The Urge to Purge

As Brexit takes a turn for the even worse, I've come across a number of commentators arguing that 'no deal' may now be the only way to neutralise the appeal of Brexit. Only once the obvious, visibly harmful consequences of Brexit are felt, will public opinion finally shift decisively against Brexit. Perhaps then we might finally be able to undo the damage. I expect most of the time this argument is not meant to be taken too seriously. Perhaps it is just an expression of frustration, or the search for the cloud's silver lining. In any case, the people who make the argument are themselves unlikely to be impact the process anyway. But just in case they are, and the argument is meant seriously, here are three reasons why I would tend to disagree.

1. It is unclear how public opinion will respond to the negative consequences of no deal. It is possible that some leavers will turn against Brexit. But it is also possible that views will harden against the EU, seen to be 'punishing' the UK. Unscrupulous politicians will certainly push this narrative, eager to shift blame away from their own actions. Furthermore, the saliency of Brexit is likely to increase as it becomes even more of a focus of attention, dominating not just news cycles, but every day life. That could serve to increase existing tensions and resentment between 'remainers' and 'leavers', and exacerbate culture war dynamics of blame, demonisation and recrimination.

2. Economic hardship is not good for politics. Periods of low growth and worsening living standards make politics meaner, encourage zero sum thinking, and encourage political actors to look for scapegoats. Indeed, stagnating real incomes and public sector shortages following the financial crisis and austerity may have been significant contributing factors to Brexit. Even if public opinion did shift against Brexit itself, the brand of mean spirited, conspiratorial,  ethnonationist thinking it represents might well get worse.

3. The consequences of no deal may well be irreversible. On the narrow question of EU membership, the UK might only be able to rejoin having left on substantially worse terms. The economic consequences perhaps more so. Both manufacturers and financial services rely on economies of agglomeration. If, for example, a large number of well educated graduates leave or stop coming to London, or the networks of financial and consultancy firms break up in the UK, it might make a lot less sense to locate these institutions in the UK even if a more favourable environment were to return. Periods of job losses and business closures can destroy communities in ways that are never recovered from. What's more, a no deal Brexit could represent the kind of economic, political and institutional shock which fundamentally changes what a country looks like. It could plausibly be a kind of perestroika moment for the UK, with a very different country emerging afterwards, perhaps no longer unified as a single state.

This is, of course, all rather speculative. But given the near certain human cost of no deal, the speculative counter claims of its politically cleansing effect are clearly not worth the cost, particularly since public opinion is already slowly but surely moving in remain's direction. I suspect their real appeal lies less in the belief in the mechanism- that people will change their mind in light of overwhelming evidence - with the all too human appeal of the idea that suffering can offer redemption. Paul Krugman has made this point with austerity, comparing it to medieval doctors who thought that bleeding a patient would bring about recovery. Unfortunately, it could only hasten a patient's demise.

The adversarial model of political reporting

Allison Pearson of the Daily Telegraph’s response to the news that the police had been called to the flat of Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds is a textbook example of how modern political actors respond to scandal. Don’t say anything specific about the event or issue itself, deflect to a discussion about the motivations of those who are reporting it. With any luck, they will take the bait, and insist on their own purity. The discussion then becomes about those motives: in this case whether or not people talking about the incident at Carrie Symmond’s flat are ‘remoaners’ just trying to find dirt on the likely next Prime Minister. Many probably are. But that doesn’t make the point any less valid.

This example however illustrates something wider: a systemic weakness in the adversarial model of political reporting. According to the adversarial model, on politically charged topics, broadcasters will sometimes refrain from presenting ‘the facts’ of an issue, or what they believe to be the correct interpretation of them. Instead, they will invite representatives of the major viewpoints (typically this is simplified to two, in a binary ‘for’ and ‘against’ fashion) to make their case and debate one another. They are the advocates, the viewer is the jury, and the TV anchor will play the limited role of moderator.

There are many obvious problems with this model. Is the viewer able to act as the jury? How do they evaluate the claims made?  There is a huge literature on how these debates can be gamed, the bad consequences of the most effective tactics and their potential for radicalising the viewership. But let’s say for a moment that we thought the adversarial model was a good idea. For it to work, it requires the assumption that politically motivated actors can nonetheless present valid arguments and information. These debates do not have paid barristers, there is no ‘legal aid’ equivalent for BBC Question Time, so of course, typically those involved will have some political motivation. That’s fair enough.  We can’t expect Conservative or Labour MPs to self criticise, so naturally those we would expect criticism and scandals to be dug up by those representing the other side.

The problem is, this kind of motivation is typically used a way of filtering out information from biased sources. This is also, all other things being equal, fair enough. But, put together, this means that participants can simply dismiss points made out of hand by the other side, no matter how valid, simply on the grounds that they are motivated. Perhaps this was not always so. In a less polarised environment, a Labour supporter might conceive of getting valid information by someone trying to represent the Conservatives, or a leaver from a remainer and vice versa. But not today. This means that the structural presupposition behind the adversarial model, that valid information can come from a motivated source, and that the audience accept this, no longer holds. 

One way to try and get around this is to mix in ‘experts’ on non partisan commentators into these debates. But the problem is, these people, by virtue of taking part in a debate, can also be portrayed as biased, as discussed here. And too often, this kind of panelist is pressured into modifying their views so they can be slotted into a binary category. 

This is just one of a long list of problems with the adversarial model of presenting information. But there are merits to it too. But if any argument can be dismissed merely by insinuating bias, political debates lose any value they may have. 

On Sovereignty

The Leave side of the Brexit debate has frequently invoked the idea of national sovereignty as a justification for leaving the EU. The quality of public debate on this topic has been rather poor,but it does raise an interesting question: in an interconnected, increasingly economically integrated world, is national sovereignty a meaningful concept? Arguments in this direction have been one way some have tried to counter the pro-Brexit line on sovereignty. But others have taken a different approach.Tony Yates, for example, argues that EU membership increases sovereignty. I would tend to agree. 'Sovereignty' can indeed be seen as a meaningful concept, but not one outside of the context of mutual dependency and effect.

The comparison with 'freedom' or 'liberty' here I think is illustrative. Philosophers tend to distinguish between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty merely describes the absence of coercion or interference from others. This might mean coercion from other individuals (e.g slavery, forms of indentured labour, blackmail etc) or from the state (arbitrary imprisonment, restrictions on behaviour etc). Absolute negative liberty is almost certainly unobtainable. Freedom from coercion from other individuals requires the state, which, in order to preserve one set of negative liberties, must impose restrictions on others. Private property, for example, might imply laws against trespassing. Whether this is a good thing or bad, the point is that in this instance we cannot be totally free from state interference in our movement and be free from the interference of others in what is considered our own. Furthermore, the enforcement of such a law entails state coercion in the form of the threat of punishment. 

Positive liberty, on the other hand, refers to the actual ability to do things. This is an important part of any account of freedom, as freedom is not worth much if we cannot do any of the things we actually want to. This, in turn, cannot just refer to an ability to satisfy long term aspirations (happiness in life, fulfilling work etc) but must also include the fulfilment of the more basic conditions of these (adequate food, shelter, health etc). Crucially, none of these are obtainable as atomised individuals. They are all liberties embedded in a functioning, prosperous society, and likely one with a considerable welfare state if these liberties are to be extended to more than a small portion of society. None of this allows for the absolute freedom of the individual. So long as this mutual dependence exists, there is always the possibility that one opportunity will come at the expense of another, or that coordinated efforts cannot purely be achieved by consent. Put more simply, being free cannot mean everybody always getting to do everything they want.

This distinction might well be extended to national sovereignty too. Negative sovereignty would mean that the affairs of a country are not dictated by another. It would mean that a country is not directly occupied, ruled, or controlled de facto by another state. But it would not mean an absence of rules, regulations or laws that prevented dominance or coercion. Indeed, European integration historically served precisely this purpose: to create a European order on the basis of cooperation rather than military dominance. Moreover, it acknowledges the fact that in countless spheres of life, there is simply no way of one state avoiding outside interference. If Northern European states do not have some set of common rules for fishing, there is nothing any individual state can do to prevent the North Sea being depleted. The choice is therefore not between interference and autonomy, but interference and cooperation. Cooperation offers greater sovereignty of a member state in that it allows for the collective setting of rules to prevent coercion and interference. The only useful question is what legal and institutional means are best for achieving the latter.

This mutual dependence of European states gives a corresponding notion of positive sovereignty too. As long as geography dictates that European states will have the greatest opportunities for trade with one another, the prosperity of member states depend on the best conditions for trade.  These in turn might require common rules and regulations. And while might justly ask the value of this prosperity, or look critically at the political economy of economic integration, it is still possible to see this prosperity as sovereignty enhancing. By increasing the capacity for states to generate revenue, they have a greater variety of choices available to them. A more prosperous state has, all other things being equal, greater sovereignty in action. Other aspects of European integration, like freedom of movement and scientific cooperation also do not just widen the choices available to citizens: they empower member states to undertake projects that otherwise would be more difficult to do. And by acting as a block, the so called 'pooling of sovereignty' gives EU member states greater influence and clout in the wider world.

The point here is not primarily to make an argument in favour of European integration or defend the specific institutional arrangements of the European Union. While I do see these favourably, that is a question beyond the scope of this argument. Nor do I wish to say that all instances of European integration increase national sovereignty. The single currency, for example, really does involve significant constrains on the actions of member states, with questionable corresponding gains. Indeed we might even question the value of sovereignty, as opposed to the opportunities, freedom and well being of people, rather than the reified abstraction of the state. But if we are to talk of sovereignty, it is nonetheless worth noting that, like liberty, is not incompatible with mutual dependence, or collective decision making processes. It does not describe a state of autarkic independence from the actions of other states, should not imply the absence of common rules or institutions, and cannot mean the ability for any state to do whatever it wants. 

How Vote Leave turned expertise into evidence of bias

Imagine a group of people, perhaps tending to belong to a particular profession, social stratum, or of a particular political persuasion,  holds a view on an essentially factual (i.e non normative) question you happen to disagree with. You might think one of two things: perhaps they have some privileged access to information you don't, or perhaps something about their situation produces some kind of partial bias. We shouldn't actually view these two things as necessarily mutually exclusive. People with particular political agendas are more likely to spend time uncovering flaws in their opponents, certain positions can generate both animosity and specific knowledge, and sometimes specific knowledge can inform a political outlook. But it does make some sense to look at the motives and biases of information sources, in absence of the time and means to evaluate everything we hear. And  for better or worse, bias and privileged access to information generally are taken as mutually exclusive, such that expertise must be presented as arising from an impartial source.

The problem is, purely in the abstract, uniformity of opinion arising from a political agenda and uniformity of opinion arising from specific information are indistinguishable. During the Brexit referendum, Vote Leave used this to devastating effect. Once it became clear just how overwhelming opposition to Brexit was from exporters, economists, those who work in science and diplomacy etc, the best method of neutralising these criticisms was to claim they were motivated by cognitive biases or special interests. Contrary to expectations this did not mean playing the criticisms down- it actually meant the opposite. Michael Gove's famous remark that people had 'had enough of experts' was about stating defiance, rather than challenging the idea that expert view came to conclusions other than his own. References to the 'apocalyptic' nature of economic forecasts meant (sometimes satirically) exaggerating expert opposition, rather than dismissing it. By stressing precisely the uniformity and scale of expert opinion against Brexit, particularly in economics, as evidence of bias, Vote Leave created a situation where any informed criticism of Brexit could immediately be dismissed. This strategy may well have been improvised and accidental, but it seems to have been quite effective. Indeed, they have continued it to this day. In 2018, when the Treasury released analysis of possible impacts of Brexit, Rees Mogg immediately claimed the figures were manipulated and used the scale of their negativity as evidence of this.  Daniel Hannan, perhaps the most articulate of the prominent Brexit supporters, argued that the very fact that the Treasury analysis continued to show a negative impact of all Brexit scenarios was proof of bias too.

This is not to claim that this strategy is entirely effective or unchallengeable. But the internal dynamics amongst supporters can be very dangerous indeed. It means those committed to Brexit are effectively hermetically sealed from unfavourable information. This goes some way to explaining the lunacy of the Conservative leadership content.

The altruistic prisoner's dilemma

I had a little thought the other day about the prisoner's dilemma. Readers familiar with the basics of the concept might skip ahead to the third paragraph, but in case they are not, here is the dilemma in brief. Imagine two prisoners, both accused of two crimes awaiting trial. One carries a sentence of 5 years, another carries a sentence of 15. The police have sufficient evidence to produce a compelling case for both prisoners of the lesser crime, but insufficient evidence to produce a compelling case against either prisoner for the greater crime. A testimony from either prisoner, however, will be provide enough evidence for the police to have the other convicted. The police therefore makes an offer to each prisoner: if you betray the other prisoner we will not prosecute you for the lesser crime. There are four possible outcomes to the scenario. If prisoner A testifies and the prisoner B does not, prisoner A is convicted of neither crime (the police only has sufficient evidence against the other prisoner for the greater crime, and has honoured their agreement about the lesser one) and prisoner B is convicted of both. If B testifies and A does not, the inverse occurs. If they both testify, A and B are both convicted only of the greater crime (the police honours the agreement about the lesser crime, but now also has evidence against both prisoners for the greater crime). Finally, if neither testifies, A and B are both convicted for the lesser crime but not the greater. This can be summarised by the following table, with numbers representing the years in sentence received by each prisoner in each eventuality:

Prisoner A
Don't testify Testify
Prisoner B Don't Testify 5,5 0,20
Testify 20,0 15,15

As the table makes clear, for any given move prisoner A makes, prisoner B will always receive a lower sentence by testifying than not. The same is true for prisoner A. But this means that if both prisoners are only interested in minimising their own sentence, the outcome will be that both are sentenced for 15 years, i.e a worse outcome than if neither had testified. The beauty of the thought experiment is that it doesn't matter if the prisoners realise this, or even if they agree somehow to coordinate their efforts. Provided neither prisoner has a means of enforcing what is agreed, rational self interest will always lead to the same bad outcome*.

In popular culture, and to some lesser extent in political theory, this parable is used as a demonstration of potential problems of rational self interest, and the circumstances in which it can lead to bad outcomes. But what if we changed the parameters of the game? Imagine, now, that both prisoners were purely selfless in their behaviour. Imagine their only priority was minimising the sentence of the other player. If we wanted a narrative to this, perhaps we could imagine some love story between the two. With the game currently set up, that produces a good outcome. But what if we now imagined the police had enough evidence against both parties for the crime carrying the greater sentence, but not the lesser? If we suspended disbelief for a moment and imagined the police were willing to let either party off prosecution for the greater crime provided they testified against the other for the lesser crime (perhaps the lesser crime was politically significant, or helped the police in some other case etc.) we would then have the following payoff matrix: 

Prisoner A
Don't testify Testify
Prisoner B Don't Testify 15,15 0,20
Testify 20,0 5,5

It's true that prisoner A could always reduce their sentence by testifying agains the other prisoner. But in this example, prisoner A doesn't care about that. Prisoner A only cares about reducing the sentence of prisoner B. And they will always reduce the sentence of prisoner B by not testifying. The same is true for prisoner B. But now we have a truly unfortunate result. By acting in a rationally altruistic way, they have now both ended up giving the other player a longer sentence than if they had both betrayed the other! 

What does this illustrate? Possibly nothing much at all. If we were looking for morality tales, or things which can usefully be applied to real life situations, the first, more conventional dilemma probably has a wider range of plausible applications. But in the abstract, it does demonstrate one thing: the prisoners dilemma does not have to be about failures of self interest, it can just as easily be about the circumstances in which preference coordination fails more generally. 

* Provided the game is only played a finite, known number of times.