Brexit a Victory for Xenophobia? Not So Fast.

It was perfectly possible for voters in the UK to vote to leave the EU to engage with the world without being pushed around by meddlesome bureaucrats.


"The media does have a bias in favor of facts," Fareed Zakaria snarked on CNN in response to charges that the "elite media" tilted in favor of the Remain camp in covering the U.K.'s recent Brexit vote. Well, maybe—and maybe that bit of arrogance aptly summarizes just why he and his ilk are resented by so much of the public, including the British majority that rejected continuing European Union membership.

Zakaria's larger point was that the Leave camp made emotional arguments appealing to xenophobia, raising the specter of a nation swamped by foreign refugees. By contrast, he insisted, "the people who wanted Britain to remain were producing studies and economic analyses and experts." That is a stark contrast to draw—but one that's convincing only if you ignore emotional appeals made by Zakaria's own preferred side.

"Are you scared of Brexit?" asked The Telegraph a few days before the vote. "If not, Remainers want you to be, as they've been spending the last few months making all sorts of predictions about the doom and gloom that a vote to Leave will cause." Remain's scare campaign so overtly attempted to frighten voters that its efforts gained the nickname "Project Fear."

In fact, both sides can be accused of appealing to base emotions leading up to the vote on June 23. But both sides also offered perfectly rational, balanced arguments. Specifically, it was perfectly possible for voters in the U.K. to vote to leave the E.U. not because they wanted to slam the door on the world, but because they wanted to engage with it while managing their own affairs, without being pushed around by unelected, meddlesome bureaucrats who actually put hurdles in the way of international commerce.

In 2013, the European Union stirred a hornet's nest with a proposal to require restaurants to serve olive oil only in commercially purchased bottles, not in refillable cruets or bowls. The ban, almost certainly intended to benefit large producers at the expense of local producers unable to package oil in single-use containers, was promptly pulled amidst a righteous outcry.

"What I find really interesting about this story is not the general derision with which the first proposal was greeted: rather, the nakedness of the ambition behind it," wrote Tim Worstall, a fellow at London's Adam Smith Institute. "Big business using 'consumer protection' legislation to kill off the small producer. Sadly, that's an all too common part of the way that the E.U. is governed. Regulation which privileges large companies over the small ones that cannot afford to obey the legislation."

Similar concerns arose around E.U. regulations targeting traditional herbal remedies. Beginning in 2011, they had to meet rigorous requirements regarding manufacturing and dosage. "Some manufacturers and herbal practitioners have expressed concern, arguing the new rules are too onerous for many small producers," noted the BBC.

Intrusive regulations aren't always obviously tilted toward connected businesses—sometimes they seem designed to stroke the green lobby. That was the case with the E.U.'s ban on powerful vacuum cleaners as an energy-saving measure. The regulation, still in place, set off a panic-fueled buying spree.

Those are facts that Zakaria and friends generally overlooked—but they weren't forgotten by the opposition. Leave advocate Boris Johnson, a leading candidate to be the U.K.'s next prime minister, frequently invoked E.U. overregulation as reason to end membership.

"I want us to be able to trade freely with that zone," Johnson told an interviewer. "But I don't want us to be subject to more and more top down legislation and regulation."

Journalist and author Matt Ridley, who favors globalization and says he "would have voted 'Yes' to the European Community" had he been old enough to participate in Britain's 1975 referendum on the issue, believes that leaving the E.U. is the key to expanding engagement with the world. The problem, he wrote, is that "the E.U. has created an ancien régime ruled by unelected commissioners with the sole power to initiate legislation, with a court able to overrule the elected parliaments of member states."

The E.U. has abandoned free trade in favor of political centralization, Ridley says, pointing out that it "still has no trade deals with America, China, Japan, Brazil, India, Canada, Australia and Indonesia."

He went on to describe the evolving superstate as "a regime whose corridors of power are swarming with lobbyists for big business, banks and pressure groups, all intent on getting bureaucrats to stifle innovation to protect their monopolies — and to harmonise the hell out of regional diversity."

"They love regulation because they can afford the compliance costs more easily than their smaller rivals," Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European Parliament, said of large businesses that favored staying within the European Union. "They have captured the Brussels machine and used it to raise barriers to entry."

Hannan echoed Ridley's point about the E.U. faltering on promoting free trade, specifically naming the lack of progress in lowering barriers with the U.K.'s natural partners, India and Australia. He also called the European Union "antidemocratic" given the appointed nature of its leadership—many of them selected from the ranks of politicians who had lost elections in their own countries.

"The E.U. isn't a wellspring of European-wide solidarity and cooperation," charged Spiked Online's Tom Slater. "It's a hiding place for our elites, an alliance of technocrats huddled together in fear of the masses. Real internationalism means believing in all peoples' capacity for self-determination, for the freedom to carve out their lives as they see fit. A vote to Leave is a vote of confidence in all European publics, not just our own."

These arguments, in their lack of xenophobia and their embrace of the world outside the mechanism of the European Union, also are facts—though not the kind preferred by pundits who pat themselves on the back for their supposedly dispassionate championing of the Remain cause.

Which is not to say that an embrace of openness, democracy, and economic dynamism drove most Leave voters to cast their ballots. There was a lot of ugliness in the campaign, and plenty of overt appeals to nativism and fear of change. Given the nature of private decision-making, there's no way to know which arguments proved most decisive.

But if fear drove some Leave voters, it certainly motivated many Remain voters. They feared not outsiders, but those within.

"Never mind a Brexit recession, Leave voters don't believe in climate change," Assaad Razzouk mocked in New Statesman.

"It is not the European Union, but the fast-growing legions of everymans—you and me—and the people we drink pints beside, who are posing a very real threat to freedom," huffed Anyusha Rose in the Washington Post.

"In many ways, members of the global professional class have started to identify more with each other than they have with the fellow residents of their own countries," writes Bloomberg's Megan McArdle, in describing the horrified reaction to the Brexit vote among so many journalists. "The dominant tone framed this as a blow against the enlightened 'us' and the beautiful world we are building, struck by a plague of morlocks who had crawled out of their hellish subterranean world to attack our impending utopia."

Zakaria and his buddies weren't necessarily so logical and fact-driven as they like to pretend. They had their facts and figures—and bogeymen, too.

Whether or not Brexit turns out to be a victory for xenophobia, or a blow for democracy and dynamism, has less to do with the vote itself than with how the U.K. manages the aftermath. Britain could withdraw within its borders—or exploit a new opportunity to engage the world on its own terms.