It’s becoming increasingly clear that “democracy” exists only when the voters choose the option preferred by certain pundits and politicians. When the voters go the other way, well, then there’s just entirely too much of that democracy stuff going on.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, the Trump phenomenon, and the Hungarian vote to restrict immigration, the global left has realized that something must be done to begin undermining the idea of the unrestricted democracy — an idea they have been promoting for over a century. Realizing that popular referenda and initiatives provide a way for voters to go around the will of the elites, politicians and journalists have joined forces to begin denouncing the very idea of direct democracy.
To launch this new ideological assault against democracy, The New York Times, earlier this month, published “Why Referendums Aren’t As Democratic as they Seem.” In it, the journalists set to work finding numerous “experts” who would describe the democratic referendum process as “pointless” and “dangerous.”
The article, which doesn’t even bother to present the pro-referendum side of things, quotes a myriad of politicians, economists, and other elites who take a dim view of the voters who vote yes for policy changes like Brexit. Economist Kenneth Rogoff, who wants to vastly increase the power unelected central bankers have over private citizens, calls the referendum process “Russian roulette for republics.”
Others in the NYT article describe the many ways that the voters are fools who don’t understand the issues they’re voting on, and who are likely to change their ideas any given moment based on shallow whims.
Meanwhile, after Colombian voters voted down a government-negotiated peace deal with FARC terrorists, the Christian Science Monitor declared that a “rethink” of “taking democracy directly to the people” is necessary.
As with the representatives of the political class interviewed by the Times, the anti-referendum experts insisted that only trained politicians are qualified to make political judgments. This is especially true, it is held, in the case of foreign policy:
Writing in Foreign Policy this summer, [Matt] Qvortrup noted that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and US diplomat George Kennan argued that foreign affairs should be the realm of the “prophetic minority” who understood what was in the best interests of citizens.
The knee-jerk antipopulism of the comfortably-ensconsed politicians and their advisors isn’t necessarily wrong, of course. Many voters really are ignorant and many really do change their minds for no apparent reason. What these critics of referenda fail to understand, it seems, is that all their lambasting of the referendum process applies equally well to the process known as representative democracy. Or more likely, they do understand the contradiction, but they don’t care. The next time the voters vote “correctly,” the current critics of populism will simply pretend they had never criticized the voters at all.
But now that the anti-populists have indeed made it clear they think the voters are too stupid and incompetent to vote for “Remain” or “Leave,” we can only wonder what simultaneously makes them competent to vote for “Labour” or “Tory.”
If the voters are too dumb to understand matters of immigration, as we are told they are in Hungary, should we not also assume that the voters are too ignorant to understand the difference between Hillary Clinton and her opponents?
And yet, every time there is an election, we are forced to hear the pundits discuss what the voters really wanted or why the new president has “a mandate.”
Nevertheless, whenever the voters vote in favor of something the establishment pundits like, we can expect to hear an endless discussion of how “the voters have spoken” and how the voters have settled the matter definitively.
“Democracy” Is What They Say It Is
Indeed, to see the double standard at work, we need look no further than the recent impeachment in Brazil where President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office. In that case, a popular referendum — this time on Rousseff’s presidency — was deemed to be sacrosanct. The effort to remove her by elected representatives in the Brazilian legislature, on the other hand, was “undemocratic.”
In the Rousseff case, the intent of the voters, we were told, was unchanging and indisputable. The voters had voted in Rousseff two years earlier, and any attempt at overturning their vote via representative democracy was deemed illegitimate.
In other words, if the voters vote for a darling of the global left wing, then the wise voters know exactly what they’re doing. If the voters vote for Brexit, or Donald Trump for that matter, they’re buffoons who don’t understand the issues.
In the case of Brazil, the elected legislature was being “undemocratic” by contradicting the popular election of Rousseff two years earlier. In the case of Brexit, it is suddenly the duty of the legislature to contradict the voters and veto Brexit.
Perhaps most absurd of all is the implied contrast between ordinary voters and elected legislators. Contained all the recent condemnation of ordinary voters is the implied claim that government officials will make decisions based on rigorous thought, logic, and notions of the common good. Government officials, whether elected or appointed (i.e., judges and administrators) are the “prophetic minority” who will make wise and disinterested decisions while the general public will only chase after the latest shiny thing.
One doesn’t need exactly need to be a hard-core anti-government type to recognize the fact that this view of politics is pure fantasy. Many elected officials come to government with no particular expertise beyond knowledge of how to run a political campaign. There is no reason at all to assume that average legislator is better able to make “better” decisions than the general public on matters of economics, foreign policy or anything else.
Indeed, veritable mountains of research how been amassed illustrating how government officials — both elected and unelected — are influenced by interest groups and personal biases. “Interest groups and pressure group politics” constitutes an entire subfield of political science. Moreover, as public choice theory has been demonstrating for decades, members of the government class tend to act in a way that benefits the very same government class. All organizations — including government, of course — tend to act to preserve themselves and to expand their power. Elected officials are embedded within this world and can be expected to act accordingly. To claim that ordinary voters are slaves to personal biases — while elected politicians are “above all that” — requires either immense naïvete or willful deceit.
Referenda and Initiatives Are Nothing New
The panic over direct democracy also stems from the baseless claim that democracy by referendum and initiative are largely a new development with little precedence in Western politics.
Switzerland, of course, has employed the initiative and referendum process since the 1890s, and the idea of plebescitary democracy was a mainstream component of liberalism in 19th-century Europe. Ludwig von Mises, for example, himself well enmeshed in the radical laissez-faire liberal movements of pre-war Austria, suggested in Liberalism that voters in any political jurisdiction, right down to the village level, ought to be able to secede from other political jurisdictions via popular vote:
[W]henever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time ... their wishes are to be respected and complied with.
Nor is it a mystery why Mises would consider direct democracy of this type to be a given. Less than five years before Mises published Liberalism, the German region of Büsingen had voted overwhelmingly to join Switzerland as one of the country’s cantons. One year later, the voters of Vorarlberg voted to secede from Austria and join Switzerland. In both cases the Swiss rejected the attempts at enlargement, but direct democracy of this type was assumed by many to be the prerogative of the voters. And certainly, in neither case is it at all apparent that the voters of Büsingen or Voralverg were in any way less qualified to determine their fates than the supposedly wiser and better-informed “prophetic minority” in Berlin or Vienna.
Looking at voter initiatives limited to Swiss voters only, we find that between 1893 and 2014, 22 of 192 voter initiatives were approved by the voters. The reticence with which these initiatives have been received indicates prudence on the part of the voters, and hardly anything resembling the recklessness that is often apocalyptically claimed by opponents of popular initiatives. While Europe was descending into fascism and authoritarianism throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Switzerland, with all its direct democracy, remained remarkably stable.
Moreover, numerous US states (mostly Western states) employ initiative and referenda processes in their own lawmaking. Given that Western states in the US tend to do at least as well as the country overall in terms life expectancy, crime, and “fiscal health,” (with the exception of California) there’s not any evidence that jurisdictions that employ direct democracy is anything resembling the “Russian roulette” Rogoff imagines.
It’s impossible to conclude, of course, that Switzerland’s political stability or Oregon’s low crime rates are causedby the prominence of direct democracy of those jurisdictions. But, we likewise can’t conclude direct democracy is especially problematic in those areas either. Nor, by extension, is there any reason to believe that representative democracy is especially wonderful compared to the more direct kind of democracy.
As with representative democracy, in fact, direct democracy has been a mixed bag. Voters will often vote for minimum wage laws or other government regulations that might not have passed without a direct vote. These initiatives will impoverish and hobble the economies of those jurisdictions. On the other hand, voters have often voted down tax increases, and other onerous government regulations such as the recently proposed “basic minimum income” measure voted down in Switzerland.
Is Direct Democracy More Easily Manipulated?
Nor do voters simply vote for whatever new shiny ballot issue comes their way. Opponents of direct democracy have long claimed that initiatives and referenda can be manipulated by special interests, although it is unclear why they would be any more prone to manipulation than sitting legislators who have hardly demonstrated unerring independence from special interest groups themselves.
As noted by Chilean political scientist David Altman, voters in Latin America reject referenda and initiatives quote frequently:
In the past 40 years, 109 popular votes were launched by the authorities in Latin America in the form of plebiscites or mandatory referendums. Of these, 64 (58%) received the support of the population, while 45 were rejected. But votes proposed by the general public — such as popular initiatives or referendums against existing laws — were not accepted automatically either. Of the 18 popular votes that took place, nine were accepted by the general public.
Altman concludes that “direct democracy instruments are less open to manipulation than is commonly thought.”
Democracy has many shortcomings, and they can’t just be waved away with flippant jokes like “democracy is the worst system except for all the others.” However, once we start taking a close look at democratic systems, it’s not clear that that direct democracy leads to demonstrably worse outcomes than representative democracy. In recent history, however, many voters have been voting in ways that have proved worrisome for global elites who are used to having elections go their own way. Faced with angry voters, The New York Times and its friends have set to work telling us how the voters are simply too ignorant to be trusted with the big, important questions.
Direct democracy isn’t perfect, but given the enemies it’s been making lately, perhaps it’s not as bad as we might have thought.
Ryan McMaken is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Contact: email, twitter.