Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Tue, 26 May 2020, 2:30 PM


Detoxifying Brexit

Author:   |    Publish date:

The Brexit debate has become ever-more fraught, and whatever happens next it is likely to remain so. Which poses the question: what can we as individuals do to dial down the hysteria and civilize the debate? Here are some suggestions.

Draw the right inference from the media.

Whenever I hear a Brexiter on the BBC, I'm inclined to believe more strongly in the case for Remain. Be it Mark Francois thinking he's re-enacting the Battle of Britain, or the cynical bad faith or Raab and Patel's claim that Johnson's deal is great for Northern Ireland because it gives it "frictionless trade" with the EU, their arguments are often counter-advocacy.

But we should not infer from this that all arguments for Brexit are nonsense. Instead, they tell us more about the media and politics than about Brexit. They tell us that selection mechanisms are broken - that MPs are selected for fanaticism not competence and that the BBC wants "good TV" and "senior sources" rather than to enlighten its audience.

Construct a counter-argument for yourself.

If you support Brexit, ask: what is the strongest case for remaining? And if you don't, ask: what is the best argument for leaving? For me, the strongest argument is not so much that the EU is a barrier to trade with the rest of the world - high tariffs (pdf) might instead be a sign of the difficulties of striking free trade deals - but that it suffers a democratic deficit and, in its treatment of Greece and tolerance of fiscal austerity, is insufficiently pro-growth. Leave-remain

Also, we should ask: what are the weaknesses of our side? Those who favour remaining should ask why their campaign failed in 2016, especially with the "left behind." And those who support leaving should ask why all reputable economists think that doing so will make us poorer.

Ask: why would intelligent people support the other side?

The 52% who voted Leave are not all fools, any more than are the 48% who voted Remain. As Simon Kuper says in a different context, "treat every situation as a learning opportunity."

Forget conspiracy theories.

Leave supporters are not disaster capitalists. And Remain supporters don't support EU membership because the EU pays them.

Ask: what type of democracy do we want, and how can we sustain it?

Of course, Brexit is no longer just (or even mainly) about the EU. Some who support Leave, I suspect care more about respecting the "will of the people" than about the details of Brexit. The conflict, therefore, is about whether we want direct or parliamentary democracy.

Both sides should scrutinize their own position here. Leave supporters should remember that the "will of the people" will not always be on their side. Would Jacob Rees-Mogg or Iain Duncan Smith be so keen on the will of the people if it were used - as polls suggest it could be - to justify widespread nationalization? They should therefore ask what sort of filters should be applied to the will of the people. And remain supporters should ask: why has parliamentary democracy become so unpopular, and what can be done to reverse this?

Avoid cognitive biases.

It's easy to see cognitive biases in the other side. I suspect that Brexit supporters are prone to a form of halo effect and wishful thinking in believing that Brexit will be good for the economy.

It's harder, though, to see them in ourselves But this is all the more reason to try. I fear I am prone to groupthink and deformation professionnelle (the tendency for ones' professional training to distort one's perspective: I tend to agree with the mass of economists who oppose Brexit, and I perhaps overweight economic considerations and underweight ones about identity. I might also be guilty of asymmetric Bayesianism: I'm so revolted by Farage and Francois that perhaps I become more militantly pro-Remain than the evidence might warrant.

Dial down the fanaticism

Millions of people are wrong about millions of things all the time. Being wrong is the human condition and is forgivable. What matters is that our errors be corrigible. And this requires that we not be fanatics, that we stand back from our beliefs - that we adopt what Richard Rorty called liberal irony.

You might object that a 6%+ hit (pdf) to GDP is something to be worked up about. Up to a point. The distributional impact of this (to an extent) is a matter of political choice - a choice separable from Brexit. And I suspect that Christoph Merkle's finding about the financial crisis applies to losses caused by economic policy as well: the anticipation of them hurts us more than the actual experience.

Take identity out of it.

So far, I've avoided the terms "Brexiter" and "Remainer". There's a reason for this. The nastiest disputes are those about identity: if you think you are underpaid and your boss doesn't, you can negotiate but if you think he's an arse and he thinks you're a serial whiner, things will be more fraught.

For example, Simon says he is angry about Brexit because Brexiters are denying that economics can be knowledge. From one perspective, his anger is understandable: they are denying his (well-earned) identity as an economic expert.

But we can change the perspective. Brexiters don't really support Brexit because of its economic benefits: belief in them is, as a I say, a halo effect rather than a rational or even sincere belief. Instead, they see Brexit as an intrinsic good, an expression of national sovereignty; this is why Sajid Javid thinks it "self-evidently" in the national interest. What we have (or should have) therefore is a dispute between two different conceptions, of intrinsic versus instrumental goods.

The Leaver-Remain divide is so bitter because it's become not about our relations with Europe but a battle of identities, with the two sides now being proxies for other things. Remainers see Leavers as social conservatives; Leavers see Remainers as elitists.

Remember: identities can change.

Herein, though, lies a reason for optimism: political identities can change. If I'd told you a mere four years ago that I was a Remainer, you wouldn't have known what I was on about. Back then, relations with the EU were a low-salience matter: only around 10% of voters (pdf) thought them the most important issue. And we could have had a civilized debate about them, had we been bothered to do so.

Our political identities can therefore change. It's for this reason that a lot of the most passionate disputes in the past now seem hard for us to understand - for example "wets vs dries" in the Tory party or the battles over Clause IV or nuclear weapons in Labour. This gives us hope that a return to sanity is possible

There is, however, a problem here. The people who most need to know all of the above are those who are least likely to read it. The mainstream media seem keener to inflame passions than to dampen them.

A bit of me thinks the reason for this isn't just to do with winning clickbait - something which the BBC, unforgiveably, seems as concerned about as the commercial media. Whilst we are divided about Brexit, we are not divided about something else - class. In this sense, Brexit hysteria suits our rulers just fine.

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