Monday, November 21, 2011

Steve Baron: Direct Democracy: Some Major Objections and Responses

Even though direct democracy has been successfully used in Switzerland for over 140 years, it still has its critics. Many see it as a threat to representative democracy and something to be avoided at any cost. There have often been calls for the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 to be repealed. Former Prime Minister and law professor, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, when discussing the CIR Act in his book Bridled Power said:

The Act should be repealed. It appears to offer a chance for citizens to influence policy but in substance that opportunity is like a mirage in the desert. Referenda should be reserved for those few and important issues of constitution and conscience that should be bound by the people's voice.

Raymond Miller, an Auckland University political scientist and media commentator also suggested it should be repealed as recently as 2010 on the Q+A television show. It is rather surprising that people like this are calling for the CIR Act to be repealed when one would expect there to be calls for more participation from citizens, not less democracy.

There are numerous arguments against direct democracy and I will attempt to cover the major arguments as follows:

Voters not competent. One of the most common criticisms of direct democracy is that voters are not competent enough to make sensible decisions. One of the most prominent critics in this regard is Dr. David Magleby:

The majority of ballot measures are decided by voters who cannot comprehend the printed description, who have only heard about the measure from a single source, and who are ignorant about the measure except at the highly emotional level of television advertising, the most prevalent source of information for those who have heard of the proposition before voting. The absence of straightforward, understandable, rational argumentation in initiative campaigns, combined with what has been discovered about voting decision making in these situations, raises serious questions about the integrity of the direct legislation process.

A number of academic studies have focused on how voters make their decisions and how they become informed. What has emerged from these studies is that voters rely on heuristic cues to make their decisions. Studies by Lupia and McCubbins show that voters do not need to know many details of a referendum to be able to vote as if they were fully informed. Voters rely on trusted groups, political parties, political organisations and, especially, trusted colleagues to help guide them. This is how many people make every day decisions and is little different from MPs who do exactly the same. It is impossible for all MPs to become fully informed on everything they are expected to vote on in parliament. Arguably, neither does the average MP appear to be any more intelligent or qualified than the average person on the street. Certainly, there is not any specific academic requirement to enter parliament.

As MPs are also forced to vote along party lines as directed by party leaders, their intelligence, integrity, and so on, may not necessarily come into the equation. In one study, Arthur Lupia examined voting patterns on five complicated California insurance propositions in 1988, that on the surface were hard to distinguish. Using exit surveys, he classified voters into 'informed' and 'uninformed' groups, based on whether they could correctly answer questions about the substance of the measures. He found that uninformed voters could emulate the voting patterns of informed voters simply by knowing the positions interest groups had taken on the referendums.

Another aspect to this criticism of voters was raised in James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom Of Crowds. The book discussed British scientist Francis Galton who was trying to prove that full male suffrage should not be extended beyond the propertied classes (something we now take very much for granted). He was extremely surprised when he attended a country fair and studied the results of an ox weighing competition. His belief was that the uninformed and uneducated classes could not be trusted to make sensible decisions. He analysed the result from around 800 people who entered this ox weighing competition. There were expert butchers who participated, but also many who knew nothing about animal weights, but had paid their sixpence in the hope of winning. The crowd guessed, on average, that the weight of the slaughtered ox would be 1,197 pounds. The official result was 1,198 pounds. Although he never offered the standard deviation figures, Galton later wrote, “The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected”.

It can be argued that with modern technology and a much better educated society, voters are now far more capable than ever before in history, to make informed decisions. It has been shown that citizens who have greater rights of participation are also better informed politically, and direct democracy gives the Swiss more decision-making power, which is independent of government and empowers voters.

Referendum information is important. In Switzerland the government must distribute each and every voter with a referendum pamphlet highlighting the pros and cons, given in a constructive manner about the question to be decided on. In Switzerland this is distributed prior to the referendum with ample time for public debate. The Swiss government also makes a recommendation on the ballot paper. This does not happen in New Zealand and the only public information is what becomes available through various media outlets which is often lacking in investigative journalism skills due to cost-cutting by media conglomerates. These are weaknesses that need to be addressed in New Zealand and highlights further changes that are needed to the Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993.

Voter self-interest. It is often argued that voters are incapable of balancing short-term benefits with long-term costs. Basically voters are selfish and will only support direct democracy initiatives and referendums that reduce taxes, such as the 1978 Proposition 13 in California, which concerned the issue of ever-increasing property taxes. This Proposition is often quoted as a glowing example of voter selfishness and that referendums like this have ruined the Californian economy. What most people do not know about this Proposition is that property taxes had risen steadily for a period of five years, even though the Californian government had amassed a surplus of over $5b, which made the public resent what they felt were unnecessary increases. Critics tend to overlook the fact that Proposition 9 in 1980, which would have halved state income taxes, failed. Such budget referendums have not ruined the Californian economy. Empirical evidence from Prof. Matsusaka has exposed that only 32 percent of the 2003-04 state spending was locked in by initiatives (and most of that would have been spent in these specific areas regardless) and lays blame on the inability of the Californian government to manage the budget.

The Swiss experience contradicts the assumption that voters are only self-interested. In a 1993 referendum, 54.5% of voters approved an increase in the price of petrol and diesel of 21 Swiss cents per litre. Again in 1993, two-thirds of voters had agreed to introduce national VAT and to use a future rise to benefit old-age pensions.

Tyranny of the majority. Before anyone should criticise direct democracy as a tool to tyrannise minorities and remove civil rights, thought must be given to the atrocities elected governments have imposed upon minorities and civil rights around the world. Even here in New Zealand, governments have treated minority groups, such as Maori and Chinese with disdain. Maori had huge amounts of their land confiscated from them and thousands of Maori were killed in the process. Chinese immigrants were especially treated harshly when a huge poll tax was imposed upon any Chinese wanting to enter New Zealand—a very racist policy. New Zealand is not the only example of this. The Australian government was notorious for the ill treatment of Aborigines, when the 'stolen generation' is taken into account. Aboriginal and Torres Straight children were removed from their families between 1869 and 1969 under Acts of Parliament. All of these minority groups who were tyrannised by elected governments—who supposedly protect minorities from tyranny of the majority—have only just recently received apologies from the government.

Referendums have however, sometimes been used against minorities. In 1910 an Oklahoma referendum disenfranchised black citizens and in 1920 a California referendum restricted the property rights of Japanese. However, almost all of the discriminatory 'Jim Crow' laws throughout the Southern states of America were brought about by elected representatives, not direct democracy. Moreover, as again highlighted by Prof. Matsusaka, the fact that racial minorities overwhelmingly support the initiative process, 57% versus 9% for blacks, and 73% versus 3% for Latinos in a 1997 poll, suggests that the risk of tyranny of the majority is small.

In contrast to the above, there have been numerous referendums that have supported the rights of minorities. As Prof. Geoffrey Walker explained in his book Initiative and Referendum: The People's Law, “Australian voters also rejected a referendum proposal to give the federal parliament power to legislate against the Communist Party. This was in 1951 when Stalin's terror was at its height in Russia.” In 1967, an Australian referendum to reform the constitution in relation to the position of Aboriginals received a 'Yes' vote of 90.8%, one of the highest affirmative referendums ever recorded in a democracy. Likewise, in 1978, a Californian state Senator launched a campaign to prohibit homosexuals from teaching in public schools, but it was soundly defeated. In the final analysis, on this matter, direct democracy does not appear to be any worse than elected representation, and is possibly even better.

In conclusion, the words of Prof. Vernon Bogdanor are pertinent, “In the last resort, the arguments against the referendum are also arguments against democracy, while acceptance of the referendum is but the logical consequence of accepting the democratic form of government”. The decision now for New Zealanders is whether they should continue to allow themselves to be largely excluded from the political decision-making process apart from one vote every three years, or instead, demand a more inclusive system of direct democracy that gives them more control over their government. There are a number of direct democracy tools that need to be considered by voters.


Anonymous said...

As far as I am concerned if the Swiss can make Direct Democracy work so can we. The people don't understand the issues? Meaning that politicians do?

Decades ago Swiss citizens drew a line in the sand and told their politicians that they were no longer going to have unlimited power. Pushing through unmandated and unwanted legislation is not an option for Swiss politicians.

In any event we are supposed to have an education system which trains pupils to think for themselves and to take their place in society. A citizen transferring from a private person to an MP does not suddenly evolve into a person of greater wisdom. It's not a case of the wise ones being in Parliament and the non wise stuck outside.

If for no other reason, we need Direct Democracy because we cannot trust our politicians to properly represent us and to actually look at two or more sides of a controversial issue. The good old MPs vote the way they are told to vote - the Party comes before the people.

We are going to vote on our electoral system in a few days but what difference will it make if the Party Bosses continue to stitch up special deals to consolidate power and to ignore or betray those who put their trust in mandates and the promises of Leaders?

New Zealand belongs to all of us - not just to the politicians and their mates. When the politicians can't be trusted to represent us then we should demand the power to represent ourselves. "Government of the people, by the people, for the people!"
Denis McCarthy

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this Steve- I've had the voters not confident argument raised to me when discussing the Swiss system. As you'll know Amy Brooke is pushing the Swiss system as an option-

Anonymous said...

Perhaps thats why so many people didn't bother to vote. They know the pollys will just do what they like with no recourse able to be taken by the average person. Now the conservatives are on the case,hopefully they will make binding referendum an issue at the next election by already having the votes for such a thing done and counted. What a fantastic election ploy that would be. All other parties would have to have a view.