The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Some critics of Britain's vote for Brexit argue that it proves that democracies should not rely on referenda to make important decisions. Relatively knowledgeable elected officials may be better positioned to make such complex choices than generally ignorant voters. Examples of this sort of reaction to Brexit include recent articles by Jason Brennan (a leading expert on political ignorance and the ethics of voting), and Emily Badger of Wonkblog, here at the Washington Post. Badger and Brennan are not the first to condemn referenda as dangerous conduits for public ignorance. The American Founding Fathers viewed direct democracy with deep suspicion, which is why the US Constitution does not include any elements of it. Margaret Thatcher, the great heroine of British Euroskeptics, denounced referenda as "a device for dictators and demagogues." If the Iron Lady were alive today, she might be torn between happiness at the result of the Brexit vote and distaste for the way it was done.
Like Badger (and possibly Brennan), I think the British voters made the wrong choice. I also believe that their decision was significantly influenced by political ignorance regarding many of the key issues at stake.
But I am not convinced that this proves that decision-making by politicians is systematically better. Elected officials may, on average, know more about policy issues than voters. But they need to cater to an often ignorant electorate in order to get elected in the first place. For that reason, policymaking by elected officials is often influenced by public ignorance no less than referenda are. Successful politicians learn to appeal to ignorant voters, and—where possible—exploit ignorance for their own benefit. Some of the most egregious manipulation of political ignorance in recent years has occurred in the context of elections or ordinary legislative decision-making, not referenda. Consider the rise of Donald Trump, or the Obama administration's exploitation of "the stupidity of the American voter" to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Neither elections nor referenda can avoid one of the fundamental flaws of modern democracy: the problem of rational political ignorance. Because the odds of affecting electoral outcomes are so low, most people have little incentive to become well-informed about politics. The problem is further exacerbated by the enormous size and complexity of modern government, which makes it hard even for relatively well-informed voters to keep track of more than a small fraction of its activities.
I. Elections vs. Referenda.
Given that painful reality, is there any reason to believe that referenda will be any worse than conventional elections? It depends on the situation. In some ways, referenda might actually be better than elections. In a presidential or legislative election, there are many different issues on the agenda, which makes it hard for rationally ignorant voters to follow more than a small fraction of them. By contrast, a referendum can focus the voters' attention on a single discrete question, thereby reducing the information burden.
Referenda might also be useful when it comes to issues where there is a serious conflict between the interests of elected officials and those of the general public. Most obviously, the former often can't be trusted to deal objectively with issues that directly affect their own grip on power: electoral districting, campaign finance, and so forth. In such cases, the superior knowledge of politicians often actually does more harm than good, since they can use it to advance their own interests and the expense of the people.
On the other hand, referenda are often likely to be particularly poor mechanisms for making decisions on issues that involve complex tradeoffs with other priorities. For example, I am skeptical of California referendum initiatives that require the government to spend X amount of money on some particularly policy objective, such as education. The problem is that voters will find it difficult to weigh the value of spending X dollars on education versus the nearly infinite variety of other things on which the money can be spent. Legislators are more likely to have the time and expertise needed to study the tradeoffs in at least some detail.
II. The Brexit Case.
How does the Brexit referendum stack up on these admittedly incomplete criteria? It seems like a middle ground case. On the plus side, it asked a single discrete question: should Britain stay in the European Union or leave? Another virtue is that the question directly affects the scope of the power of elected officials. If Britain leaves the EU, the British parliament would have more power, by virtue of no longer being overridden by EU laws. That might be a reason to suspect bias on the part of legislators.
On the other hand, the issues at stake in the referendum were quite complicated. The ultimate impact of Brexit depends in large part on how Britain and the EU will handle the new situation. There are multiple dimensions to the problem, and many of them are hard to predict—even for experts. That's one of the reasons why Brexit is a difficult issue, one on which both sides have some strong arguments.
Furthermore, it is striking that members of the British Parliament overwhelmingly oppose Brexit despite the fact that it would increase their power. To put it mildly, politicians are rarely shy about pushing for policies that give them more authority. On the rare occasions when they are, it might make sense for the rest of us to pay attention to their concerns.
Another notable aspect of the Brexit vote is that the very Parliament that overwhelmingly opposed leaving the EU also overwhelmingly voted in favor of authorizing a referendum on the subject, by a whopping 544-53 margin. If it was a mistake to decide this issue by popular vote, it was a mistake for which the political elite deserves a large share of the blame.
Ultimately, the question of whether Brexit should have been decided by a popular referendum is a tough one—much like the question of Brexit itself. It does not provide much support for sweeping conclusions about the value of referenda more generally. There are serious problems with deciding such questions by either referenda or ordinary legislation.
Some scholars argue that the ubiquity of voter ignorance should lead us to rely more on expert bureaucrats, preferably insulated from political pressure. But such experts often have serious information problems of their own, as well as perverse incentives. Others contend that, instead of elections or referenda, we should use "sortition" to empower small groups of randomly selected citizens to decide important issues. This could potentially combine popular participation in political decision-making with stronger incentives to acquire relevant knowledge. But sortition has a number of pitfalls, and is unlikely to be an effective solution to the problem of widespread political ignorance.
Ultimately, concerns about ignorant and irrational political decision-making should lead us to reduce the number of important issues decided through the political process in the first place. We have stronger incentives to make well-informed decisions when we "vote with our feet" than when we make choices at the ballot box. In the meantime, however, we should keep in mind the reality that both elections and referenda are often affected by ignorance. The Brexit experience does little to prove that either is systematically superior to the alternative.