The best argument for Brexit (and my objection)

The most sensible thing to do, when comparing two conflicting ideas, is focusing on the best argument in support of both sides. That is where the conflict is most likely to be resolved, and the best idea (or best combination of ideas) to be found. And yet we fail to follow this simple rule virtually all the time. When we attack an idea that we don’t like we systematically aim for the weakest, most grotesque version of it – after all, we are humans and we want to win arguments more than we want to discover the truth.

The inevitable consequence of this is that groups supporting opposite ideas end up talking past one another and misunderstand each other: neither of them recognise the ideas that the rivals are attacking, and there is no real progress in the conversation.

In the spirit of fighting this tendency in myself I thought I would periodically share on Innumerabilibus (under the new category called “The Hidden Argument”) what I recognise as the best argument for an idea I don’t support, as well as my (best) objection to that argument.

I will start today with the best argument in support of Brexit that I came across.

The best argument in support of Brexit1

The bureaucratic nature of the EU’s institutions makes them unsuitable for effective decision making. In particular, it makes it hard to correct bad policies because no one is really accountable for them. Also, since these policies are often the result of broad compromises among countries, they don’t really reflect anyone’s position, making it even harder to pinpoint who was wrong if things go badly. The effectiveness of a political system relies in its ability to correct for errors, and this is best achieved at the smaller scale level of single countries, where accountability is clearer.

Why it is a good argument

The argument’s premise is very solid and it is rarely spelled out so clearly: the reason we should like democracy is not some abstract concept of justice or fairness. Rather, it is because democracies allow us to test different policies and then adjust/withdraw them – if unsuccessful – in a relatively smooth and peaceful way through regular elections (this idea dates back to the philosopher Karl Popper). Put it this way, it seems true that a supranational body like the EU (where changes in policies are slower as they are based on wide consensus and bureaucracy) is less effective at delivering such error correction than single countries.

Why it didn’t make me change my mind nonetheless

First of all, even though I find the “error correction framing” quite compelling, I don’t think the democratic process can be completely reduced to that. Voters are humans who, as such, are naturally forgetful, short-term focused and inconsistent. Framing their votes as thoughtful error correction of policies that were voted in the previous election seems a bit naïve. Tribalism, charisma, bias and disinformation seem to play a much more important role in deciding whom the average voter is going to vote for.

Secondly, even if we accept the “error correction framing”, we know from game theory that some optimal policies that benefit everyone simply cannot be achieved short of an enforced and supervised collaboration among the players2. Any advantage in terms of “agility” linked to country-level decision making should be weighed against the (mathematically-proven) disadvantages that come from removing supranational institutions.

Finally, this whole pro-Brexit argument is more like an argument against proportional electoral systems than against supranational institutions like the EU. Today the EU happens to work (mostly) through bureaucratic and proportional mechanisms for historical reasons, but this doesn’t have to be the case forever. A hypothetical, future “United States Of Europe” may well end up having a majoritarian electoral system, hence becoming a more efficient error correction system. Ironically, what stops the EU from becoming such a political union is mainly the opposition of countries like the UK, which then criticise it for not being as effective as individual countries.

[1] I first came across this pro-Brexit argument through the physicist David Deutsch, great scientist and follower of Popper’s ideas in both epistemology and political science. A thorough summary of his view in support of Brexit can be found on this interview.

[2] For example, the so-called Nash equilibria that are not Pareto optimal.

2 thoughts on “The best argument for Brexit (and my objection)

  1. More and more we need long term I vision that is unfortunately not compatible with frequent political elections and need to gather consensus…. Burocracy is not the solution but a mode to build long term strategies for future generation. Moreover a single country is too small to implement long term policies of we look to our planet challenges…. Europeo is even too small to face these challenges …


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