Among all the disagreements over Brexit, one thing at least might appear to be uncontroversial: the decision was a free choice taken by the British people. Whether they chose well or badly, they chose, and in that sense it was a victory for freedom. Brexiteers would say that it was in fact a double victory, in that the result is a freer country, unshackled from the constraints of the European Union. If this summary seems self-evident it is only because the very idea of freedom has been debased. Brexit is not a paradigmatic instance of freedom at work, but of freedom being confused with something much less valuable: choice.

In the West, freedom has come to be understood – tacitly at least – as primarily a matter of having uncoerced choices. A free country is one in which you can express your choice on a ballot paper, in the supermarket, in how you identify your sexuality, in how you worship or choose not to, and so on. Politically, this idea of freedom is reflected in the view that democracy should allow the people to choose how they are governed. But by what mechanism? Historically, it has been a form of representative democracy, in which we elect members of parliament to make choices on our behalf. The strength of this system is that these representatives do not simply do what the majority of their electorates want them to do. Rather, they devote their times and energies to thinking about and scrutinising policies in a detail that almost no voter can. This means they often reach decisions that are not the same as those that seem most immediately sensible to voters.

In a culture where freedom means choice, however, this strength becomes a weakness. When parliament votes to support a policy that the majority of the population does not support, that is deemed to be undemocratic. Representative democracy is thus seen to fall short of a superior direct democracy, where rulers enact the will of the people at any given moment. Hence the dismay of many who marched in protest against going to war in Iraq in 2003 only to see parliament disagree. But representative democracy is not direct democracy, so even if a majority were against the war, the decision to fight may well have been wrong, but it wasn’t undemocratic. (In fact, even at that time opinion polls did not show a majority against war, so the claim that the decision was undemocratic in any sense is dubious.)

Whether the issue is war or Brexit, many of us today assume that democracy requires the government to do what we collectively choose to do. One reason why this is not a wise way to think about democracy is that it places all the importance on the ability to make choices, neglecting the conditions in which those choices are made. This is the political version of a wider problem about how we think about human freedom.

Let’s think about choice and freedom in general for a moment. Although there clearly is a connection between the two, it is not a straightforward one. In order to be free one must be able to make choices, but being able to make choices doesn’t necessarily make you free. My cat, for example, is forever making choices. Does he curl up on my lap or in his basket? Does he come in or go out? Does he eat the cat food or the scraps of ham? These are real choices in that there is more than one option and the cat has to decide which to take. We do not, however, equate this with the kind of freedom we value because we believe (probably correctly) that the choice the cat takes is determined by a kind of automatic, instinctive process. The cat chooses, but has no control over how it chooses.

What makes human choice different? In some ways, not a lot. We are presumably more cognitively sophisticated and bring conscious linguistic reasoning to many decisions. But in a sense we too cannot choose how we choose. At any given moment, we have the information to hand, a database of experience, and whatever cognitive skills we happen to have. Our decisions simply flow from these. We cannot step outside of ourselves and choose how we think in a way that is independent from and uninfluenced by how we actually think.

This inability to choose how we choose is summed up in Schopenhauer’s famous aphorism that ‘Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills’. And that too is true of cats. However, with humans it’s a bit more complicated. What we can do, which the cat can’t, is reflect upon what we will, to consider whether we are really right to will it. To put it another way, we are capable of more self-monitoring and self-direction than other animals (as far as we know) or computers (as far as they have developed).

This is the only sense in which human beings can have more ‘free will’ than other animals or machines. Free will is often imagined to be some kind of magical power that allows us to escape our biology and conditioning to make choices that come from some kind of pure inner will. The evidence suggests we do not have this capacity. Free will is rather the variable capacity to become as self-guiding, self-monitoring and self-critical as is possible. If we just believe whatever we were taught to believe then we are not exercising this freedom, we are merely believing automatically. In order to be free we have to think about what we believe. That is why direct democracy is not necessarily a fine expression of human freedom. If the people choose, but their choices have not been properly thought through, then the form of freedom those choices express is a low one, of very little value.

That is why the Brexit vote was not a victory for freedom, since it is evident that too many people made their choices on the basis of beliefs that they could not possibly have scrutinised enough. This is not a fundamentally partisan point because this is of course true of people on both sides. Choices were made too often in a state of relative ignorance and without understanding of the key issues, which is almost always the case with a referendum. When voters are carried along on the winds of misinformation and emotive rhetoric, their choices can hardly be celebrated as expressions of their highest freedom.

It might be objected that this is an elitist point of view that, if taken seriously, would also invalidate general elections. It certainly is true that this way of thinking would lead to a somewhat jaundiced view of the value of democracy in general. But the rationales for referenda and elections are importantly different. Democracy is justified on the basis that people have a right to have a say in how their countries are run, even if they are imperfect judges of what is best for them and others. This is partly a matter of rights to self-determination and partly a purely pragmatic matter of making government accountable, to guard against tyranny. Representative democracy achieves this without attributing to the population the right or ability to choose the details of how society is structured. Referenda, in contrast, are premised on the idea that the people ought to be able to choose not just who rules and the general direction of that governance, but particular policies. This attributes to them a greater capacity for truly free choices than is actually the case.

In the current climate, such a view may appear offensively condescending. It certainly has the unavoidable corollary that human freedom, in its highest sense, is not evenly distributed, and some people develop their capacity to self-govern and self-monitor more than others. However, this does not mean that we should in any way deny the wider fundamental equality of all. Nor does it entail the politically rebarbative conclusion that  we should grant more rights to some than others, not least because we could not possibly even begin to attempt to discriminate in terms of degrees of powers of freedom. Even if we did, it would not follow the prejudicial contours of class, education or ethnic background.

The most important reason why this view is not condescending is that it applies to us all. Whatever our level of education or political engagement, we all need to recognise that the highest political or ethical good is not the right of each individual to choose. This idea overestimates our capacity for pure autonomy. We are all products of our cultures and upbringings, and so our choices can never be purely ours and ours alone. Recognising this limitation enables us to see why the political domain is not a necessary evil, in which we sacrifice personal freedom for our mutual good. Rather, in any society there is a need to combine experiences and expertises in order to know what is best for all. Democracy is often seen in terms of the rights of the individual – one person, one vote – but in fact its great strength is how it enables the collective to work together for the general good. Democracy prevents any one, or any group, from getting its way to the detriment of others.

Brexit was one of those moments in which these truths got lost. The whole premise of the referendum was that to respect people’s freedom we had to give them a choice, when freedom requires much more than merely having options. Brexit won in part because this very premise reinforced a false sense that the highest freedom is the freedom to choose for yourself, without the interference of political elites or transnational institutions. This is an example of the hubris of our common-sense idea of freedom. This hubris means that no one wants to accept that many decisions are better left to others, and that politics is not about the surrendering of individual freedoms for the collective good but the surrendering of individual choices for the sake of collective freedom. Whether or not you think 23 June was a great day for Britain and Europe, it was a very bad one for freedom.


Photograph © Mick Baker

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