Democracy is overrated

Today the United Kingdom (UK) officially initiated their exit from the European Union (EU). After many months of anticipation, British prime minister Theresa May will now engage in a historical gamble: safely getting the UK out of the EU. She says the UK will leave the EU but that it wants to remain in Europe. It will take at least two years before we can see how this has worked out. I cannot stop to think: all this trouble… was it really necessary?

The decision to leave the EU was settled by a 50-50 referendum, which sounds fair in theory but works poorly in practice. In the Brexit case, just 1.9% of the electorate (about 880.000 people) decided the fate of the whole nation. Even if you disregard the outcome, the fact that such a small proportion of the population can have a dramatic effect on the economic, political and social conditions of a country feels a bit awkward. It becomes rather painful if you add the average voter’s knowledge about those same conditions. As the cynical Winston Churchill remarked:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Of course, democracy is a wonderful concept and it has brought us many good things. Yet its benefits are often overrated. One can come up with many examples (the Arab Spring, Donald Trump) but let’s stick with Brexit. The handful of people that delivered the victory for the Leave campaign probably included people from many different backgrounds, with varying levels of education and wide-ranging motivations. Not every university student from Oxford voted Remain, just as not every blue-collar worker from Birmingham voted Leave. While this analysis may seem accurate and fair, it actually highlights the biggest flaw in our modern democracies.

Winston Churchill

Democracy only works well if all people are adequately informed about the issues at stake. This is particularly important for referenda and other methods of direct democracy. Obviously, this is not (and often cannot be) the case. Even if an ordinary British citizen wanted to know everything there is to know about UK-EU trade and immigration, it would be a nobel but infeasible aim. Not because ordinary British citizens are stupid, but because the issues are simply too complex to fully understand all the potential consequences. Luckily we have found a suitable solution for this problem: professional politicians. You may not agree with their opinions but at least you can assume they know what they are talking about (please allow for some exceptions).

It is understandable that many people, both inside and outside the UK, felt defeated after the Brexit-referendum. Instead of accepting a legitimate outcome (“just stop whining!”), people reacted cynically: how could any sensible person do this? Our general belief in democracy was dealt another blow by – ironically enough – the people. During the referendum, an expert’s view was worth just as much as an impulsive vote. If everyone’s opinions are equal, including the ill-informed ones, why bother voting at all?

The Brexit is a tragedy, but an necessary one. If we want to prevent similar events from happening in the future, we have to reassess the value of our politicians. Democracy is nice, but don’t overrate it.


Author: Felix den Ottolander

Owner of China Hand (

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