Brexit's clearest lesson: Referendums are never, ever a good idea

Complex electoral systems evolved largely to make sure that the public is heard, but doesn’t have entirely proportional control. This is far from a perfect arrangement, but ultimately it ensures that the nuanced — and often boring and mind-bogglingly complicated — minutiae of governing stays in the hands of those officials elected to handle it. If you’re lucky enough to live in a high-functioning democracy and don’t like what you see then you can campaign, lobby, or stand for office. Referendums make a mockery of evolved democracies that, largely, manage to filter out extremist candidates and ideas. Democracy, like most ideologies served undiluted, is toxic.

America doesn’t hold referendums on a federal level, but this country isn’t immune from plebiscite rot. Just look at California, where in 1978 nearly two-thirds of the state’s electorate voted to pass Proposition 13, which cut property tax rates on homes, businesses, and farms by about 57 percent. It was a disaster for state finances, and the consequences of that display of people power can still be felt today.

Referendums can also disproportionately exaggerate an issue: Europe wasn’t a big, contentious deal in the U.K. until the vote was announced in 2013. Britain’s EU membership went from a marginal issue, obsessed over by a few extreme right-wingers, to a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the country. Millions of my fellow Britons, ever eager to spit scorn on something or someone, went to town. In the frantic months leading up to the vote, economists scrambled to educate the public on this once niche matter. The vast majority warned loudly that a Leave result would have dire consequences. But it was too late; most Brits weren’t listening. “I think people in this country,” said prominent Leave campaigner and Tory MP Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.”