The Brexit Dilemma

If asked what they think about Brexit, many Americans would probably have themselves marked down for No Opinion rather than admit they have no idea what Brexit is, and are too embarrassed to ask if it’s a new breakfast cereal or a jihadi militia group.

But in Britain — where the country’s future may depend on Brexit, the proposed exit from the European Union — just about everybody knows what it is and has an opinion. But the country seems split down the middle and the outcome of the referendum in a week’s time is uncertain.

As of the latest polls on Tuesday, the Leave campaign had 49 percent of the public in favor, while the Remain was at 48 percent.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday urged the U.K. to stay in, warning that the impact of an exit would be devastating to the health care system. Brexit advocates, on the other hand, warn that the deal secured by Prime Minister David Cameron with the EU will not be enough to protect the country from a further influx of migrants.

Then there are the issues of safeguarding Britain’s financial services industry from Eurozone regulations; “ever closer union” with other EU members; keeping the pound; British prestige, and more.

But the biggest imponderable of all is what exiting the European Union will do to the British economy. The matter is a highly technical one, baffling to the average citizen.

Take, for example, this tidbit from the British Economist: “For sterling, the risk is revisiting parity versus the U.S. dollar should the U.K. exit. For equities, investors might demand 100bp more yield, implying close to a -20% adjustment… The FTSE 100 is down 2 percent…”

For this sort of thing, you need expert advice — right, mate?

Maybe so, but the British voters do not seem to be in a mood to listen to the experts. At least those who are for Brexit. The fact that the Bank of England, IFS, IMF and OECD, along with almost every economist willing to go on record, are against Brexit, does not deter the 49 percent who are fed up with Europe and want Britain to control its own borders and go its own way. When told that sterling or the markets will fall after a Brexit, the response is: “The bankers got it wrong before.”

Indeed they did. And in this respect, the British are in much the same quandary as the rest of us. We have seen over and over again how wrong the experts can be. Studies show that doctors misdiagnose four times out of 10. If you file your tax returns yourself, you’re statistically more likely to be filing them correctly than if you get a tax adviser to do it for you. And as for financial experts, well, you can thank them for the debacle of the 2008 recession.

The experts in public opinion have not exactly covered themselves with glory in recent elections in the U.S. and U.K. The fact that Donald Trump is the putative Republican nominee for president is a daily reminder that the margin of error in polls should be widened, all of them having predicted his elimination sometime soon after the Vermont primary. So when they tell us that the Brexit referendum is holding at 49/48, we know not to count on that, either.

However, there is more than just a healthy skepticism at work here. The whole concept of expertise has come under attack in recent years. It is due in part to the kind of expert error cited above, but also to an attitude of suspicion or hostility regarding anyone who claims expertise in a given field. Such claims are regarded by many people these days as illegitimate, elitist, fallacious “appeals to authority,” the chicanery of those with special credentials to stifle the democratic process.

Democracy, in the minds of some, means not only that everyone is entitled to his opinion, but that all opinions are somehow equal — just like “all men are created equal.” In this climate, anyone who claims to have an opinion more equal than others is immediately suspect.

However, all opinions are not equal. It does not follow that since doctors have been shown to be fallible, we should decide medical questions for ourselves. Just as you would not think of letting a non-surgeon perform an operation (because he likely lacks the skills required), so should you not diagnose yourself (for the same reason).

In the case of Brexit, some would argue that flipping a coin would be as good a way of deciding the matter as consulting the experts or deciding on their own, without regard for what the experts say.

The anger, the attitude of fed-uppedness with the know-it-alls in business, government, academia and the professions is understandable: too much arrogance, too many mistakes, and for too long.

But the fact remains that we do need the experts. While we should not and need not surrender our decision-making responsibility to them (and often cannot, anyway), we have to acknowledge that, like it or not, they are here to stay. It is foolish to simply disregard them.

Ultimately, the British people will decide whether to Brexit or not to Brexit. But they should do so only after listening carefully to what the experts are saying.