The limits of choice 

Recent events, the Brexit referendum, Trump’s rhetoric, the Turkish coup have led to intense discussions about democracy, popular choice and the limits of consultation.

The referendum specifically has been a lot about letting people choose and respecting their choices. In fact these debates are nothing novel, there are centuries of reflection behind them, from Plato onwards. I too have contributed to library shelves on democracy and choice.

A bite-sized summary of this literature is that there are limits to the ability to choose and on the content of that choice. I had argued for instance when reflecting on Greece’s crisis that the Greeks should be given a choice between the horrors of austerity and the tragedy of Grexit. I had argued that they would suffer anyway, but the democratically selected pain was better than the other option.

Yet, I fought against Tsipras Greferendum, why? The reason is that choice with incomplete information amidst lies and populist propaganda is not democratic, it is the semblance of choice. It serves not the people, if anything it makes marginalisation worse.

The same criticism can be brought against the Brexit referendum. Was it choice? What does Brexit mean?  Was it a vote against migration and damn the consequences? Was it a vote in favour of more democracy? No one knows. What everyone knows is that it empowered a section of the establishment to do something. What this something is, we are all in the dark.

Was the Turkish coup an assault against democracy or the last attempt of the Kemalist establishment to resist the islamification of Turkey under a modern day Sultan?

Are there and should there be limits to democracy? Absolutely. Human rights and the rule of law are limits on democracy, and necessary ones.

Democracy does not mean mob-rule. It does not mean shouting slogans and then having the civil service figure out a corresponding policy response.

Tsipras Greferendum, the Brexit referendum, Erdogan’s win over the putchists mean something, but they do not necessarily mean democracy.



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