Tuesday 27 September 2016

Governing is for grown-ups, democracy is for kids

Ordinary voters cannot be expected to understand economic and political issues, so referendums don't work, writes Eoin O'Malley

Eoin O'Malley

Published 03/07/2016 | 02:30

‘Voters remain abysmally ignorant of basic facts and many of them behave like children.’ Getty Images
‘Voters remain abysmally ignorant of basic facts and many of them behave like children.’ Getty Images

Last February, Boris Johnson published a column in the Daily Telegraph that outlined a series of apparently ridiculous European Union bureaucratic excesses. He claimed that the EU banned children under eight from blowing up balloons; that the EU stipulated only certain-sized coffins were allowed. One of his best was the assertion that the EU had imposed a ban on people reusing tea bags.

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It was all great fun. Of course, it was also all rubbish, but the claims were distantly related to some facts. For instance, the EU does stipulate that a warning should be displayed on balloons below a certain quality, a bit like the warning we are used to seeing that some products are a choking hazard for children under three.

But the facts were disposed of and replaced with claims that, if not true, seemed as if they could be true. When, in a House of Commons committee they were exposed as rubbish, Boris laughed it off. He acknowledged that it wasn't quite the truth, but the job had been done.

The idea had been planted in voters' minds that the EU was an over-weening bureaucracy.

Especially if you were predisposed to think of the EU as an excessively zealous bureaucracy, this would sound right and confirm your views. Anyway who would be watching a House of Commons Treasury select committee?

This was how Boris and the Leave side managed to win the Brexit referendum. Over years, if not decades, it planted and nurtured these ideas in people's minds.

Many voters lapped it up. Maybe we shouldn't be as surprised as we were at the result.

The Leave campaigners are shocked that they managed to win. British voters are shocked at what they have done.

The result has wreaked havoc on financial markets, on the streets and with young Britons' futures. It could even lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

Maybe this isn't a bad thing. Voters could learn a lesson. Their votes have consequences.

The collapse in sterling will mean at the very least that British holidaymakers' beers in the Costa de Sol will cost a bit more. Their pensions will be hit.

Reports of increased racist and anti-immigrant abuse in England (let's be honest, it's all about England) are appalling for all, but are especially worrying for immigrants and Muslims.

The sight of young people protesting against the results of the Brexit referendum is saddening and reassuring. These are the people that will be most affected by the vote and they apparently voted overwhelmingly to remain. They could be cut off from Europe.

If Brexit goes ahead, they won't have access to Erasmus programmes, meaning having to pay higher fees to study abroad and could lose the right to work in other European countries. They obviously care about the crisis the vote has caused.

Usually, governments muddle through crises. They do just enough to avoid calamity but not enough to fully resolve the problem. Because we never reach full crisis mode (the Greeks might disagree), citizens don't fully engage with politics. They grumble, but don't riot. They certainly don't bother to engage in policy debate.

Voters remain abysmally ignorant of basic facts. Many surveys show that ordinary voters vastly overestimate how much is spent on social welfare payments. They believe that immigrants cost vast sums in welfare, when in fact (mainly because they are predominantly young, working, childless males) migrants in the UK are net contributors to the state.

And because we never reach crisis mode, we forget about the alternatives that could happen.

The EU has led directly to the longest peace time within Western Europe for at least a thousand years. We have grown so used to peace that we stopped believing an alternative was even possible. The war in Ukraine and the attacks in Paris should serve to remind us that the threats to our peace are real. But somehow they don't.

Many voters behave like children. They are diverted from danger, oblivious to the threat, but vaguely annoyed that their parents won't let them walk close to the cliff.

Part of the problem is that democracy doesn't incentivise the voters to act like grown-ups.

If a person makes a private choice, it usually just affects the person herself. If she chooses not to pay into a pension, she'll suffer the consequences directly from her decision, not the rest of us. This means she has an incentive to find out about pensions and make good decisions.

With democracy, this isn't the case. Our vote on its own doesn't really matter. The individual vote doesn't make a difference. Why would we find out about how the EU works or learn the likely impact of imposing rent controls when our one vote won't change the outcome?

But add up all those individual ignorant choices and we make a collectively ignorant choice. We can make gravely poor decisions.

And even if I have made an effort to find out about policy issues and to vote wisely, it won't matter. I get stuck with the poor decision the rest of you made. Your bad behaviour affects me.

The Brexit referendum showed many voters at their most childlike.

They disparaged evidence and regarded experts in the same way most would view astrologers. They didn't even choose sweets, ignoring the warnings of the dentist, they bought magic jelly beans. They signed up to a fairytale.

Experts don't always get things right and almost never get things exactly right. They are sometimes terribly wrong. They are often too certain of themselves. But the answer is not to dismiss expertise, it is to be more discerning and questioning of it.

Our sympathy for the young, now complaining about the outcome should be limited. Polls suggest that they were much less likely to vote. They are happy to Instagram their annoyance, but by choosing not to vote in large numbers they effectively abdicated the decision to their elders.

Maybe voters should not be asked to decide on such complex issues. What normally happens in parliamentary democracies, such as the UK, is that voters don't themselves get to choose policies directly. The voters pick leaders, who then make decisions on our behalf. It's like picking people to be our parents.

We know we'd be better off with the leader who gives us some freedom but keeps an eye on things, so they don't get too wild.

But sometimes we are attracted to the uncle who promises to empty the bank account and use the proceeds to throw a hell of a party. Boris Johnson is that uncle. Having wrecked the house, he's handing the keys back to the grown-ups.

Sunday Independent

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