Why "the people have spoken" should not replace parliamentary scrutiny

Imagine you had to make an important, life-changing decision such as taking out a mortgage. Would you base your decision only on your gut feeling? Or would you go through great efforts to inform yourself of the different options and make what you think is the best decision based on the evidence? Clearly, informing yourself is the thing to do. Indeed, it would seem irresponsible to make such a big decision without informing yourself. Yet, time and again, this is what voters do, and particularly, what they did with the Referendum on the UK's membership of the EU.

Given an important decision, how much do you need to inform yourself?

Given the extent to which leaving the EU will affect each UK citizen, including their ability to live, work, travel or retire abroad, and the prices of common products, it may seem strange that few voters had informed themselves on what the EU is, and what possible consequences it would have to leave the EU (see for instance, this Leave voter who cannot come up with even one EU law, even though getting rid of EU laws was his reason for voting Leave).

And the thing is, I have not only seen Leave voters struggle to explain the basics about the EU. Even Remain voters have admitted to me that, prior to the Referendum, they weren't well informed about what the EU was. As one Remain voter put it to me,

"I like travelling abroad and I like other European countries. This is why I voted Remain, and given what I have since learned about the EU I am happy I did so, but I now realise that I did not know enough about the EU to make an informed decision. This should never have been put up in the form of a Referendum because it's a hugely complex issue".

Why would voters not inform themselves properly? The reason is they have little incentive: each voter can only exert a tiny bit of influence on the outcome of a vote, so little that you might wonder: why bother? Downs even argued that any effort involved in voting, such as physically going to the polling place or getting registered to vote, make it irrational to vote given how minute your influence is on the outcome. By contrast, if you have a situation where your decision's impact is huge (e.g., being on the board of a small firm where you're deciding on a merger), you have a proper incentive to be informed. This cost/benefit analysis can explain why millions of UK citizens voted in the Referendum with little, if any, information to guide their decision.

The political philosopher Jason Brennan argues for a solution for the problem of ignorant voters: On the one hand you could have an absolute monarch, who would consider the consequences of a political decision because she has incentive to do so. The problem is that such a monarch doesn't necessarily have our best interests at heart. She may use it mainly to serve her own interests. On the other hand you have millions of voters who do have their interests at heart, but little incentive to inform themselves. Brennan's solution to this dilemma is epistocracy (see this text by Eric Schliesser for a response). He writes that in such a system

political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge.
King Charles I believed in the divine right of kings and used his royal prerogative to push through several unpopular decisions. He was a divisive monarch.

Our parliamentary democracy is, however, already something of an epistocracy. We have elected parliamentary representatives who have incentive to examine the facts, and who also have incentive to represent the interests of their constituents. As such, parliamentary democracy has checks and balances to protect against on the one hand the ignorance of voters, and on the other hand power-hungry, self-interested monarchs on the other (such as Charles I, pictured).

For this reason, we need a parliamentary scrutiny of the triggering of Article 50. This should take into account both what the people voted for in the Referendum (as Schliesser argues, this was not often purely a factual state of affairs, but an image of how they conceived of the UK), and their wellbeing and interests, given the facts about what Brexit would do to this country. Using the phrase "The people have spoken" to invoke a royal prerogative to start the exit process without any parliamentary scrutiny flies in the face of a parliamentary democracy.

I hope that if the court cases succeed and a parliamentary vote on Art 50 comes on the table that MPs will not dodge their responsibility to consider all the ramifications of this decision, given the information they can gather (and their incentive to inform themselves) and that the vast majority of voters in the referendum lacked. "The people have spoken" should not be an excuse to dodge that responsibility.