The Brexit: a pseudo-Socratic dialogue about democracy and reason
Characters: Grexit: an Athenian, friend of Socrates; Brexit: friend of Grexit, a foreigner; and Socrates, returning from the gymnasium.
Grexit: Hello, Socrates! I might have guessed we’d meet you here in the Agora. Anyway, I was hoping to bump into you. Let me introduce my friend Brexit. He and I were just discussing a referendum result in his city. His people have voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the Spartan League. Brexit wants this as well, but the city and its leaders are in complete disharmony about it all. We were wondering what the right thing for Brexit and his fellow citizens to do in the circumstances, and we thought you might be able to help us think it through.
Socrates: Well, Brexit, I don’t know why you are asking me, as I know nothing about politics. But, I have to say, I was surprised to hear that your city voted to leave the League. Surely it was a source of unity among previously warring city-states and a means of encouraging trade and prosperity for you all?
Brexit: Socrates, don’t say you are a supporter of our staying in the League!
Socrates: Nothing of the sort, Brexit; I was simply reporting what I have heard from others. Here in Athens, the Spartan League is held up as something of a model.
Brexit: You Athenians have no idea. Anyway, the votes have been counted and the people have decided to leave. Doesn’t that mean that our leaders should now change the law?
Socrates: That assumes that your government has an obligation to do what its people say.
Brexit: Of course! You’re not an opponent of democracy are you, Socrates?
Socrates: As far as I know, democracy is the least bad form of government, so, no, I am not its opponent. But can I ask you a question? Why is your city now leaving the League? What reason would you give for this decision?
Brexit: That’s a straightforward question, Socrates. 52% of us voted to leave the League; that’s the reason we’re leaving.
Grexit: Is that true, Brexit? You told me that 52% of the 72% of those registered to vote wanted to leave, which is 37% of the citizens, many of whom did not make their opinion known.
Socrates: If only 37% voted to leave the League, Brexit, then it would appear that not even a majority of you want this result. So I don’t think that this explains why you think the city’s leaders must now change the law.
Brexit: No, no, Socrates; that is not how our democracy works. If people don’t vote, that is their own choice. The government meanwhile has to abide by the result, which in this case was clear. It is the will of the people to leave the League.
Socrates: I’m surprised to hear you say that, Brexit. If there is any such thing as a ‘will of the people’, it is a confused faculty indeed, since it is 37% in favour of leaving the League, 35% against doing so, and 28% unsure. It is like three horses tied together, one pulling in one direction, one in another, and one not sure where to pull. If my physics is correct, Brexit, such an assembly of strength would not move.
Brexit: Surely the strongest beast would pull the other two in its preferred direction?
Socrates: The strength of the 73% who wish to stay or are unsure should be combined against the 37% who wish to leave. Since 73% is the larger amount, the horse that wants to leave will not be able to shift the horses of staying. The ‘will of the people’ is not going anywhere, my friend.
Brexit: You can’t fool me so easily, Socrates! Obviously your horses are just an analogy, and arguments from analogy, as every student of philosophy knows, can be misleading.
Socrates: I’m sure you’re right, Brexit. So let me try again. The three of us stood here talking – are we one will, or three?
Brexit: Why, three, of course.
Socrates: And the people of your city – are they totally different from us, being one will instead of many?
Brexit: No, no, Socrates. They do not literally have ‘one will’ – it is a figure of speech.
Socrates: So really they have many wills? They are like us three, each citizen having his or her own will?
Brexit: That’s right, Socrates. Each of us came to our own decision, to leave the League, to stay, or not to vote at all.
Socrates: If you each came to your own decision, please answer me this: did those of you who voted to leave the League all have the same reason for your decision, or did you have different reasons?
Brexit: That’s a difficult question to answer, Socrates. I can only guess at my fellow-citizens’ thinking.
Grexit: I have heard it said that many people who voted to leave did so because they think that too many foreigners have come to live and work among them. You yourself told me, Brexit, that this was also among your reasons for voting to leave.
Brexit: It is true that many of us hold this view, yes.
Socrates: Are you sure, Brexit, that leaving the League will reduce the number of foreigners coming to live in your city? Surely it is simply a reality of life in the civilized world that people move around in search of peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. If your city leaves the League, would you be able to stop this ceaseless movement?
Brexit: We have to do something, Socrates. Too many foreigners wish to live with us. Leaving the League will give us control over our borders, and that is sure to help.
Socrates: I asked you the reason for your city’s decision to leave the League, and you have told me that there is no single reason, but that one reason that many of you would give, when asked, is that leaving the League might help you reduce the numbers of foreigners coming to live with you. Is that correct?
Brexit: That’s correct, Socrates.
Socrates: And this reason follows from the connection between leaving the League and being able to control your borders, is that correct?
Brexit: Quite so.
Socrates: Now, Brexit, do all the citizens of your city share this thinking, that the way to reduce the number of foreigners coming to your city is to leave the League, because doing so would enable you to control your borders?
Brexit: Unfortunately, not at all Socrates. Many of my fellow citizens hold completely different views.
Socrates: So I asked for the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, and you have given me one reason that some of you hold, but it seems that not only are you not sure who holds this view and who does not, but you are certain that only a minority of citizens hold it. Surely in these circumstances it is no surprise that there is widespread disagreement about what your city should do. Brexit, is it possible for anyone to be sure that they are making the right decision if they cannot give a reason for it?
Brexit: I am beginning to see why you are so irritating Socrates! But never mind all your talk of reasons. That is quite beside the point. The result of the referendum of my city is clearly that a majority of us want to leave the League, and that should be enough for our law-makers to start work on making the changes required.
Socrates: Brexit, you asked me if I was an opponent of democracy, but now I see that it is you who wish to bring democracy into disrepute.
Brexit: What on earth do you mean, Socrates? My intention is the very opposite.
Socrates: When I asked you to give me the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, we came to the conclusion that there was no one reason, but that the democratic decision of the citizens was enough. Now, doesn’t that imply that the rule of the people amounts to doing whatever the people want, irrespective of whether their wishes are reasonable or not? Suppose that your people were asked whether they wanted to keep taxation or abolish it, what would they vote?
Brexit: That is hardly the same sort of question, Socrates. But, obviously, they would vote to abolish taxation, because they hate to have what is theirs taken away from them.
Socrates: Whereas they ought to vote to keep taxation, not because they like it or want it, but because there is a very good reason for paying taxes, which is that they support a government that arranges security, justice, education and the distribution of resources. Likewise, when it comes to politics, we all ought to vote, not for what we individually want or like, but for what makes most sense for the prosperity of the whole community. Democracy is only a good form of government when it is beneficial for the community as a whole. Otherwise, it is no better than the rule of a tyrant, who only wishes to benefit himself.
Brexit: But, Socrates, it is just because we want the prosperity of the whole community that I and most of my fellow citizens wish to leave the League!
Socrates: Just now you told me that it does not matter if you can give no reason for your city to leave the League, because a majority vote is enough, but now you tell me that your decision is reasonable after all. Are you now saying, Brexit, that whatever is best for the prosperity of the whole community is what you should want and vote for?
Brexit: Yes, of course, that goes without saying.
Socrates: And what is best for the whole community is not what is of benefit only to individuals, because they want it or like it, like paying no taxes?
Brexit: Where is this all going, Socrates?
Socrates: Well, it seems we agree that a political decision should not be the product of personal desires, and we also agree that there would be a reason for your city to leave the League, if it was the case that doing so would increase the happiness and prosperity of the whole community. But, Brexit, from what you have said, everyone in your city has voted according to their own personal opinions, which differ, so that you can only guess at the reasons many of your fellow citizens have voted the way they have. It seems to me that your city does not have a single reason for leaving the League, and the individual citizens have their own views about what will be for the greater prosperity of the whole.
Grexit: If I may interrupt here, my friends, surely one could argue that, irrespective of these fine points of reasoning, the government of Brexit’s city were elected on the promise of a referendum which, they said, would determine the city’s future membership of the Spartan League. So now they have an obligation to follow through on the result of that referendum, just as if one of us were to make a promise and were then held to it by our friends. The keeping of promises is necessary for there to be trust among human beings, and it is a foundation of life in civilised society.
Socrates: Do you agree, Brexit? Had the result of the referendum been the opposite one, would you hold, as Grexit has explained, that your government has an obligation to fulfil its promise, even though that would be the very opposite of what you yourself believed?
Brexit: I feel that whatever I say now, Socrates, I am done for.
Socrates: Please, Brexit, I am simply asking you questions. If you were to hold that your government had an obligation to fulfil its promise, and at the same time you held that if it were to do so, it would be acting to bring about the impoverishment and unhappiness of your community, wouldn’t you find yourself in a difficult situation? And by your own account you have admitted that many of your fellowe citizens, holding a view different to your own about what is in your community’s best interest, will now find themselves in just such a state. It seems to me, Brexit, that we are never obliged to do what we believe to be wrong, even though we made a promise to do so, and I am sure you would agree.
Brexit: But if you are right, how on earth can we ever come to a decision about whether or not to leave the League?
Grexit: My friend, your government could call a general election, with the instruction to the citizens of your city to elect representatives according to their stated view on membership of the League. In this way, the new government would have no doubt about whether or not it should change the law, and it would not need to ask its people by means of a referendum.
Brexit: But the people have already decided what they believe!
Socrates: I am wondering, my friends, whether referendums and elections can ever replace reason and debate for communities wishing to live together in peace. But that is a topic for another time. Brexit, I wish your city well in its deliberations; and, Grexit, do be careful to think for yourself…