Russian Roulette Democracy

uk regions brexit voteYou will find this again and again: a good idea implemented with deleterious consequences. Democracy is a good idea. A Brexit referendum is not. After the relatively unexpected—Leave—result, many voices have raised against a decision of such potential consequence, made without the appropriate checks and balances. Of course, democrat fundamentalists will argue that a referendum is but the essence of democracy. Let me review a few thoughts against this popular misconception.

The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term. In “Britain Democratic Failure,” Kenneth Rogoff stresses that modern democracies have evolved systems of checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities and to avoid making uninformed decisions with catastrophic consequences. The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles. Has this been the case with Brexit? Not at all.

Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not. Indeed, no one has any idea of the consequences, both for the UK in the global trading system, or the effect on domestic political stability.

Perhaps the best proof is that people rushed to Google to understand the meaning of Brexit… the day after the vote took place!

brexit trends 24-7

The result has precipitated a chain of resignations in the party who called for the referendum, notably the first minister, James Cameron—presumably against Brexit—and Boris Johnson—Cameron’s nemesis—. The leave result leaves a (so called) United Kingdom divided in two camps, with the prospect of a minimum majority imposing their “tyranny” to a vast minority. (Of course, it would have been the same had the result been the opposite!)

This is democracy at its worst. Nobody who is rational and pursues a good outcome for his or her country, would have chosen this path. The question is why did they do it?

First things first: For decades, many British politicians have nurtured a cold disdain for Europe; and euroskepticism in the (so far) United Kingdom has become entrenched. Years of recession, job losses, higher costs of living, etc. have not helped. The EU is facing major challenges and in need of reform. In other words, the Brexit referendum has been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Second, there is no silver bullet to democratic consensus. In his article, Rogoff also wonders whether there is a better way to make these decisions.

I polled several leading political scientists to see whether there is any academic consensus; unfortunately, the short answer is no.

Of course, after Kenneth Arrow we know that there is not a way of consistently aggregating individual preference patterns into a widely accepted collective choice. However, that does not mean we cannot think about and try to improve the tools that our democracies use:

It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.

And given the tough decisions we are facing all over the place today, I would say this is more than urgent!

Third and more worryingly, although referendums are used in representative democracies, dictators are also and perhaps much keener on them.

After invading Austria in 1938, Hitler asked the Austrians in a plebiscite whether they wanted to be annexed by Germany. It was a choice they could not really refuse. Despots like to be backed by plebiscites, because they do not only pretend to represent the People; they are the People.

A referendum is not necessarily the best way to tap into people’s rational faculties or expertise. A referendum reduces complexity to absurd simplicity. They have to be administered with a pinch of salt. Referendums are about gut feelings, and therefore can be easily manipulated by demagogues, which is why demagogues like them. Has the British conservative party been playing demagoguery?

According to Josiah Ober(1), democracy—the power of the people—originally referred to “power” in the sense of “capacity to do things”, not “majority rule”

In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas, including Downs’ rational ignorance and Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

In Athens, collective wisdom produced useful knowledge to solve complex problems. Athens outperformed its city-state rivals at least in part because of its citizens’ superior capacity to produce new solutions:

The city-state of Athens, from the late sixth through the late fourth century B.C. is a case study of a participatory epistemic democracy: an intensively-studied historical example of a community whose remarkable success can, at least in part, be explained by Page’s two factors of sophistication and diversity.

“Majority rule” was an intentionally pejorative diminution, urged by democracy’s Greek critics.

Institutional structures such as democracies and markets rests substantially on the emergence of collective wisdom(2). To a large extent, the competitive advantage of individual firms and corporations also rests on it. However, collective wisdom requires a lot more than an inert pool of people. Collective wisdom cannot be taken for granted. It should be seen as a potential outcome, as something that can occur when the right conditions hold, but one that is in no way guaranteed.

For collective wisdom to emerge, we need to understand how to engineer it. And if we do not see more innovation in the social technologies that support our free society, it is not because of the lack of ideas, or the lack of means. Why then?

Maybe because real democracy is too uncomfortable for the established authorities, and because the very same technologies that would underpin real democracy, can be cheaply used to create a false sense of democracy, a sort of democracy theatre. Maybe it is plain resistance to change. Or maybe because alpha politicians like to play Russian roulette, after all.

The problem is that, once in a while, there is a bullet in the chamber. And bullets like Brexit are making us all poorer.


(1) Ober, Josiah. ‘The Original Meaning of “democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule’. Constellations 15, no. 1 (2008): 3–9.

(2) Hong, Lu, and Scott E Page. ‘Some Microfoundations of Collective Wisdom’. Collective Wisdom, 2008, 56–71.

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