The perils of direct democracy

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Marc Canal's picture

Democracy has been proven to be the most efficient, fruitful and fair way of organizing societies so far. To be sure, developed countries are basically democracies where citizens can hold their governments accountable and throw them out of power if they dislike the outcomes of their policies.

Along these lines, both the recent vote for independence in Scotland and the secessionist path Catalonia is going through constitute crucial events that put into question something much broader and deeper than the two political events themselves, and it is whether we have reached - or have the unprecedented possibility to reach - the maximum level of democracy nations can aspire: voting directly in order to make decisions. At the end of the day, representative democracies could be thought of as imperfect ways of letting citizens decide about their future. Why should we choose a politician to decide for us during four years if we can directly choose the final outcome of a decision instead and by-pass all sorts of personal interests, occult intentions, or whatever the politician in question may have omitted during the presidential campaign that is going to change his/her electoral promises? Even more, why should we choose a "package" of proposals? Can't one agree with some measures proposed by a right-wing party and at the same time support some of the ideas of its left-wing opposition? Imagine that we had referendums for everything. Citizens would have the chance to vote for each individual measure and there would be no need to cling to a list of a hundred right or left-wing ideas.

It is also arguable that it is the first time in history in which an extremely direct democracy could be reached at a very low cost. Through the Internet, people could easily associate, make a statement or question with a yes or no answer, attain a sufficient critical mass - say, a 30-40% of the population of a country - that would only have to click a "support" button, and celebrate a vote through a "referendum platform", where every citizen would be able to access with a user name and a password.

This all sounds exciting and promising, but it entails some major dangers we should bear in mind. Do not get me wrong: I am profoundly democratic, and freedom of choice should be the cornerstone of any society. However, there are at least three reasons why being too democratic - that is, celebrating referendums to solve too many questions - could not only be dangerous, but also have terrible outcomes.

First, governments are allegedly formed by experts. One could dispute if politicians are the most intelligent and capable individuals in a society, but they are certainly educated individuals that have some sort of knowledge regarding some basic issues that are necessary to rule a society. Even more importantly, democratic governments do not consist of one autocrat that decides about every single aspect of our lives. Instead, they are formed by a cabinet of ministers, where each member is a specialist on a particular topic. In turn, all of them have a set of advisors that influence their final judgments.

Now, imagine for a second that a single person, say, a nurse - namely, an educated individual with a very respectable profession -, was asked about every single aspect of a society, from the right amount of progressivity in the tax system to the adequate years a murderer should spend in jail. It seems quite obvious that, for most matters, it is better to vote for a "line of thought" and let the experts represent the citizens.

Second, it seems rather hard to argue that anything should be susceptible to be voted. For example, the Spanish government's main argument against the Catalan referendum is that it violates the Spanish Constitution. Nevertheless, Catalans that support independence legitimately argue that a constitution should be subject to citizens' interests, and not the other way around. Therefore, if a constitution or any sort of law limits a demand of a significant portion of the people, they continue, it should be immediately changed and adapted to modern times.

Let's put ourselves back in a "referendum-led world". Should a region be able to vote for anything, whatever the violated law is, just because a significant number of people supports the claim? What if this law was to stop climate change or, say, in defense of human life? Furthermore, it is easy to think about tons of situations about which my personal guess is that many people would be at least doubtful. Let me give two very different examples: (1) Should a region that has grown rich partly thanks to being a net recipient of fiscal transfers for years be allowed to secede once it has attained the level of other regions that have been net contributors? (2) In a recession context, should people be allowed to vote for expropriation of property or savings of the rich, when there is overwhelming evidence that respect for private property is one of the main features of any developed country?

It looks difficult to decide where to place the red line that can't be crossed, and again, what's the point in putting a red line - that is, a law - if any demand should be above that law?

Finally, a major peril of a "referendum culture" is the perverse incentive to overvote, that is, to regulate what doesn't need to be regulated. It is well known that there is a much faster and flexible mechanism than voting to adapt to each and every situation in a decentralized manner, and it is called free market. The recent referendum in Switzerland in order to decide whether to put caps on executives' wages is a clear example of overvoting, but we could think of far worse situations we could come across. For example, couldn't there be a referendum in order to put in place Venezuelan-style price controls? Why not trying to regulate the interest banks should offer to their clients?

So again, I am not arguing against referendums or the right to secede - and by no means against democracy. In fact, I believe referendums can be very useful in some particular situations. However, we should acknowledge their intrinsic perils and be very careful at overrating their virtues.