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Informed and Reasoned Democracy

Posted on June 30, 2016 — 6 Minutes Read

June 23, 2016 marked the day that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a referendum, the Brexit as it is called. Countless debates and predictions from analysts and economists alike led up to that day. Still it turned out to be a bit of a surprise that the Briton wanted to leave, with 51.9% for and 48.1% against, on a 72.2% turnout. As a result, the UK Prime Minster, David Cameron, who supported staying resigned, stock markets plunged, and the British pound fell to the lowest level in the last 30 years. The next day, while the rest of the world was trying to make sense of what brought on the result and what the ramifications would be, some Briton seemed to be having a different question. Google Trends, a Google service that lets people see what everyone is searching on Google, reported that the day after the referendum, the second top search in the UK regarding the EU was ‘What is the EU?’.

That had to make you doubt the confidence of the 72% Briton who voted in the referendum the day before. Google Trends may not be able to tell the whole story but it does cast a shadow on the referendum result. The picture is even grimmer if you look at the referendum analysis, that of the 30 areas with the fewest university graduates, 28 voted leave. Education could not have informed people whether or not leaving the EU was the better path. No one could possibly know how history would have otherwise unfolded if the UK had voted to stay. Being educated however does provide a foundation and framework for understanding the question and the choices at hand, and most importantly the possible consequences of these options.

Leaving the EU has tremendous impact for everyone in the UK. For that it makes sense to inquire the people in a referendum, to seek consensus and to confer legitimacy to the decision that comes about. Yet in the modern age politics is rather complex and most people are as tied they can be making a living. To be informed on a political topic and to be able to deliberate on it, requires substantial amount of time and knowledge in politics and economics that most people simply do not have. The ideal way forward is of course to harness the power of the various modern technological advancements to free people of the burden of living, and to enable everyone to be informed and to deliberate in politics as one wills. It is a noble goal yet the reality today is far from this ideal and the busy lives that most people lives makes them vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues who appeal to the popular desires and prejudices to gain support and power, instead of balancing the conflicting interests of the people.

Even for those who do have the time and resources to be informed and to deliberate on the issue, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape our cognitive biases and fallacies in forming rational judgment. It is identified that we have a tendency to search for, interpret and focus on information that confirms our beliefs, that we rely on information that comes easily to mind, and that we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, driven by emotions rather than reason, as the 18-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, puts it, ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’ To confer legitimacy to a political choice with such profound impact, and to ensure that the collective decision that comes about is as informed and is as free from cognitive biases and irrational emotions as possible, a safeguard, perhaps, may be added to a referendum. A safeguard, that was by one interpretation in place when democracy was first developed around the 5th century BC in the Greek city-state of Athens, and has since then been misinterpreted for discrimination and has long been forgotten. One that would allow the people to demonstrate to their fellow members in the society that they are informed of the topic at hand, by achieving a certain informedness threshold, in a questionnaire that accompanies the ballot. With which a vote could be legitimated by the informedness of the one who casts it.

Questions in the assessment could be agreed upon by political parties supporting different choices in the referendum. This eliminates false information, and ensures that the questions are of objective facts that assesses the informedness of the electorate of the topic at hand. Disputes are to be resolved by the judiciary by the virtue of its independence. Vote that is not accompanied by a questionnaire of a certain informedness threshold will not count towards the result on ground of a lack of informedness of the topic at hand, which in a way constitutes a violation of the responsibility that comes with the right of an equal say in a collective decision in a democracy. The benefits of a referendum is as such retained. The existence of such a questionnaire encourages the people to be informed and deliberate on the topic before a ballot, and it confers legitimacy to the decision that comes about from the people. The questionnaire simply adds a layer of protection for the people from impartial facts and information, as well as irrational biases and emotions that may deter them to make an informed and reasoned decision, and in fact a safeguard of a similar structure can be added to any general parliamentary or presidential election.

People with no doubt have a right to deliberate and collectively decide, or to choose a representative to do so for them, in political affairs. It is, however, often forgotten that choices by the individuals in a society, affect as much as themselves as everyone else, and that the people have a responsibility, to assure their fellow members of the society, that they are making an informed and reasoned decision. One that is thoroughly discussed and deliberated, one that is as free from irrational biases and emotions as possible, one that represents their will and desire, and one that is informed and reasoned.