About a decade ago I read a book called A Pattern Language, which offers up 253 principles, or "patterns", to improve our quality of life by redesigning the places in which we live. The authors move toward smaller and smaller details as the book goes on, such that down around Pattern 200 they're talking about things like ideal window sill height (12 to 14 inches on the ground floor, 20 inches on higher floors) and trim width (exactly half an inch), but up around Pattern 20 they're addressing big-picture urban planning (roads parallel rather than web-like, belts of common land adjoining bodies of water). So what is the biggest picture of all, Pattern 1? How to divide up the entire world. The authors contend that the global population should be grouped into roughly one thousand independent political collectives, with two million to ten million residents apiece: "Beyond this size, people become remote from the large-scale processes of government." In this, they follow the proposal of Britain's Alexander Thynn, Marquess of Bath, who told The New York Times in 1973 that "I am suggesting that in the Europe of the future we shall see England split down into Kent, Wessex, Mercia, Anglia, and Northumbria, with an independent Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, of course. Other European examples will include Brittany, Bavaria, and Calabria. The national identities of our contemporary Europe will have lost their political significance." It's tempting to recapitulate all the reasoning with which the authors back up their argument; for that matter, I actually did type in five paragraphs from their argument for half-inch trim before suddenly asking "Wait, what am I doing?" and deleting it as a tangent. But all in all, the authors' figures strike me as roughly correct.
So while one protest I've heard in the aftermath of the Brexit vote is that such a monumental decision should not have been allowed to be made on the basis of a 4% margin, it seems to me that the very fact that such a monumental decision came down to such a narrow margin is more telling than which side of the coin happened to come up. If the population of a political unit is divided right down the middle on such a fundamental issue, then by definition it is NOT a political unit — and it hardly could be, being as large as it is. Look at the maps of uniformly yellow Scotland and nearly uniformly blue England — why should either of these two distinct countries with such different political outlooks be forced to abide by the decisions of the other? And of course the same question could be asked of, say, Vermont and Oklahoma. I used to complain that American elections offered no real choices, and I was far from the only one to echo that refrain, but it now seems to me that when a democratic process produces a set of candidates who don't differ much, it's actually a sign of a healthy polity — that its members broadly agree on the policies they want. Instead, every four years we have to choose between, on the one hand, a timid, incremental attempt to undo the damage that's been accruing since 1980, and on the other, war, social injustice, and economic collapse. And each time at least 46% of the population votes for each side, and one side ends up angry. But why should anyone be angry? Why shouldn't the blue states get the administration they want, and the red states get the administration they want, especially given that in this century it's generally been the same states in each camp, give or take? Why the insistence on lumping together regions with very different cultures and histories into an unwieldy, eternally fractious whole?
This is not a new question from me; a lot of my history articles have ended up going down this road. Imagine how much more progressive the U.S. might be if we had just let the South go in 1860 and had been spared a century and a half of Southern congressmen holding us back!, I would say. And occasionally someone would write in to condemn this sort of rhetoric as selfish, as it would abandon red-state progressives to suffer under red-state policies without any external check. For instance, gay people in Mississippi can marry their partners now! How many extra decades would they have had to wait if the South were independent? Nor could they "just leave" in this scenario, for if the U.S. were broken up, you'd have to go through a formal immigration process to move from one state to another, and would need a passport just to visit! Which in turn is one of the things that has the Remain voters of my acquaintance most distraught: they're now about to lose their freedom to travel, live, and work anywhere in the EU. And believe me — I know a little something about the harm those sorts of barriers can cause. I spend a lot of time wondering how much better my life might be right now if, during the twelve years that Elizabeth and I were flying back and forth between the U.S. and Canada to see each other, one of us could have lived and worked in the other's country without immigration laws getting in the way. But the flip side is that last month, when Solange was hit by a damn car, she was able to go to the hospital and receive emergency room treatment and ongoing physical therapy without having to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars — because she too lives north of the border, in a country that was not yoked to the American South when settling upon a health care system. What I never hear from the people who insist that Berkeley and Biloxi be united under a single federal government is why it's okay that Tupelo and Toronto have an international border between them. Is it because Seattle and Vancouver are drastically different societies that lack the deep cultural bond that exists between New York City and Wichita? No — the idea that Alaska must be irrevocably linked to Alabama but not to Alberta could hardly be more arbitrary. The United States is not a natural political unit, and I am still inclined to think that the natural political units within it would be better off determining their own policies — cooperating with the neighbors with whom they agreed, and not subject to vetoes by neighbors with whom they disagreed.
Note: I am not therefore arguing that Leave was the correct choice for the UK. As many commentators have pointed out, the UK was already receiving many of the benefits of EU membership while opting out of flawed provisions like the euro, an à la carte approach not offered to other countries. But even more broadly than that, it seems to me that there is a very convincing argument to be made for Remain, which is this. Say you're setting out on a trip down the river with a bunch of friends. You can choose to take a bunch of little motorboats, or you can pool your resources and rent a yacht. Both of these choices have merit. The yacht is more cost-effective, and you don't have to worry about anyone being left behind — but if you hit the rocks, you all go down together. Taking multiple boats is more expensive and less comfortable, but you can take different routes, and if one boat capsizes, it doesn't endanger the rest. I tend to lean toward the latter option, given that the one time I went on an overseas road trip with a group of friends, we ended up pulling the plug halfway through because even though we'd rented a single camper van, we were very different people and wanted to go different places. But neither of these options is analogous to Brexit. Brexit is like renting the yacht and then sawing off your piece of it in the middle of the river. It may by some measures be economically suboptimal to decline a given trade agreement when initially offered, but abruptly disentangling from decades' worth of established agreements is catastrophically disruptive. So while it's hard for me to blame Leave voters for choosing to ditch the EU, given that I believe in political decentralization and would be very tempted to vote to take California out of the United States if I could, early returns suggest that the Brits who spent Wednesday posting comments like "Hope my country doesn't commit economic suicide tomorrow!" knew what they were talking about.
But one argument I cannot relate to is the notion that Brexit is bad because it reduces the UK's ranking in some sort of hierarchy of great powers. My Facebook feed is currently full of Brexit post-mortems; in one of them, the poster writes of having spent time in his childhood "travelling through tiny insular European countries, with their quaint little borders and currencies", and grumbles that "soon Britain will shrink into cultural and economic irrelevance, like Switzerland". Another post laments that where Europe is concerned, the UK is now "on the other side of a sheet of reinforced glass, peering impotently in. Like Switzerland and Norway." This kind of talk threw me, because I'm not used to hearing these sorts of sneering dismissals outside of a Republican primary debate. After all, what are the happiest countries in the world? According to the World Happiness Index, which combines self-reported happiness scores with objective measures such as gross domestic product and life expectancy, the top four are Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway. While the big, apparently non-quaint, figuratively non-insular United Kingdom is 23rd — worse than Mexico. Now, perhaps this poster would counter that he could never be happy in some homogenous Scandinavian backwater or Alpine hamlet; he speaks rapturously about how, thanks to the EU, "London became this thrilling mix of people, cultures, food, music". But that's London. Which Thursday's vote showed to be not politically of a piece with the English countryside. Greater London has a population of over 8.5 million — all by itself, it's pushing the outer envelope of how big a functioning political unit can reasonably be. So to yoke it together with other regions — regions with fundamentally disparate political outlooks — and yet somehow expect to get a functioning polity out of the bargain? That's a formula for disaster. "Brexit" may have been a bad idea, and is certainly a terrible portmanteau. But a slightly better portmanteau, and quite possibly a better idea as well, is this new one I've seen going around: "Londonpendence".