14 September 2018

Beware the Bregalitarians


Faux-outrage and faux-indignation are normally the preserve of the political Left. When your social status depends on your imaginary moral superiority, you need to constantly reassert that status, and nowadays, the most common way to do that is through performative moral indignation.

However, the political Right sometimes does it too. In particular, the Brexit vote has led to the rise of a peculiar brand of cultural egalitarianism – Bregalitarianism, if you will – on the hard-Brexity right.

The Bregalitarian loves to wallow in faux-indignation every time an opponent – which can be a Remainer, but it can also just be a more cautious, less enthusiastic Brexiteer – mentions the possibility that not everyone who cast a vote on 23 June 2016 was fully aware of all the possible ramifications. “How DARE you suggest that 17.4 million voters are stupid!”, cries the Bregalitarian. “How DARE you be so patronising and insulting!”

I find this Bregalitarian rhetoric deeply disingenuous – and never more so than when free-marketeers engage in it.

Don’t get me wrong: I find the #FBPE crowd, the ‘Continuity Remainers’ who want to overturn the referendum, as tedious as the next guy. Challenging the legitimacy of a democratic vote, by claiming that the people who voted for the winning side were insufficiently informed, is daft.

A democratic vote is not a pub quiz. Well-informed or not, this was a perfectly legitimate vote, the Leave side won, Brexit will happen, and that is that. All democrats should be able to come to terms with that.

But accepting the outcome does not entail any obligation to sing the praises of the infinite wisdom of the majority. Hard Brexiteers need to quit this habit of decrying any criticism of majority opinion as arrogant elitist sneering.

It is disingenuous, because everyone who knowingly holds a minority point of view on anything is, in effect, saying: “the majority of people are wrong about this, and I am right. I know better than them”. Otherwise, they would not hold that view. They would just defer to the majority.

So if it is arrogant elitism to claim that majorities can be wrong, and that some people really do know some things better than others, then we are all arrogant elitists at least some of the time.

Even then, I could not think of a group whom Bregalitarian rhetoric suits less than Hard Brexiteers who are also, at the same time, free-marketeers. Given the statist, economically left-wing zeitgeist, you can either support free markets, or you can adopt a Man-Of-The-People pose and wax lyrical about the great common sense of the proverbial man in the pub. But you cannot, with any sincerity, do both.

Here’s a little home truth: if you are a free-marketeer in Britain in 2018, you are part of a small and unpopular minority. The vast majority of the British public disagree with you on virtually everything. There is majority support for a (re-)nationalisation of energy companies, the railways, water and bus companies. There is majority support for rent controls and various price controls.

As a free-marketeer, you probably want, if not fully privatised, then at least mixed systems of healthcare and education, with much greater private sector involvement. If so, you are almost alone in Britain with that view. There is also majority support for a lot more government regulation, a lot more government interference with private business decisions, higher taxes and a larger state.

These issues are not just about differences in values. They are, to a large extent, about being right or wrong. Price controls either work, or they don’t. The state is either a better entrepreneur than private market actors, or it isn’t. And so on. These are not just matters of taste. They are empirical questions. So if you take a pro-market view on those matters, you are saying that the vast majority of your fellow citizens are wrong, and that you are right.

You would probably recoil with horror if somebody called you an “elitist” for that. But they would be right. As the American economist Bryan Caplan puts it (talking about his home country, but this is even more applicable to Britain):

“[N]ot only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist. To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right. So how can you be one of the nay-sayers, unless you think you and your fellow nay-sayers have exceptionally good judgment? … [I]n a modern democracy, libertarians cannot honestly praise the wisdom of the common man.”

Quite. Obviously, this does not mean that free-marketeers should be dismissive of mainstream opinions, or sneer at the people holding them. But they need to recognise that they are very much not part of that mainstream.

Pro-Brexit free-marketeers should not get too carried away by the fact that, for once, there is one issue on which a (slim) majority of the public agree with them (and even then, let’s not forget that people can be pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit for completely different, sometimes mutually incompatible reasons). You cannot selectively believe in the wisdom of crowds when the crowd happens to agree with you for once.

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Health and Welfare at the IEA.