AH YES, the objectors say at once: perhaps the Swiss can do these things, but that does not mean anybody else can; the Swiss, you see, have a unique gift for direct democracy. To which the answer is: come off it. There is nothing special about the Swiss. They are a perfectly ordinary mixture of west-central European peoples (and the fact that they are a mixture makes it harder, not easier, for them to run their country in this way). They too yawn at the blearier aspects of politics; the turnout goes down with a bump when there is nothing of particular interest on the referendum list. They too get sudden bees in the bonnet; it was the Swiss, in 1989, who asked themselves whether they should abolish their army, and found 35.6% of themselves saying yes. Here are no models of zealously dutiful civic rectitude.
If the Swiss can manage this richer form of democracy, it is not because they have always had it. There were some fine early examples of pastoral democracy high up in the Alps in the later Middle Ages. But other parts of the world have had similar things -- the town meetings of New England, for instance -- and it was not until the 1860s that a countrywide Swiss system of direct democracy got itself organised.
Nor is the explanation that the Swiss are an especially sophisticated lot. They are now the second-richest people in Europe, and give themselves a good education; but for the first 60 or 70 years of their democratic experiment -- its most vigorous period, many would say -- they were largely rural, not very well-to-do, and as politically unpolished as any other people of the time.
Least of all should the Switzerland-is-special school be allowed to get away with the argument that Switzerland can do it because "it is such a small country, where they all know each other." That is half-true of the smallest cantons and communities, but nobody who knows the place would say it was true of Switzerland as a whole.
In a country with nearly 6 million citizens and four different languages, the ordinary voter in Zurich knows no more about the political thought-processes of the ordinary voter in Geneva or Lugano than the New Yorker does about the San Franciscan's, the Londoner about the Glaswegian's. The German-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country, in particular, are quite often at angry odds with each other: the 1992 vote about membership of the European Economic Area is only one recent example. The Swiss are not a natural unity, born to chat things over easily on referendum day. Do not believe that the god of direct democracy has selected them as his chosen people.
Remember, politics is politics
The other attempts to demolish the idea of direct democracy are, with one exception, no more convincing than the notion that only the Swiss can do it. Some people argue, for instance, that letting all the voters share in the decision-making process is bound to be inefficient, because it defies the division-of-labour principle.
In the world of economics, these people explain, it would never be suggested that everybody should grow his own food, make his own shoes and construct his own lap-top computer. The sensible way to organise things is to let people specialise, so that each thing is produced by those who do it best; the consumer then has a far wider range of goods to choose from, much more cheaply. So, in the world of politics, if the specialists of the political class are allowed to get on with the complex business of decision-making, the ordinary chap will end up much better off.
To this the reply is: sorry, but politics is different from economics. The world of politics is not divided between consumers and producers (unless you agree with people like Lenin and Stalin, who thought they knew exactly what needed to be done to create a happy world, and so decreed that their Politburo should be the sole producer of political decisions).
In democratic politics, everyone is a consumer, and by the same token everyone can join in the production process. There is no evidence that widening the production process to let ordinary people take part in decision-making in the years between parliamentary elections leads to a narrowing of the range of goods on offer, or increases their price.
On the contrary: direct democracy seems to expand the choice, most of the newly recruited producers are happy to do their work for free, and with luck the members of parliament will cost less.
A variation of this attempt to confuse politics with economics is an argument, also used by adversaries of direct democracy, which confuses politics with science. You would not entrust your health to the advice of your next-door neighbour, runs this argument, or ask the other passengers on the train taking you to work how to set about building a nuclear reactor. You go to a doctor or a physicist, somebody trained in the science of medicine or atomic energy. So in politics you should turn to somebody who understands the science of politics -- namely, your elected representative.
But politics is not a science, either. Parts of it require some detailed knowledge of various subjects, not least economics, and this is one reason why it makes sense to keep parliaments in existence, places where people are paid to burrow into such details. But the heart of democratic politics is the process of finding out which of the various possible solutions to a problem is the one most people think the best. The quickest and most efficient way of finding that out, surely, is to ask the people directly, rather than leaving the choice to a handful of parliamentarians who may well discover at the next parliamentary election that most people think they got it wrong.
The claim that there is such a thing as a science of politics is deeply revealing. Those who make it are in fact claiming that the policies they think best are the ones that should be followed, even if most of the rest of the country disagrees, because the rest of the country is "scientifically" wrong. That is not unlike the sort of thing you hear from conservative mullahs in the Muslim world, who say that since politics is a branch of religion only the "scholars of Islam" are equipped to puzzle out God's political intentions. Such a claim is not just anti-direct-democracy; it is anti-democracy.
The distorting effect of money
There is a bit more substance, but only a bit, in the worry that money can shape the outcome of a referendum. When a question is put to a vote of the whole people, those whose interests are affected naturally want the vote to go their way, and are prepared to spend a lot of money on the signature-collecting and the propagandising which are designed to bring that about.
Studies in both Switzerland and those American states which use direct democracy suggest a pretty frequent link between the amount of money spent and the result of the referendum. The link is by no means always there. The Swiss took their decision about Europe even though most of the big money had been trying to persuade them to vote the other way.
The voters of several American states have passed anti-gun legislation despite the gun- lobby's opposition. Italy's voters helped to torpedo the country's old political system in 1991 and 1993 while the system's two main parties watched ashen-faced. But the connection between money and votes seems persistent enough to justify concern.
There are two reasons, however, for thinking it does not decisively tilt the argument between direct and representative democracy. One is the fact that the voters can if they wish set limits on the amount of propaganda money spent at referendum time.
The Swiss have not done so, because the sums spent in Switzerland are (by American standards) still fairly small, and the Swiss do not think they have ever produced a result outrageous enough to require a remedy. The voters of California, on the other hand, in 1974 overruled the resistance of special-interest groups to pass Proposition 9, which set some firm spending limits. Proposition 9 was then squashed by the federal Supreme Court in the name of the constitutional right to freedom of speech. This November the voters of Montana had a shot at doing the same thing in a way that might escape the Supreme Court's veto. In a direct democracy, the voters can set the rules under which referendums take place, so long as these rules respect the country's constitution -- which, in a direct democracy, the voters can themselves change. The other reason for not letting the money issue decide the argument is that money-power almost certainly distorts the old sort of democracy more than it does the new sort.
In a direct democracy, the lobbyists have to aim their money at the whole body of voters. Since most of the money is spent on public propaganda campaigns, it is hard for them to conceal what they are up to. In a representative democracy, however, the lobbyists' chief target is much smaller -- just the few hundred members of the government and the legislature -- and so it is much easier for them to keep what they are doing secret. They have at their disposal a whole armory of devices ranging from the quietly arranged free holiday in a sunny corner of the world "for information-gathering purposes" through cash-with-a-wink for saying the right things in parliament to straight bribery for getting your government to order the bribe-giver's make of aeroplane.
There have been too many recent examples of all those things all over the democratic world. This is why, when somebody says he is worried about the influence of money over referendums, the correct retort is: "At least you can't bribe the whole people."
Most of the other criticisms of direct democracy are, like this one, equally applicable to the rival version. Does a new referendum designed to solve one problem sometimes carelessly create a new problem? To be sure it does; and the same applies to many an act of parliament. Are some referendums obscurely worded? Yes, and so is some of the work of professional draftsmen; think of the Maastricht treaty. Can the man in the street be counted on to understand tricky economic issues? No, but neither, quite often, can the supposed experts; recall Britain's doomed plunge into Europe's exchange-rate mechanism. None of these objections is fatal. There remains, however, one genuine cause for concern about the way direct democracy works.
The underclass test
The challenge the voters must not duck
The serious worry is whether deciding things by a vote of the whole people is the best way of looking after an unhappy minority of the people. The worry grows when one particular bunch of unhappy people looks like getting stuck indefinitely at the bottom of the pile. The advocates of direct democracy have to ask themselves whether their preferred form of government can cope with the emergence of a permanent underclass.
Of course, unhappy minorities are a problem in any sort of democracy. Whether they are defined by the smallness of their income or the colour of their skin, they tend to vote less frequently than other people do. In a representative democracy, they therefore elect less than their fair share of the members of parliament, and so their complaints have less chance of getting listened to.
But such people may fare even worse in a referendum-based system. Statistics from all over the world show that participation in referendums is almost always a bit lower than it is in candidate-choosing elections. The lower the turnout, the worse the minorities perform. Studies in Switzerland and America make it pretty clear that, as turnout declines, the proportion of the vote cast by the poor and unschooled drops even further and the proportion cast by the better-off and better-educated grows still bigger. Referendums are by several percentage points a more middle-class way of doing things than parliamentary elections.
To this must be added the different ways in which the two kinds of democracy tackle the issues facing them. In a parliamentary system, each of the rival parties offers a package of proposals to the voters at election-time. The party that wants to do something to help an unhappy minority tucks its proposal for doing so inside the package. Voters who do not care for that particular scheme may nevertheless accept it if they like the rest of the bundle. In a direct democracy, on the other hand, the proposal can be brought to a separate vote, all by itself. It requires no leap of the imagination to suspect that a minority-helping project which puts up taxes will find that sort of vote a bigger obstacle.
The need to vote unselfishly
The difference may not matter hugely when the unhappy minorities are fluid groups, changing their composition from decade to decade. This is what happens when a flourishing economy and an efficient education system are regularly converting large numbers of poor people's children into new members of the middle class, and when racial tolerance is holding open the gates of the ghetto. The difference matters much more when the division between groups grows more rigid. That may be happening now. In many parts of Europe and America, the bottom layer of society seems to be in danger of getting stuck at the bottom for ever.
These are the people who have not been bright enough or energetic enough or lucky enough to escape from the conditions into which they were born, and join the newly prosperous majority. The end-of-the-20th-century economy no longer provides them with the simple manual work their predecessors were generally able to scrape by on. The breakdown of marriage, and the disproportionately large increase within this group in the number of single-parent children, mean that most of these children are unlikely to grow up in a way that will help them to do any better. An unemployment rate of over 10% of the current figure in most of the European Union, reduces their chances still further. Here is the possibility of a permanent underclass. It is a grisly thought. If those trapped in the underclass have access to the chemistry of consciousness-changing, the instruments of violence and easy means of transport, it gets even grislier.
This is the challenge to supporters of government by referendum: they have to demonstrate that their system would not turn its back on the underclass. They can comfort themselves with the thought that legislation designed to prevent a social explosion is unlikely to come very frequently to a vote of the whole people. If Switzerland's experience is anything to go by, this is one of those complicated subjects that the voters are on the whole willing to leave to parliament. They do not often summon such legislation to a referendum, or insist on proposing an underclass-bashing law of their own.
Yet it is clear that, if direct democracy spreads, there will be people who want to use it for such purposes. The awkward question must then be asked. Will the ordinary voter, confronted with a referendum paper which says to him, "The proposal is to raise your tax in order to help the underclass: vote yes or no", do the right thing?
The answer of direct democracy's true believers is: yes, he probably will. When people have to deal directly with an issue like this, the odds are that a mixture of compassion for those trapped in the underclass and fear for their own comfort and safety if nothing is done to solve the problem will persuade them to put their mark in the right square on the voting paper. The purpose of this newer sort of democracy, after all, is not only to save ordinary people from the errors of their representatives. It is also to encourage ordinary people to grow more responsible, and to shoulder more of the burden of government themselves -- in short, to become better citizens. That is the optimist's answer, anyway; and it is not plucked out of thin air. Read on.
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