Don’t tell me what you don’t want

When rejecting something is not enough

“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want”, the Spice Girls sang in their catchy hit Wannabe, 22 years ago. They were not (to the best of my knowledge) a bunch of economists. But they might as well have been, since economists too are often very interested to know what we really, really want.

Sometimes what people don’t want can be exactly as revealing as what they do want. If you are tossing a coin, and you do not want to choose heads, then the only other option is tails. By not choosing one, you automatically choose the other. If there are two choices for dessert on the menu — say fruit salad or ice cream — then, if you would like a desert but do not want the fruit salad, you will have to have to settle for the ice cream.

But if the number of options is larger, or undefined, then stating what you don’t want is meaningless. This is pretty much what Theresa May told the members of the British Parliament who intend to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

The problem here is the withdrawal agreement (WA) prime minister May negotiated with the EU. This is, to put it mildly, not popular among the MPs who will have to approve it in a vote next week, on December 11th. Its 580-odd pages inevitably bulge with compromises, so it is easy for anyone to find fault with it. However, it is not clear exactly what the next steps would, or even could be if — as is quite possible — the WA is rejected. The only thing that is certain is that, unless there is an active intervention of some kind to stop it, the UK will leave the EU at 11pm GMT on March 29th. That is the law. If there is no deal, then that withdrawal will be without a deal — something for which, with less than four months to go, both the government and the businesses in the UK are profoundly unprepared. Some MPs believe that parliament can ‘take back control’ and stop such a no-deal Brexit. On December 4th, the Commons did indeed approve a motion which gave it the power to vote on what the government should do if and when the WA gets a ‘nay’. But as the prime minister said, it is not enough to say you do not want ‘no deal’, you have to be specific about what you want instead.

Best not to move your house before you know where you actually do want to live (photo: Katherine Jackson CC BY)

Focusing on what you don’t want can be quite compelling, though. Some people resign their job without having an immediate prospect of an alternative one, because they do not want to stay where they are. Others leave their home because they do not want to live with the other members of their household any longer. Walking away from what you don’t want like this, without having a clear idea what you do want, is risky. Still, most people do have a short-term stopgap: they live off their savings or stay with a friend, while they find a more permanent option. The issue here is generally not so much that it is hard to find a new job or a new place to live, but that it takes time.

But most of the time, we are not acting impulsively and without a plan. By coincidence, I have been helping my daughter and her family move house this last week. They have outgrown their current home, and need more space. Yet they didn’t just focus on the disadvantages of their existing place. Instead, right from the start they knew very well which features they wanted to see replicated and which ones they didn’t, and the trade-offs they were prepared to make. How close should the new house be to work? What should be the minimum size? How large a garden? What kind of location? Wisely, it was only when they found and bought a house they wanted more than the current one that they decided to move out — and not before.

If you focus too much on the undesirable features you want to leave behind, without being precise about what alternative you aim for, you risk building up a vague ideal that may bear no resemblance to what is achievable in reality. Choices imply trade-offs, and to make trade-offs, you need to know what is being traded off. But actually making trade-offs can be difficult, and it is tempting to evade them by continuing to dream about the best of all worlds, of having your cake and eating it.

Ironically, it is exactly the intense focus on ‘not being in the EU’, without a thorough consideration of the realistic alternatives and the trade-offs involved that has led to today’s problem. The referendum question itself was inherently asymmetrical: remaining in the EU was the preservation of a known status quo, while leaving the EU was entirely undefined. As Paul Simon sang, there must be fifty ways to leave your lover — and there must also be at least fifty ways in which the UK can leave the EU. Staying in the single market via the EEA, less well-defined concepts like Norway plus, Canada-plus-plus, and even Canada-plus-plus-plus, completely bespoke deals, and indeed no deal at all: all of them are forms of Brexit. But there comes a time when you can no longer fantasize about an existence outside the EU that is all puppy dogs and rainbows. At that point, there are only very few possibilities on the table from which a choice must be made. And that time is now.

Like a person who quit their job without another one to go to, who has been entertaining idealistic views of a new career without taking any concrete steps to find such employment, who has been basking in the satisfaction of having slammed the door behind them and taught the old boss a lesson, but whose savings are now running out, the British MPs are now faced with a stark choice. Nearly wo years ago, they voted overwhelmingly for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, which allowed the PM to invoke Article 50 unconditionally. They thus voted for the UK to leave the EU on March 29th2019, without any idea how that would happen, or what that would entail. Now their time, too, has run out.

Not too hot, not too cold, but just right in between (photo:

The available options form an intriguing example of the compromise effect, and the prime minister is not letting that opportunity go unused to persuade MPs to support her agreement. You don’t like the agreement? If you’re a Remainer, voting against it means you risk the nightmare scenario of seeing the country crash out of the EU without a deal. If you are a hard Brexiteer who thinks the WA is too soft a Brexit, be aware that rejecting it could mean a new referendum, and possibly no Brexit at all. This can be a powerful stratagem to increase the attractiveness of the middle option.

There is something delightfully surreal about this configuration. Some MPs would undoubtedly prefer one of the alternatives to Mrs May’s WA, but they’d find the other alternative much worse. And since nobody knows right now which of the other two possibilities would become reality in case the WA is rejected by parliament, that puts them into a quandary. And that is before you take into account the preferences of your constituents as an MP: depending on the choice you make, they may punish you at the next election…

If only they had heeded the advice of the Spice Girls, and been clear about what they really, really want, instead of about what they did not want, when they voted to start the Brexit clock.

Originally published at on December 7, 2018.

Thanks for reading this post — I hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to share so others can enjoy it too. (Use the Twitter and Facebook buttons, or simply copy and paste this link.) And in case you’re up for more of similar, see all my other posts (published weekly) here. Thank you!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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