Last week on the Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steve Hilton, one of the architects of last year’s Brexit vote. One of the tidbits of that interview was Hilton’s disillusionment not at the result of the vote (which is what he wanted: for Britain to leave the EU) but instead at the reasons why people voted to leave the EU (anti-immigrant sentiment and a misplaced nationalism, which he didn’t want).
I’m willing to look away from his myopia for the purposes of this blog entry. (If this essay were more focused on the Brexit vote itself, he wouldn’t be so lucky.)
But he made an interesting and important point that I’m not completely unsympathetic to: his quarrel with the EU was a direct result of the fact that the centralized government was appointed and not elected. He used the analogy of the United States: each individual state is autonomous, but we still vote for the president and the congress. That doesn’t happen with the EU.
I suspect that particular bit of resentment isn’t unique to Britain. But is the solution to that problem a complete withdrawal from the union? Why couldn’t he lobby to change the way the EU’s leadership is chosen? If he is being intellectually honest, then, I have to assume he feels the same way about the UN and NATO. He didn’t say.
But Brexit is emblematic of a greater problem that democracies have to face: the fact that allowing the voting public to make serious policy decisions via referenda is, more often than not, counterproductive. (If I’m being my most polite.)
At its surface, it feels like it should be the opposite. After all, if you put questions of the future of the community directly into the hands of the people, that seems like the ideal future state of a democracy. (Even the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, meaning leadership or government by the people…)
But that’s the real failing of a referendum: a democracy depends upon an informed electorate and even the most informed of us, we can’t possibly know everything we need to know before we step into the voting booth. And a referendum has two pain points to it: the wording of the question and the limitations of it being a yes/no question.
Think of the hypothetical referendum that asks the question “would you support a tax increase in order to turn the community into a Paradise by every sense of the word?” There are three kinds of people who would vote “no” on this question: the curmudgeons who want everything to get worse, the people who already think it’s perfect, and the people who stopped reading after the word “increase”.
Think of all of the votes around the US prior to the Obergefell v Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage. Almost all of the referenda in the various states, went against allowing same sex couples to get married. Why? If you aren’t gay, allowing gay couples to marry is something that you should be, at worst, ambivalent to. I’m sure there are some gay people who don’t want to be allowed to marry, but there’s no way they could be enough to swing the results of the referendum away from that privilege when you look at the size of the greater electorate.
Now magnify that to something at a much larger scale, like Brexit or a vote to secede from a greater union/nation-state (I’m looking at you, Scotland, Quebec, and even Basque). With all of the moving pieces that need to go into the implications of such a dramatic change, is it ever truly fair to expect such a dramatic policy initiative to be driven by asking literally everyone a yes/no question? Especially when there could be other options that haven’t been put to a vote at all. A hundred people voting “yes” could offer a hundred different reasons for their vote.
The very fact that so many aspects of the US Constitution are still being litigated and in need of interpretation — nearly 230 years after it was first ratified — is proof that no one can truly know all of the implications of a vote. (Although the Third Amendment isn’t litigated very much. I guess we got that one right…)
I have no problem with any time the leaders of a democracy want to know if they are steering the country in the right direction and opening questions up to a general vote. But the voters are under no duty or obligation to uphold the foundational documents and intents of the community or nation, the way the leaders are. For that reason alone, referenda should never be binding.
And if you’re just polling the people to know how they’re feeling, why not use the professional pollsters rather than going through the timing and expense of an election?