The underclass test – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 6 of 8)

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%, 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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