The Reaction to Brexit Is the Reason Brexit Happened
In 1934, at the dawn of the Stalinist Terror, the great Russian writer Isaac Babel offered a daring quip at the International Writers Conference in Moscow:
“Everything is given to us by the party and the government. Only one right is taken away: the right to write badly.”
A onetime Soviet loyalist who was eventually shot as an enemy of the state, Babel was likely trying to say something profound: that the freedom to make mistakes is itself an essential component of freedom.
As a rule, people resent being saved from themselves. And if you think depriving people of their right to make mistakes makes sense, you probably never had respect for their right to make decisions at all.
This is all relevant in the wake of the Brexit referendum, in which British citizens narrowly voted to exit the European Union.
Because the vote was viewed as having been driven by the same racist passions that are fueling the campaign of Donald Trump, a wide swath of commentators suggested that democracy erred, and the vote should perhaps be canceled, for the Britons’ own good.
Social media was filled with such calls. “Is it just me, or does #Brexit seem like a moment when the government should overrule a popular referendum?” wrote one typical commenter.
On op-ed pages, there was a lot of the same. Harvard economics professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff wrote a piece for the Boston Globe called “Britain’s democratic failure” in which he argued:
“This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances.”
Rogoff then went on to do something that’s become popular in pundit circles these days: He pointed to the lessons of antiquity. Going back thousands of years, he said, Very Smart People have warned us about the dangers of allowing the rabble to make decisions.
“Since ancient times,” he wrote, “philosophers have tried to devise systems to try to balance the strengths of majority rule against the need to ensure that informed parties get a larger say in critical decisions.”
Presumably playing the role of one of the “informed parties” in this exercise, Rogoff went on:
“By some accounts… Athens had implemented the purest historical example of democracy,” he wrote. “Ultimately, though, after some catastrophic war decisions, Athenians saw a need to give more power to independent bodies.”
This is exactly the argument that British blogging supernova Andrew Sullivan unleashed a few months ago in his 8,000-word diatribe against Donald Trump, “Democracies end when they are too democratic.”
Like Rogoff, Sullivan argued that over-democratic societies drift into passionate excesses, and need that vanguard of Very Smart People to make sure they don’t get themselves into trouble.
“Elites matter in a democracy,” Sullivan argued, because they are the “critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.”