June 19, 2016

The EU Referendum: On evidence, game theory and self-interest’

An idealogical case for #VoteRemain, when an evidence-based decision seems infeasible

Like David Mitchell, I am annoyed that I have been given the responsibility of having an informed opinion on the EU. I know little of economics, foreign policy, international diplomacy, global affairs or any of the other elements that should be considered. As much as I try and educate myself, I am never going to have the experience, expertise and time to make an informed decision on such a complex issue.

Surely the point of politicians is that we elect representatives to make these decisions for us — it’s their job to be well informed. The rest of us, with the best intentions, have jobs and other commitments that mean we can’t devote the necessary energy to it. A referendum on anything more consequential than something like what should our flag look like?’ seems irresponsible to me.

But here we are. I could abstain, but if every moderate individual abstains the playing field becomes wide open for extremists, which I definitely don’t want.

On making an evidence-based’ decision

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, I strive for evidence-based decisions. However, I’m finding it nearly impossible in this case for a number of reasons:

  • Fear-mongering: Every day, there seems to be a new terrifying claim about an awful thing that will happen if we leave/remain. It happens with such frequency I have become desensitised and cynical.
  • Misinformation: The controversial £350m a week’ figure shows how stats that are technically true can be misleading without appropriate context. This kind of misinformation makes it incredibly difficult to sensibly interpret the stark numbers we are presented with in the media. On top of this, there obfuscation around what the EU actually covers (in terms of sovereignty, human rights etc).
  • It is unprecedented: Even assuming none of the misinformation is wilful, none of us really know what effect leaving the EU would have as no country has done it before. I don’t trust any of the the confident claims about deals that would be made or reforms that would happen in either outcome.

For these reasons, I don’t know how to make an evidence-based decision. Despite every critical and scientific bone in my body, I have to reluctantly admit my decision is largely based on ideological reasons. It’s the best I can do; perhaps even the best any of us can do, if we’re completely honest with ourselves.

Before we go on, I’d like to stress that from the research I’ve done, I do believe that remain’ will probably be better for Britain in both the short and long term. But I can’t be sure. So now let’s examine why even if I didn’t believe this, I would still ideologically align with remain’.

Cooperative behaviour

When you team up with others, it’s because you believe it will be mutually beneficial and for the best overall. That’s not the same as expecting it to be brilliant for you at all times. There will be times of hardship, and you might be called on for help. Then at some point, the favour will be returned. Making a commitment means sticking it out when times get tough, in the knowledge that it will be for the best in the long term.

There is no point joining a partnership if you plan to jump ship at the first perception that things are not currently 100% in your favour.

This is basic game theory. In a repeated game (like living in the world), the best strategy is cooperation. Even if it looks like defecting will give you an immediate advantage, this is short lived and outweighed by the long term advantages of having an alliance.

Compassion over self-interest

To me, one of the saddest things about this whole episode is how the people of Britain have been treated like spoilt children who make decisions entirely out of self-interest: all the arguments are based on whether it will be better for Britain to leave/remain.

Frankly, I find it insulting. In general elections, I don’t vote for what I think will most benefit me individually, but for what I think will most benefit society overall, and the same will be true of my vote in the referendum. Even if I did believe that Britain would be worse off in the short term (which I don’t) I would still want to make my decision based on compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than me, including people who aren’t British.

If campaigners want to get my vote, they should stop telling me what they think I want to hear about the benefits for me as a Brit, and start telling me what I actually want to hear about how leaving/remaining can help make the world a better place. Britain has problems, but overall we have it pretty good here, and I want to be part of a country that uses its position to lift others up, not one that isolates itself out of fear and selfishness, and I suspect we can do that better if we remain.

In a terrifyingly short time, we’ve gone from the absurdity of flotilla wars on the Thames to the horrific terrorist assassination of an MP who defended immigration. We need to step up to the plate and unite against hate and fear. As my friend and colleague James put it:

We shouldn’t be putting British interests first. We shouldn’t be asking What can we get out of this?’. We should be asking What can we do to help?’”

Couldn’t agree more.

Updated Jul, 21 2020


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