Brecht on Brexit

LONDON – In the wake of the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Germany, the playwright Bertolt Brecht mordantly suggested that “if the people had forfeited the confidence of the government,” the government might find it easier to “dissolve the people and elect another.” It is a sentiment that resonates with many in the United Kingdom today, in the aftermath of June’s Brexit referendum.

In the heat of the referendum campaign, Michael Gove, then the justice secretary and a leading member of the “Leave” camp, said, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from all kinds of organizations with acronyms, who have consistently got it wrong.” His targets were the IMF, the OECD, the LSE, and all the other covens of economists who argued that leaving the European Union would damage the British economy.

Unfortunately, Gove was right – not about what would happen to the economy, but about UK voters’ low regard for economic expertise. Despite the near-unanimous view of the economics profession that Brexit would tip the UK into recession and lower its long-term growth rate, voters went with their hearts, not their wallets. The “Remain” campaign was accused of using the economists’ warnings to try to frighten voters into submission.

Some have argued that the blame for the referendum’s outcome lies with economists themselves, because they were unable to speak a language that ordinary people could understand. A similar charge is made against bankers and other financiers, who, widely perceived to be arguing from narrow sectoral self-interest, were equally unpersuasive.