The arguments that won’t wash – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 5 of 8)

“Most objections to direct democracy are, when you look closely, objections to democracy”


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 6m 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 armoury 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.

© 1996 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved