Nearly 25 years ago, two scholars—Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky—published a book that was proved prescient by the recent “Brexit” vote.

The book was called Democracy and Decision, and one of its central theses was that “democracy” (if you mean majority rule decisions) is simply not up to the task of making good choices for large groups of citizens.

Now, to be clear, I’m not trying to say that Brexit itself was a bad decision. My point is about majority rule and voting. In this post, I’m going to argue that voting was not the best way to represent the will of the people when the Brexit decision was being made.

Let’s dig a bit further into Brennan and Lomasky’s argument to illustrate what I mean.

Two Conflicting Sets of Preferences

Brennan and Lomasky argued that the key failure of democracy is that the means of choosing (asking people to register an individual preference, even though each person knows his or her single vote won’t affect the outcome) is inconsistent with the ends of choosing (selecting the best outcome for the group or nation).

Citizens of any society, after all, have two sets of preferences:

  • The preferences they feel, and act on in private
  • The preferences they feel they should have, and act on in public

For example, an individual might sometimes drink too much, though he thinks it is morally wrong to get drunk. Or someone might support speed limit laws in theory. That, however, does not stop her from occasionally breaking those laws.

Both sets of preferences are “real.” Both have the end goal of making individuals as happy and satisfied as possible.

So why does what we want as individuals often seem to clash with the public good? Why do our feelings and our conscience sometimes fail to match up?

It’s not because our preferences are constantly changing or irrational. It’s because there’s a tension between our primitive instincts and our sense of morality.

Decisions on moralistic policies affect not just the citizen himself, but others as well. Thus, citizens may act paternalistically in decrying behavior in others in which they themselves engage.

For our purposes, this means that, though our one citizen may think he can withstand the temptations of alcohol on his own (though he might have a nip on weekends), his “weaker brethren” need more help from the laws and authorities.

It’s the ultimate hypocrisy.

Free-Riding on the Responsibility of Others to Make a Statement

The conflict between the two types of preference is particularly severe when political decisions are being made, because citizens (rationally) do not perceive that their own statements have any real influence on the collective outcome.

The probability of any one person’s vote, or opinion, determining the outcome weakens as the number of decision-makers grows large, each individual simply accepts the outcome as given and decides what preference they should project to others in their church, community, or other group.

In the case of Brexit, take “Adam from Manchester” who told BBC:

I’m shocked that we actually have voted to leave. I didn’t think that was going to happen. My vote, I didn’t think was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain.

To understand how this works, all you need to do is separate the “what I can actually do” and “what I hope actually happens” parts of the public decision.

For many people, such as “Adam from Manchester,” there were just two different things that they wanted.

  • The first was to be able to put a thumb in the eye of smug blaggers like David Cameron, and vote “Leave.” That’s the political equivalent of teenage boys toilet-papering a neighbor’s tree after he yelled at them to “Get off my lawn, you damned kids!”
  • The second was to have everyone wake up the next day and say, “Gosh, there’s a lot of anger out there! We’d better listen. Fortunately, Brexit did fail, and so all the problems that come with Brexit are avoided.”

Send a message, but free ride on the fact that others will behave responsibly. That’s what each person wanted.

But as Brennan and Lomasky pointed out, there’s a collective problem. If everyone, or even just most people, act that way, the result is that the whole country gets toilet-papered. If everyone indulges their private preference for a protest vote, the bad outcome actually wins.

The result is that people cast votes in ways that do not add up to “the will of the people.” Instead, the result can easily be the opposite of what the majority wants, even though that’s how the majority voted, one petulant free-rider at a time.

Brexit is just an example. It will happen again, and again, if we rely on mass voting to make choices for all, rather than encouraging the liberty of each to choose for him or herself.

It’s a government failure of the first order, and we should be wary of it.