Transient Theories of Legitimacy and the Remain Paradox

Chris Dillow wrote an interesting piece the other day arguing that political beliefs and preferences are often transient affairs.  We tend to dramatically overstate the extent to which our own opinions are consistent over time, and the search for consistency might well turn out to be counterproductive and delusional. I would be tempted to go even further than this: a lot of the time, what we call beliefs, preferences and opinions do not even exist as things subject to change, their existence does not go beyond their contextual expression.  We do not consciously hold a belief, we are merely so disposed that certain situations will illicit a belief, perhaps momentary, perhaps of lasting effect. The set of questions we will at any point have consciously reflected upon is finite and not coextensive with the set questions that will become contextually relevant in the course of our lives. This is true of any of us. How we respond may be contextually determined. Sometimes this is perfectly appropriate. A teacher’s attitude towards a good teaching style will be a response to educational institutions as they actually exist, in the social context they exist. But they will tend to be believed as if they represented universal truths, rather than contextually specific ones.  Sometimes, on the other hand, what we see is not situational propriety but contradictions. It is, for example, a well known result in experimental economics that people will respond differently to an equivalent trade off depending on whether it is interpreted as an exercise in minimizing loss or maximizing gain, even when the outcomes are logically equivalent.  It is equally well known fact about opinion polling that contradictory results can be achieved by how a question is framed.

Theories of political legitimacy almost certainly fall into that category of things most of us do not have fully fleshed out opinions on. Only a fairly odd bunch of people have spent too much time examining or attempting to develop theoretical justifications for a political system, and it is questionable how useful a thing such an exercise really is. It is not surprising that in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the dominant response was to accept the fundamental legitimacy of the process. Brexit was what most people voted for, and the majority wins.

It’s tempting to see this as an absolutist position, but in reality it almost certainly isn’t held as such. There are plenty of situations in which very few people would evaluate the legitimacy of a course of action in this way. They might be more inclined to see a certain course of action as immoral. Or, in the event that they are personally adversely affected by a decision taken by a majority, they might see it as a violation of rights. In other circumstances the requirement of consent might be key.

And sometimes, the dominant way of thinking about a situation changes as circumstances change. In the case of Brexit, at the point where public opinion on the topic is relatively static, the view that a majority decision must be implemented is natural enough, and it may well be expressed as an absolutist position. But if public opinion changes significantly, other questions seem more natural. We might instead ask if previous decisions should be binding and whether democracy must allow for changes in mind. The point is not that it is impossible to try and reconcile these two views, or base a constitutional order on whatever synthesis emerges. The point is that most people simply do not ever do so. That is not a slight on them. My own experience of political philosophy has led me to the conclusion that it is largely a waste of time, but that may well be another kind of self delusion – I was never personally particularly good at it.

For remain campaigners this last point is quite significant. Since the 2016 referendum, actually convincing people that remaining is in fact a good idea has been a second order question. Before that could be effective, they have had to try and convince people that this is now a legitimate question to ask, given that the referendum happened. The problem is, the question only becomes one which is likely to be seen as legitimate after a change in public opinion. From the perspective of remainers, this is a kind of bad equilibrium. Public opinion can’t shift until the question is taken as a legitimate one, and the question won’t be seen as legitimate until there has been a shift in public opinion. Like many bad equilibria, random exogenous changes can sometimes, eventually, kick things in the right direction anyway. Eventually the storm might pass, and the ocean will be flat again. Public opinion does indeed seem to have started to shift, and new transient notions of legitimacy are springing up. This might well have happened too late in the day, though.

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