Independence Party, which spearheaded the “leave” campaign, are unlikely to take power. The EU itself is on shaky ground, but that was just as true before Brexit.
Brexit’s real importance probably comes not from its direct effects, but from its symbolism. It’s a sign of a much bigger, broader trend — a global political regime change. The shift was happening before Brexit, and it will continue after. It’s something we should be worried about.
In the aftermath of World War II, the globe was divided into two main blocs — a U.S.-led group that embraced liberal democracy, capitalism and free trade, and a Soviet-and-Chinese-led group that favored autocracy, economic isolationism and various forms of communism. Neither side was particularly unified, and neither one lived up fully to its professed ideals. But gradually, the liberal bloc succeeded economically and socially, and the other one failed. As this became apparent, many countries started changing their institutions to be more like the U.S. China and other authoritarian countries liberalized their economies, while many others converted from autocracy to democracy.
In recent years, that trend has halted, and the institutional tide now appears to be moving in the other direction. Illiberalism — political autocracy and restriction of civil liberties — are on the rise.
Many organizations track these trends, and they tend to have different definitions of democracy and freedom. But they all seem to agree on the broad trend. For example, Freedom House, an organization sponsored by the U.S. government, says that freedom in the world has been declining for the past 10 years. Since 2006, the number of countries it records as having experienced declines in freedom has been greater than the number of countries where freedom has advanced.