bookmark_borderIreland and the Gricean maxims

The latest opinion polls seem to indicate that the Irish referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon will be very close.

For some reason, most referendums tend to end up with a close result, even if one of the sides is far ahead before the campaigns start.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this, and I think an explanation might be found in the Grice’s conversational maxims.

Basically, the maxims are some rules that form the basic assumptions underlying human communication. The rules are often broken, but not without reason, and breaking them implies a meaning on its own.

In particular, I think the Maxim of Relation (“Be relevant”) is crucial here. In means that one will assume that a question asked is relevant, that is, it is assumed it can be there is more than one possible answer. If the politicians arrange a referendum but say that only voting yes really works and that a no would be a disaster, they break this maxim, which makes people confused and angry and they start thinking they’re being lied to. They might even think the Maxim of Quality (“Be truthful”) is violated, too.

To make it even worse, people tend to say no when they don’t fully understand a question, which is why making people read the whole treaty is normally a winning strategy for the opponents.

Because of all this, I believe referendums only work where politicians are happy to proceed with either outcome. For instance, Scotland can feasibly continue as a part of the UK or become an independent country, so this is a possible topic for a referendum.

On the other hand, saying yes to a complex treaty that is a messy compromise between 27 countries that took years to negotiate is clearly not a good basis for a referendum. If one had wanted one, it should have been held years ago and have been about the negotiation mandate for the Irish government (but that’s of course not what the Irish constitution demands).

bookmark_borderThe right size of a constitution

Founding Fathers labor …
Originally uploaded by mharrsch

Although I would vote yes to the Lisbon Treaty if there were a referendum, I must admit I’m not a great fan of it.

Just like the European Constitution it replaced, it’s full of specific rules accumulated over years that just makes the whole document incomprehensible and unlikely to last very long before amendments are needed.

I firmly believe a constitution should be brief and general, like the US Constitution or the Danish one.

The Economist made a good proposal eight years ago, and although I don’t believe with all the specifics, I agree with its form, scope and length.

I think many voters would understand why it was needed, and it could make it possible to change some of the mechanics (such as voting rules) without having to get unanimous agreement, while still giving all countries a veto right in other areas.

bookmark_borderJoining the euro

Euro coins
Originally uploaded by Mesq

Even in The Telegraph blogs people are now seeing the light. 🙂

Fraser Nelson criticises it but a commenter, Oliver Kamm, replies to the rhetorical question about what we would gain:

Increased trade flows, owing to removal of exchange-rate risk in our most important markets; greater foreign investment, for the same reason (in reverse); reduction of vulnerability to economic shocks due to exchange-rate fluctuations (particularly important when the exchange rate is driven by asset-market shocks); the potential for the City to gain still greater importance as a financial centre owing to integration of financial markets; and reduction in influence of some of the nastiest and most xenophobic elements in British public life.

Perhaps more people will start considering it after the summer holidays when they realise how much the pound has dropped in value?