Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Fly me to the moon


In a democracy, what should be the relationship between leaders and the people? Last year Michael Gove famously offered a populist defense of Brexit against the dire warnings of economic experts: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Donald Trump has obviously had great success with his idiosyncratic mix of doomsaying (“American carnage”) and pollyannaism (e.g. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy”).* The vaguely conspiratorial premise — the spirit of “How to do it!” — is that our problems are all very simple, but elites are attempting to buttress their favoured position by making them seem complicated.

I was reading Tim Shipman’s book about last year’s EU referendum. The Remain campaign couldn’t decide how to address immigration issues. Some Labour policy experts wanted to talk about a migration-impact fund to help communities that were suffering ill effects of immigration, but

We tested these ideas in focus groups and the voter reaction was, “Well, you could achieve that and more by voting to leave and taking back total control.”

The voter reaction was, of course, wrong, as the recent backtracking by the Conservatives has shown: Britain remains highly dependent on immigrant labour, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, regardless of EU obligations. But who would tell them that it’s all more complicated? Certainly not the Leave campaign, that repeated the word “control” ad nauseum.

I picture the position of governments and informed politicians as being like the pilot of a plane, the people like the owner/passenger. If the owners decide they’d rather fly to Paris than to London, the pilot’s job is to plot the course, and maybe to explain the additional costs involved. Flying an airplane is technically demanding, it requires skills and expertise that most people don’t have, and the owner is paying for that; the owner is not paying for the pilot’s suggestions about desirable vacation destinations. But if they decide they’d rather fly to Australia — or to the moon — there’s an obligation to explain why this impossible, and simply to refuse. An alternative pilot who offers to take over flying the plane and head it toward the moon, because that’s what the owner-people want, is a fraudster, not a democrat.

* Not to be confused with the ironic optimism expressed in the scatological joke that circulated shortly after the November election: Trump is going to find building that wall easier than expected. Since the election, everyone’s been shitting bricks.

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