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Brexit, & limits of empathy

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Summary:
“The trouble with you son” said Bill Shankly once to a struggling young player “is that your brains are all in your head.” The great man had a point, and not just about football. What I mean is that there are some things which we recognise intellectually but which we just don’t get in our hearts or guts. There are limits, therefore, to how far we can empathize with others’ views, even if we try (which, of course, many people don’t). For me, religion is like this: although I can, with effort, see that there could be an intellectual argument for the existence of God I don’t get what it means to have religious faith. I just cannot imagine having such a thing. I struggle therefore to empathize with those that do.  I have the same trouble with Brexit. My brain tells me that there might be

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“The trouble with you son” said Bill Shankly once to a struggling young player “is that your brains are all in your head.” The great man had a point, and not just about football.

What I mean is that there are some things which we recognise intellectually but which we just don’t get in our hearts or guts. There are limits, therefore, to how far we can empathize with others’ views, even if we try (which, of course, many people don’t). Shankly

For me, religion is like this: although I can, with effort, see that there could be an intellectual argument for the existence of God I don’t get what it means to have religious faith. I just cannot imagine having such a thing. I struggle therefore to empathize with those that do. 

I have the same trouble with Brexit. My brain tells me that there might be a case for trading off some prosperity for greater sovereignty, greater democratic control over our country’s affairs. But I don’t , in my heart, feel the attraction of such sovereignty. And I struggle to even imagine doing so.

IS the fault here mine, or Brexiters?

It could be mine. Coming from a poor background has caused me to value wealth highly – maybe to over-value it. It’s no accident, I suspect, that so many prominent Brexiters were raised on the other side of the tracks to me: Johnson, Banks, Farage, Rees-Mogg and so on. My education in economics might well have reinforced this bias. All professions are prone to deformation professionelle, and a tendency to overvalue the material world might be one of economists’ biases. (By the same token, this upbringing also blinds me to the attraction of “ever closer union” within Europe except insofar as this brings material benefits).

Also, sovereignty is a collective good; it’s something possessed by we, not me. My education into liberal individualism might well have biased me against seeing the value of collective goods and to prefer individual ones: Talk of a “national story” leaves me cold, as does the prospect of the UK being able to set its own regulations upon the manufacture of vacuum cleaners. I want to know what I am supposed to do with sovereignty – which is why I value personal autonomy more. But this could just be my materialist-individualist upbringing.

Or is it? Maybe I’m right and it is Brexiters who are over-rating sovereignty. Certainly, Lexiters are overstating the benefits of escaping limits on state aid. As Ewan McGaughey points out, such limits curb crony capitalism but not socialistic objectives such as infrastructure spending. Granted, EU rules also enforce capital mobility and market competition, but these aren’t incompatible with my conception of socialism.

Also insofar as sovereignty means more power for national governments it empowers our opponents as much as ourselves. The belief that it will be used beneficially, I fear, rests upon an optimism bias – the idea that the right side will win power.  

But again, I might be missing the point. Maybe sovereignty is an intrinsic good, valuable in itself even if it isn’t exercised.

Or perhaps there’s something else going on. Some people want some things not because of their intrinsic or instrumental value but for ego-gratification: think of bosses enforcing petty rules that don’t enhance productivity, or middle-aged men chatting up younger women or investment bankers wanting bigger bonuses than their colleagues. From this perspective, the mere fact that Brexit is wanted makes some Brexiters desperate for it.

All this leaves me puzzled. I don’t even know what type of good sovereignty is supposed to be, let alone whether or how it can be priced. And what’s more, I don’t know whether the fault here is mine or others. Which makes me wonder: am I really the stupidest participant in the Brexit debate?

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