Brexit and the Divine Right of the Majority
By Pierre Lemieux
A photograph published in Monday’s Wall Street Journal shows supporters of Boris Johnson, the incoming British prime minister, brandishing signs saying “We Voted Leave.” Problem is, against the 51.9% of the voters who did vote “Leave,” 48.1% voted “Remain.” If you further consider that the referendum turnout was 72.2%, these numbers reduce to 37.5% and 34.7% respectively: about a third of the electorate voted one way, a third the other way. (See BBC, “EU Referendum Results.”) Why should such a slim majority (and a fortiori a mere plurality) allow the winners to impose their preferences on the minority? Is there a divine right of the majority?
One answer is that to avoid conflict, a procedure is required to decide public choices, and majority voting is such a procedure. This may be true in some cases, such as choosing the person or group who will run the government, as Hayek argued (see his Law, Legislation and Liberty). But it is doubtful that such a blunt procedure can pacify two nearly equal groups of individuals who consider an issue to be fundamental to their welfare. A related danger is that Leviathan will likely strengthen his power under the excuse of controlling the effects of conflict.
One way out of the problem is to require a procedure that, in some sense, is consented to by everybody: this corresponds to the contractarian view of the state, defended by James Buchanan among others. At least in a modern, diversified society (as opposed to a tribe), however, unanimous consent is difficult to obtain on a rule that could be used by one group to dominate another.
The choice between Brexit or non-Brexit seems to belong to the domain of very contentious issues. Half the United Kingdom’s voting population thinks that Brexit will produce the land of Cockayne they want, while the other alternative would bring foreign tyranny. The other half believes that European Union membership gives them the Cockaygne continent they want as opposed to local tyranny. Or I should write “nearly half” because a small part of the British public certainly prefers another alternative.
For there exists another alternative to collective choices within the UK or within the EU. There is an alternative to totalitarian democracy (as Bertrand de Jouvenel called modern political regimes). This alternative is to extirpate individuals from the binary choice between two totalitarian democracies; to work towards a political system that will leave individuals as free as possible to make their own choices according to their own preferences (for example, by making each one free to reach his own trade deals). It is far from clear whether British or European totalitarian democracy is the best, or least bad, route towards this goal.
We can understand the two opposite opinions or, perhaps more accurately, the two emotional storms. On the one hand, it is somewhat satisfactory to observe the repudiation of the previous statist establishment. On the other hand, it is tempting to see the EU’s heavy institutions as a bulkwark against statist populism.
In practice, advocates of constitutional—that is, limited—democracy have proposed that collective choices that seem unavoidable (such as which state will rule over a given patch of land) and are deeply divisive should be submitted to a super-majority rule. It is useful, in this context, to remember that in the 1975 referendum, 67.2% of British voters approved the government’s decision to join the European Economic Community (precursor of the EU).
Since 1975, of course, British public opinion may well have changed along with the changes in European arrangements. But British public opinion may also have changed after the 2016 Brexit referendum. Moreover, as social choice theory has shown, public opinion may change without any individual changing his own opinion (see my post “Condorcet’s Brexit” on this blog).
These further considerations only reduce the sanctity that we should attach to collective choices, including majority choices.