In praise of status quo-ism, or, 10 theses arising from the Brexit fiasco

1. Citizens of reasonably free and reasonably democratic societies tend to underweight the value of stability. This is particularly the case when that society has been stable for a couple of decades or more, and so memories of previous instability are either foggy or non-existent.

2. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should overweight the value of stability. That is, in the absence of an overwhelming or unavoidable reason to do otherwise, he or she should strive to maintain the status quo at almost all cost. Put a bit crudely: A prime minister’s prime directive should be to defend the constitution.

3. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should never confuse intramural instability for national instability. That is, just because there are deep and existentially threatening cleavages within a political party, it does not mean there are similar cleavages within the nation that need attending to. Put differently: The party’s interest is almost never the national interest, and national stability should never be risked in order to stabilize the party.


4. By their very nature, referendums are instability-generating devices. (That is why, for example, they are held by separatist governments in Quebec, not federalist governments).

5. A referendum invariably involves one significant national group or groups gaining or retaining status at the expense of another significant national group or groups (The Cowen Theorem).

6. A referendum is never about the referendum question (The Hansonian Theorem). It always ends up being about something else.

7. It is the public who will decide what that referendum is about. The decision to call a referendum is therefore, a transfer of political leadership, and therefore agenda control from elected officials to the media, to the masses, and to assorted demagogues.

8. Just as a trial lawyer should never ask a witness a question to which they don’t already know the answer (The OJ Simpson Litmus), a political leader whose job it is to maintain stability should never call a referendum on a question to which he or she doesn’t already know how the public will vote.

9. In general, political leadership in a stable, reasonably free and democratic society should involve doing nothing by halves that can’t be done by quarters. That is, leaders like Mackenzie King and Jean Chretien are preferable to Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin. Doing nothing is almost always a better move than doing something.

10. Don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch. If it does itch, that isn’t necessarily a problem — most polities of any size and diversity itch all over the place. If the itch is a problem, there’s no reason for the leader to take ownership of the decision to scratch it. If someone has an itch that needs scratching, make them own it.


In praise of status quo-ism, or, 10 theses arising from the Brexit fiasco — 6 Comments

  1. 1. It all depends on what you mean by “stability.” Immigration to developed countries has resulted in major demographic changes. That isn’t really stability.

    2. Nobody knows how to successfully integrate randomly admitted people from poorly developed countries. Whether it is Mexican and Central American people (or, earlier, African people) in the United States, or Middle Eastern, South Asian and African people in Europe, the results tend to be multi-generational poverty and various degrees of alienation. Mutual recriminations ensue.

    3. If developed countries continue to randomly admit people from poorly developed countries, eventually some of them are going to start electing far right governments, through the normal electoral process.

    4. Canada has has almost completely avoided this, but it’s important to realize why. First, we cherry pick the hell out of our own immigrants. This results in relative equality between the groups that are here. Second, this is easy for us to do that because we are surrounded by three huge oceans, one of them spectacularly inhospitable, with a large country between us and large numbers of random people from poorly developed countries.


    In the UK, the issue was already too large to ignore. Cameron promised the referendum to prevent UKIP from playing the spoiler in the election. Without the referendum promise, there would have been no Conservative majority. Your advice would have necessitated the leader of a major party to deliberately refrain from doing something that would get him a majority government. Resisting that temptation is not something I would bet on happening most of the time.

  2. Another observation from Brexit feeds into Canada’s discussion on electoral reform. There seems to be a majority opinion that the more directly the electorate participates in decision making, the more democratic the system. So referenda are the most democratic, proportional representation next & so on. Allowing the membership to directly elect party leaders (e.g. the Labour Party) is the way to go. Notwithstanding the Electoral College, the US President is today effectively elected directly. 2016 is proving to be a watershed year for demonstrating the folly of such thinking. Maybe from Brexit we will realize that we should only elect local representatives/delegates & hold them accountable for all subsequent decisions.

  3. I suspect the link in point 5 is incorrect. It is pointing to the blog Marginal Revolution, but not to any particular post. Furthermore, it is pointing to a page that won’t have stable content – the contents of the page will change day-by-day.

  4. Another likely thesis may be simply that citizens do not generally approve of ceding jurisdictional authority of certain law-making and regulatory powers to distant bureaucracies. This seems to be a fairly legitimate fear, although it is a very complex area to analyze objectively. It would be nice if media would pay a little less attention to market and economists’ reactions and more to providing an unbiased account as to the specific contexts in which Britain’s regulatory powers are surrendered under EU jurisdiction. If the fear is more illusion than reality than fine, but on its face, the jurisdictional argument appears well founded. Many, for example, have a difficult time accepting the loss of jurisdiction under NAFTA or other trade agreements with ISDS clauses.

  5. 2. Preserving the status quo is less important for issues that aren’t popular. The government regulates many industries, the workings of which would bore most Canadians.

    2. The constitution is broad enough to allow a great deal of instability.

    4. Electoral reform referenda in BC and Ontario were not instability devices.

    10. Best point on here. However, I fundamentally disagree. I would add that political leaders can and should work to create public momentum, rather than take the easy way out with a referendum.