Is the Brexit referendum an "abuse of democracy"?
By Alberto Mingardi
The UK had a very vigorous debate on Brexit. I found the strategy of the Institute of Economic Affairs, the doyen of European think tanks, to be very smart in allowing its own fellows to argue publicly of the merits of both sides. For the libertarian Brexit case, see also Matt Ridley’s recent article in The Wall Street Journal.
Some may argue that libertarian pro-Europeans are making a case for a free trade Europe that is no longer, and that likewise libertarian pro-exit people are making a case for a blend of a strong sense of national identity and an allegiance to globalisation and markets that isn’t there either. Both sides have a point. Political facts never come in as pure a form as political ideas.
The tragic assassination of MP Jo Cox has brought many to claim that the Brexit debate has been infected with disruptive ideologies. My impression is that you got far less “populism,” for lack of a better word, in England before the Brexit referendum than, say, in Spain, where elections will take place on June 26, with the most likely outcome of the extreme left-wing Podemos becoming the leading party. Or in Italy, where local elections saw the irresistible rise of the Five Star Movement, which opposes any form of “privatization”.
Mario Monti, economist, former Italian prime minister and, more crucially, former European commissioner, begs to differ. He gave to Turin-based newspaper La Stampa an astonishing interview in which he calls the Brexit referendum “an abuse of democracy.” Monti believes that the referendum resulted from David Cameron’s attempts to placate the Eurosceptic component of his party: “It was a game to get rid of the Tory Euroskeptic bloc and strengthen his own leadership. This is what I mean with abuse of democracy [È stata tutta una partita per levarsi d’impiccio il blocco euroscettico fra i Tory e rafforzare la leadership. Per questo ho parlato di abuso della democrazia]”.
In a way, what Monti is calling “an abuse of democracy” is the fact that particular groups attempt to have a say, trying to influence and indeed change the balance of power in a bigger group (may it be a party, a city, or, eventually, a country). This seems to me to be the essence of democracy. I don’t find it particularly scandalous that a party is responsive to one of its factions. And certainly a fundamental question such as “Do you want part of your laws to be made in Brussels or not?” seems to me something voters can cope with, far more than the usual general election practice of voting for parties whose agenda no voter knows from A to Z, and certainly no voters can keep a check on.
I say so without necessarily thinking that majority vote is the best way of resolving social conflicts. But there’s a big difference between the classical liberal skepticism over an omnipotent majority and the technocratic mindset Monti shares.
Libertarians tend to argue that the space of collective choice should be reduced, so as to enlarge the sphere of individual sovereignty. Technocrats, instead, think the status quo should not be endangered by individuals being called to the ballot. I think that two groups may readily agree on what Bryan Caplan in his brilliant “The Myth of the Rational Voter” has shown: that is, that voters make not just ill informed, but also irrational choices. But look at the different remedies proposed. Libertarians want to better align incentives, so to speak, by placing people in a position to bear the full cost of their choices. They don’t want just to reduce the externalities of voting: they want also to foster individual responsibility. Technocrats, instead, want – so to speak – to insure people against their own shortsightness.
When they vote for a party in general elections, individuals are not very likely to be fully aware of its agenda. Nor are they likely to spend the necessary time and effort to monitor its implementation, after elections. But Brexit is a referendum on a rather fundamental question: do you want to belong to a wider political community, called the European Union, or not? I find it difficult to consider it an “abuse of democracy”.
[broken links fixed–Econlib Ed.]