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My 350 on Brexit: the illusion of direct democracy

"In the aftermath of Brexit, we need to cast doubts on the presumed “rationality” of actors, commonly discussed in economic theory."

Francesca Ammaturo
1 July 2016

Before June 23, the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom was perceived by many as an empty rhetorical tool deployed by some sectors of the British political elite in order to exercise leverage in Brussels.

Fuelled by a pompous nationalist discourse and an insistence on economic trade-offs which appeared to be disingenuous, this anachronistic vision of Britain succeeded, nonetheless, to mobilise important segments of the British population, especially those who witnessed (directly or indirectly) the ruins of a post-World War II Europe.

In the aftermath of Brexit, we need to cast doubts on the presumed “rationality” of actors, commonly discussed in economic theory. With complete information, agents should, in theory, be able to make rational and informed decisions about what is in their best interests. The focus on economic trade-offs deriving from the UK’s position inside or outside the EU, during the Referendum campaign, called for a direct judgement from the part of the British citizens on such a complex and ramified issue such as that of abandoning the EU.

Leaving aside discussions on whether the media coverage enabled the voters to possess “complete information” in the first place, it is important to point out that rationality may be overruled in the context of risk societies, in which we currently live. When risks are distributed unevenly among different sectors of societies, agents’ motivation for a particular choice may not necessarily mirror the given or perceived notion of the “common good”.

Those who directly perceive or live directly the existence of these “risks”, such as disenfranchised, marginalised or impoverished sectors of British society, may have resorted, in fact, to the creation of an alternative (possibly delusional) notion of “national interest”.

In turn, this aspect directly leads to the issue of popular sovereignty and democracy, as discussed by Alexis de Tocqueville with his concept of the “tyranny of the majority”. Whilst, in fact, the mobilisation of more than 30 million British voters on the EU Referendum points to the existence of a society engaging in politics, participation in itself may not always be an inherently good thing for democracy and the public good.

In this regard, in the following weeks, it will be useful to ask the question posed by de Tocqueville: “If it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse the power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach?”

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