The EU and the ‘who should rule’ question

In political and moral debates people often make false assumptions that limit the set of options they can imagine as a solution. I think this is happening in the debate over whether the UK should remain a member of the EU. The issue is being framed as whether bureaucrats from the EU should be able to dictate what sort of laws the British parliament should pass or whether the British government should control its own laws.

But this way of framing the debate makes a false assumption that the most important issue is who gets to make a decision about UK laws. As Karl Popper pointed out in The Open Society and Its Enemies Chapter 7, this question makes the false assumption that there is a single person or group who has the knowledge required to dictate what everyone should do. A better question to ask is ‘How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?’ How do the EU and the British parliament compare by that criterion?

The short version of how the EU works runs as follows. The heads of EU states form the European Council. The European council picks a group of politicians called the European commission who are responsible for originating and writing EU regulations and that sort of thing. The European parliament is an elected body who can vote up or down legislation written by the European commission, or amend it, but are not allowed to originate legislation. So the people who are legally supposed to originate and write all the laws can’t be voted out of office by the public. The people who are subject to being removed by the public always have the excuse that they aren’t allowed to originate laws, so they can’t deliver any specific policy.

By contrast, an MP in the British parliament can originate, amend or revoke laws and can be voted out for failing to deliver on policy promises.

The competition for which set of institutions is better isn’t even close. The EU is a bad idea and the British public should vote to leave. If we don’t vote to leave, then it will be extremely difficult to remove bad policies or leaders.

The poor quality of the EU’s institutions shows in its decisions. Take the recent deal made by David Cameron on behalf of the UK. One part of the deal says that EU parliaments can block EU legislation if the EU deems that the decision could be made at the national level and 55% of the parliaments of EU member countries vote against it. Getting one parliament to agree on something is a challenge, getting several to do so is going to be extremely difficult. This is a terrible idea that should have been shot down, but it wasn’t because there is nobody who can be held accountable for it. Why make waves if you can’t benefit?


About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

8 Responses to The EU and the ‘who should rule’ question

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  3. An interesting, but ultimately shallow argument.

    Let me see if I’ve summarised your argument correctly: the EU does not meet Karl Popper’s standard of Representative Democracy and should therefore be disbanded.

    Well, why didn’t you just say so?

    Let’s assume we applied this logic to every political body on either side of the Atlantic ocean – how many government agencies and appointed officials in the US and UK would we have to summarily dismiss to meet this Popperian (Utopian) Standard of yours? A fair few, methinks.

    It’s almost as if there are other variables that we need to consider before jumping from “non-perfectly democratic” to “line them up against the wall”. Who knew?

    Like all perfectly deterministic modes of thought, this argument misses out crucial, messy, segments of the actual argument we might want to have – such as the benefits of the political office or institution we’re talking about, its overall costs, it’s actual power to affect others, the practicalities of replacing it, you know, tiny things like that.

    Let us imagine, for a brief moment, a Sanitation Commissioner, appointed by the current government – let us assume the post is a lifetime appointment (stay with me) – he issues directives that impact say, an entire major city. According to your logic, the only criteria we should apply to this is that “it’s difficult, if not impossible for ordinary voters to remove him, consequently he should be removed”. This ignores a whole host of other factors, such as what social and economic value they bring, their cost in taxes, the practicality of ensuring regular elections for his post etc.

    Applying this slightly more complete reasoning to the question of the EU – we might ask what powers it ultimately has over member states (Parliament is still sovereign if I remember correctly), what benefits it brings, what dangers being a member holds, what the costs to our economy and society of leaving would be, and -then- ask ourselves if being part of an imperfectly democratic organisation that we share some sovereignty with is ultimately worth it.

    Or, you know, just go straight to the answer you already decided on.

    • > This ignores a whole host of other factors, such as what social and economic value they bring, their cost in taxes, the practicality of ensuring regular elections for his post etc.

      The sanitation commissioner’s job is to provide services. If there is no way to remove him, then there is no way to know whether he is providing a service people want. After all, if there was a better candidate or a better way of providing sanitation we couldn’t remove him or put any pressure on him to change. No matter what he does he keeps his job. And there is no way to assess economic value without a free market since a coercively imposed solution to a problem can’t account for opportunity cost.

      • Let me get this straight, are you really saying that -every- politically appointed official who cannot be removed by a direct vote from an electorate should be removed, because they haven’t been directly elected? That there are -no other factors- that might affect the argument that we should consider?

        I’m sorry, but that sounds like an absurd statement.

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