Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Brexit and the problem of referendums

This is Joseph.

There has been a lot of discussion about direct democracy in the wake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.  On one hand, you want to respect the will of the average citizen.  On the other hand, it is one thing to set a policy and quite another to carry out.

Consider the Sicilian Expedition carried out by classical Athens.  Clearly this course of action was voted for by the majority of the citizens of Athens and was an exercise of direct democracy.  But the result was a complete catastrophe, and likely the beginning of the end of Athens as a major power.  The loss of the sailors in the this debacle was a key element that led to the eventual defeat and conquest of Athens by Sparta.

This isn't a argument against democracy but rather an endorsement of representative democracy, as practiced by countries like the United Kingdom. These sorts of governments have the ability to develop complex policies to handle complex questions, and to make difficult trade-offs. There seems to be a naive notion that asking people to make tough decisions is a good idea, but this is only true if the sequela are also pretty simple.  It is one thing to vote to invade Sicily.  But the question presumes a competent expedition and the answer might be very different if the people would presume that the politicians might bungle the implementation.

Possible analogies with Brexit are left as an exercise to the reader.

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