David R. Henderson  

Finding Out the Implications of the Brexit Vote

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A straightforward application of public choice theory.

Brexit Puzzle resized.png

Various friends on Facebook have been making fun of Britons who are madly googling to find out the implications of the vote to leave the EU. "Aren't they stupid," "they didn't know what they were voting for," blah, blah, blah.

They well could be stupid, but there are two more-charitable explanations. First, there might not be a huge overlap between those who are googling and those who voted. It makes sense for those non-voters to want to know the implications because the vote did go a certain way and people want to figure out what will happen next.

But there probably is a large overlap between those who voted and those who are googling to find out the implications. The reason is that the percent of eligible Britons who voted was so high. Unless there are a huge number of 16- and 17-year olds googling on Brexit, something I doubt, a large percent of the people googling are of vote-eligible age and probably voted.

Which leads me to my second reason, which doesn't require that people be stupid; all it requires is that voters be rationally ignorant.

People know, at a conscious or subconscious level, that their vote is not determinative of the outcome. So in deciding how to vote, the vast majority don't spend hours carefully sifting through the arguments and evidence. That's rational. But once the outcome is determined, there will be implications. People want to understand those implications for their own life: How should I invest my retirement funds? Should I quit that job I'm not thrilled with or hold on? What about that flat that I wanted to buy? Etc. Also, they might want to know why the pound did this or the Euro did that: in other words, simple curiosity. So trying after the fact to get information that might help guide those decisions, or satisfy their curiosity, makes total sense.

On a somewhat related note, one of my frustrations with our local newspaper, the Monterey Herald, over the years is that in the 6 or 8 weeks before we got to vote on various initiatives and referenda, the Herald's articles would give some facts but were also fairly vague about implications. Then, when a referendum passed, within 24 hours the Herald listed bullet points in great detail about what this would mean. I remember particularly a ballot measure about youths and crime. I learned enough to vote against it. Once it passed by a huge margin, the Herald laid out some pretty draconian implications that they hadn't even hinted at. Now this could be because the newspaper didn't have the manpower to look into it and were simply reporting some material the advocates gave them. Then my upset would be at those advocates, but it would be clear why those advocates would withhold that information. Still, my gut feel is that the Herald could have, at very low cost, given us those facts, but didn't.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Market Fiscalist writes:

The vast majority of Britons (reportedly even the leaders of the Brexit campaign) seem to have assumed that Remain would win.

It is therefore not the least bit surprising or illogical that it was only after the Brexit vote was in that Britons researched the implication of leaving the EU.

Its seems very likely that there were some voters who voted Brexit only because they expected that side to lose - but wanted to register some sort of protest against the status quo. I can't decide if that section of voters should be categorized as stupid or not.

jon writes:

Without knowing the make up of the people who are doing the searches, we can't really say much about what the googling trends mean. If the bulk of those searching were 'Remain' voters, that fits a very different narrative than if they were mostly 'Leave' voters.

Ben H. writes:

"People know, at a conscious or subconscious level, that their vote is not determinative of the outcome." Well, except of course that in the aggregate their votes were, in fact, determinative of the outcome. That reality should not be ignored in these sorts of arguments about the "rationality" of not voting. This reminds me of the argument that the "rational" strategy in Prisoner's Dilemma is to defect. But that is not what the game theory analysis actually says; all that game theory says is that "defect" is the Nash equilibrium. Whether following the Nash equilibrium is, in fact, "rational" is up to us humans to decide. If everyone playing the game acts "irrationally" and chooses to cooperate instead, everyone benefits. That would seem to me to be more "rational". Beware of the assumption that "rational" is a synonym for selfishness and short-sightedness.

robert quinn writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Renny88 writes:

The Google report said people are searching for those terms at 3x the normal rate, which still probably translates into very very few; one in a thousand? One in ten thousand? We don't know, but the WaPo and elsewhere love to see that as "frantic". Also, re ageism, the turnout among 18-24s was 36%, vs about 80% of older voters (via https://twitter.com/SkyData/status/746700869656256512), so those claims about the old people unfairly stealing their future are nonsense; if you don't vote, you don't count, and have right to complain about the outcome.

Andrew Clough writes:

Renny88: It was, in fact, on the order of just 1,000 people.

michael pettengill writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Bob Murphy writes:

Renny88 and Andrew are right: It was apparently about 1000 people in the UK typing in that search, which the headlines then turned into, "British frantically googling to find out what EU is..."

If someone thinks this article is wrong, let me know.

Mark Barbieri writes:

@Renny88: You always have the right to complain about the outcome. People's propensity to listen to your complaints may decrease if you didn't vote, but the right to complain is inalienable.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

How does this topic , as you have discussed it, fall under the rubric of Public Choice Theory?

Maybe the Irrational Voter Theory or something else?

Richard writes:

The vast majority of the voting public is of course "stupid" from the perspective of the educated elite, meaning that their level of knowledge is very low. But the media only notices when their side loses.

Weir writes:

People on both sides see the EU the same way: You can't beat City Hall, and you can't beat the EU. The EU always wins. There's no point fighting it, because it's permanent, unchanging, irresistible. That's the appeal of it, for people in London who loathe and despise the oiks in the suburbs and in the wasteland even further out. And it's why the small band of heretics in London who campaigned for independence didn't actually expect to get it.

Imagine if the EU's negotiations with Cameron had been conducted differently, and the EU had granted some concessions instead of just giving him the high hand. The EU is like the Church in the age of Henry VIII. It's like the weather. Everybody complains about it but nobody does anything about it.

Allen Jacobs writes:

Wow. Brexit passed. That's as bad as if Canada left the United States. ... What? You mean Canada has already left the U.S.? What? You mean Canada was never part of the United States? How can Canada have a separate country? How can they survive economically if the important decisions are not made in Washington? How can they survive such protectionism? How can they have a successful economy? Poor Canadians! They will have to have their own currency now! What, you mean they already have one? Oh those poor Canadians, unable to trade or admit immigrant! And Now, How can Britain survive if their decisions are not made in Brussels? Oh my, I need to wring my hands over this.

Garrett writes:

Assuming most people making those searches are Leave voters is just poor reasoning. Assuming Remain voters were more thoroughly researched than Leave voters is also poor reasoning. Rational ignorance should be expected on both sides. There isn't sufficient data to illuminate the position of the searchers. The best default understanding is that curiosity about the implications is natural to everyone, and rational ignorance guided votes for each side; therefore, the position of the searchers should not be expected to skew significantly in either direction.

pyroseed13 writes:

"People know, at a conscious or subconscious level, that their vote is not determinative of the outcome."

Why do proponents of the theory of rational ignorance claim that something is true that is so clearly false? Most people believe that their vote matters, and it's hard not to with the constant propaganda from celebrities and the media telling them that it does.

J Mann writes:
Most people believe that their vote matters
I'm sure I'm projecting, but I like to think that most people intuitively see their vote as an issue of Hofstatlerian coordination.

My vote individually doesn't matter, but if enough people who prefer my candidate stay home, my candidate will lose. So I can skip voting, but it makes me a free rider.

Hofstatler has a recursive solution where I vote so that other people who think like me will also vote, but IMHO, it's enough that I would feel bad for being a free rider, and that I want to encourage a general social value of not free riding.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Since there has been no answer to my query:

How does this relate to Public Choice Theory?

If you will go to the heading of the homepage of this EconLog; go to and click on the tab "Encyclopedia," you will be able to find the article on Public Choice Theory

If need be type that term into the search box and read the Shugart article. I seem to recall that someone else wrote the lead article in the prior edition.

[The URL is http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PublicChoice.html. In the 1st edition, http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc1/PublicChoiceTheory.html, by Jane Shaw. --Econlib Ed.]

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