Brexit: A Test for Humanity

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I am here to tell you that you should give a damn about Brexit. Yes, you probably already do if you live in the U.K., or perhaps Ireland, which now faces a possible hard border with Northern Ireland. But most Europeans seem to have moved on, and, except for some rabid populists, most Americans were never caught up in the struggle to begin with.

Brexit nonetheless presents a decision problem in its purest form. It is a test of human ingenuity and reasonableness, of our ability to compromise and solve problems. It is a tournament for both our reason and our passions.

What do I mean? First consider the case where “Remain” is the correct position and the Brexit vote was a major mistake. Under this scenario, the U.K. is careening toward disaster, yet Brexit is by no means inevitable. Parliament could, at any time, take matters into its own hands and halt or slow down the process. The U.K. could hold another election, hold a second referendum, or just postpone leaving the European Union. A recent advisory ruling from the European Court of Justice suggested that the British government could unilaterally revoke Article 50, the initial move which committed the country to leaving the EU in the first place.

In this dilemma, I think of U.K. citizens as a kind of stand-in for the human race. Per capita income and education in the U.K. are well above the global average and, more important, Great Britain has one of the most firmly established democratic traditions in the world. So if the U.K. cannot get this decision right, it’s pretty gloomy news for all of us. I am reminded of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” where the traveling knight has to play a game of chess against the figure of Death, and his life will be spared if he wins.

For Remainers, as they’re known, it is striking how few obstacles are in the way of the proper solution — whichever one they prefer. Parliament is sovereign, and there are not many checks and balances in the British system of government. But figuring out the right result is not the same as delivering it. Implementation may sound easy, but as we can see it is a quite daunting task.

The huge barrier, of course, is the democratic nature of the government. The Tories are reluctant to implement a Brexit solution that most of the voters dislike, and it is not clear the Labour Party would be any more decisive. Redoing Brexit is thus a classic problem of the collective will — its weakness, its indecisiveness — and of the divisiveness behind so many social issues. Sadly, there is now some poll evidence suggesting voters have no coherent preferences about Brexit, other than simply wanting a better deal to fall from the sky.

That is how it looks from the pro-Remain side. What if you think Leave was the correct referendum outcome? It’s not much different: Virtually all the Leavers are unhappy with how Brexit has been handled. The deal is too unfavorable, or the resulting free-trade agreements or Norway-style arrangements would not leave enough U.K. sovereignty. In any case there is room for improvement.

Of course, there was a clear pro-Brexit referendum vote, and then a government committed to seeing Brexit through. But at some point things must have fallen off track. Some of the main Brexit architects, such as Boris Johnson, left the government, special interests may have intervened, perhaps the EU proved less flexible than many were expecting. At this point, if you are pro-Leave, maybe you think that “how to do a better Brexit” is the more relevant question, rather than “how to reverse Brexit.”

The scary thing is this: So many of humanity’s core problems — addressing climate change, improving education, boosting innovation — ultimately have the same structure as “fixing Brexit.” It’s just that these other problems come in less transparent form and without such a firm deadline. We face tournament-like choices and perhaps we will not end up doing the right thing.

Paul Krugman opined recently that Brexit would likely cost the U.K. about 2 percent of GDP, a fair estimate in my view. But that is not the only thing at stake here. Humanity is on trial — more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity — and it is the U.K. standing in the dock.

I’ll be glued to my seat, watching.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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