As a werewolf who lives in the United Kingdom, I’ve found it impossible to avoid Brexit.
No, really. There’s no way of escaping this bloody nonsense. Absolutely everything even remotely political now has to be connected to Brexit in some way, from the NHS to scientific grant funding to bees. It’s frankly very tiring to talk about Brexit, so I forgive you if you’re already tuning out of this article, but worry not: I’m not going to talk about Brexit too much in this article. I’ve got a much broader question in mind, and Brexit so happens to be usefully illustrative of it.
The question is: is it ever acceptable for a government to overrule the expressed will of the majority?
The Ethic of the Veto
Let us imagine, for a moment, that Brexit can be demonstrated, objectively, to be the wrong decision. Such a thing is, of course, impossible, but imagine for a moment that we have that ability, and we can say for a provable fact that no possible future exists in which Brexit provides a good outcome for the United Kingdom. And yet, the majority of the people who voted in the referendum voted for it. The question thus stands:
Is it ever acceptable for a government to overrule the expressed will of the majority? Every answer to this question has some very serious implications, and they stretch far beyond the outcome of referendums on the European Union.
If the answer is “yes,” it implies, for example, that there are some choices the citizenry aren’t qualified to make, that government is both able and permitted to make value judgements, that a country’s citizenry is subordinate to its government and that elected officials are not bound to directly represent the desires of their voters.
If the answer is “no,” it implies that the opinion of experts is no more valuable than the opinion of any other citizen, that a government can’t make definitive statements if they aren’t backed by public consensus, that government has no ethical authority and that laws and statutes don’t really have meaning if enough people choose not to follow them.
I believe it would be reasonable to say that the majority of libertarians believe, to some degree, that “no” is the correct answer.
Tyranny of the Majority
Let us firmly establish that it is possible for a majority to be wrong.
If a majority of people believed that the Earth was flat, they would be wrong. If a majority of people believed that dolphins are fish, they would be wrong. Of course, many abstract concepts – justice, sovereignty, compassion – are subjective and defined at least partially by consensus and agreement, but a lot of basic facts about the world can be empirically demonstrated, and do not change depending on public opinion.
There are many historical examples of governments making decisions with which the majority of the population disagreed, from racial desegregation and the legalisation of LGBT marriage in the United States to the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom; in the case of the latter, a half-century after its abolition, the death penalty still polls favourably among the British. But this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature: it is the government’s duty to legally protect vulnerable minorities from exploitative or hostile majorities.
But if government has both this ability and the right to use it, the question arises: when is it acceptable for it to be used? It’s seen as a triumph when a government passes legalisation legalising LGBT marriage or promoting greater equality between genders, but a travesty when they enact austerity or engage in an unpopular military intervention. We cannot say that all use of government supremacy is good, but having said that not all use of it is bad, how do we decide when its exercise is proper?
The problem is, of course, that every person will have a different opinion. A hardcore libertarian might say “only when all private measures have failed to solve a problem,” but there’s a lot of room for debate over what constitutes failure to solve a problem. A utilitarian might say “whenever the public good is served,” but that again is open to interpretation – and it worth pointing out that in the case of overruling a majority opinion, the public already have an idea of how they would be best served.
Humanity in general has a fear of grey areas – we like things to be black or white. So the question of a power that seems tyrannical but sometimes must be exercised in the name of liberty comes up, things get awkward. And nowhere is it more pronounced than when the public have formally expressed their opinion.
Damage to Democracy
It may sometimes be right for the government to overrule public opinion, but is it ever right for the government to overrule a referendum?
Whatever the answer is, it’s dangerous. It damages democracy, and it damages faith in democracy. When the public is formally invited to express their intent for the country’s governance and the government just ignores them, it’s a serious blow not only to the legitimacy of referendums but to the legitimacy of democracy in general. Should the result of a referendum be ignored, it is not thereafter impossible to imagine that the result of a general election might also be ignored.
Of course, the EU referendum was not legally binding. Referendums in the United Kingdom are almost never legally binding, for the exact reason we’re discussing: the government does need a way out if circumstances change and the result of a referendum can no longer be practically implemented. But there was a moral expectation that the result of the referendum would be followed, else why call it? To ignore the result would damage public trust in the very idea of voting.
Is It Worth It?
We’ve seen the economic and political forecasts for a post-Brexit United Kingdom, and even the best-case scenarios are nigh-apocalyptic. Our country risks losing everything from economic stability to credibility on the world stage, all in service to ideas like “sovereignty” whose invokers can rarely define them. But is it worth running the risk of damaging public faith in democracy to prevent such a catastrophe?
Personally, I do; but of course, everyone always wants the government to exercise this power when a referendum doesn’t go their way. Nigel Farage himself said, prior to the election, that the question “wouldn’t be over” if Remain won by a narrow margin, and has even recently spoken in favour of holding a second referendum – perhaps because he understands that winning by such a narrow margin has left the question of government intervention open. A second referendum, of course, is a neat way of sidestepping the issue, since it again offloads some of the government’s responsibility onto the people.
Ultimately, we shall just have to hope that some form of sanity prevails, and Brexit is prevented in some way.