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BOHANON & STYRING: Myriad issues factored into UK's Brexit vote

July 9, 2016

Economic AnalysisThe polls all said “Brexit” would not pass. Most economic forecasts indicated it would lower the United Kingdom’s long-term economic growth.

Why did British voters choose to leave the European Union when it seemed to run counter to their own economic interests? Some pundits say the voters were simply misinformed and confused. Surely, some were on both sides, but the “stupid voter” thesis doesn’t quite cut it.

We propose another explanation, one that might seem strange coming from economists. Namely, British voters understood full well that Brexit would likely make them poorer, but they voted for it, anyway, because they were “buying” other things.

No economic theory precludes individuals acting from non-pecuniary motives. You are offered a $200 bonus to work on Tuesday evening. But Tuesday is your kid’s big softball game. You choose the softball game. Being there when Suzy hits the home run is worth a lot more than $200. Economists don’t assume everyone is homo economicus all the time.

So what might those non-monetary things have been? Cutting loose from an overweening EU bureaucracy is one. It’s interesting that numerous English merchants have reverted to selling their wares in pounds and ounces, not kilos and grams.

Limiting immigration into the UK is another. Even suggesting British voters might have been wary of the EU open-borders policy is apt to elicit cries of “nativism” or, worse, “racism.” But it might not be so simple.

Economist Frank Knight once said: “Society depends upon—we almost may say it is—moral like-mindedness.” That this required “moral like-mindedness” is different in Saudi Arabia than it is in, say, Denmark is not bigotry. And it is not racist to speculate that Saudi “moral like-mindedness” might be incompatible with the Danish version.

Trevor Phillips is a British Guyanian black who headed the Equality and Human Rights Commission under a recent Labour government. He argues that the old model of “organic assimilation,” whereby immigrants gradually take on English values and lifestyles, worked well for 500 years. Now it isn’t working. In his words, recent experience has “exposed the jagged rocks of persistent cultural difference” in a UK characterized by “super diversity.”

Although Phillips has proposed a more active approach to nudging immigrant groups toward assimilation, it should be obvious that immigration restrictions serve a similar end. Maybe this explains why Brexit passed. There is more to it than the pundits, economists and analyst have told us.•

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Bohanon is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Styring is an economist and independent researcher. Both also blog at INforefront.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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