A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters!
by Brian Beedham
Originally published in The Economist
Part 1: It means government by the people, and we are the people
"Democracy in the 20th century has been a half-finished thing. In the 21st, it can grow to its full height, says Brian Beedham"
This survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy. The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realise that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.
The places that now consider themselves to be democracies are with a handful of exceptions run by the process generally known as "representative" democracy. That qualifying adjective should make you sit up and think.
The starting-point of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Some people are richer than others, some are more intelligent, and nobody’s interests are quite the same as anybody else’s; but all are entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they should be governed. There is therefore something odd in the fact that in most democracies this voice is heard only once every few years, in elections in which voters choose a president or send their representatives to an elected parliament; and that between those elections, for periods of anything up to seven years, it is the presidents and parliamentarians who do all the deciding, while the rest of the democracy is expected to stand more or less quietly on one side, either nodding its head in irrelevant approval or growling in frustrated disagreement. This is part-time democracy.
There exists in a few places a different way of doing it, called direct democracy. In this straightforward version, the elected representatives are not left to their own devices in the periods between elections. The rest of the people can at any time call them to order, by cancelling some decision of the representatives with which most of the people do not agree or, sometimes, by insisting that the representatives do something they had no wish to do, or perhaps had never even thought about. The machinery by which this is done is the referendum, a vote of the whole people. If democracy means rule by the people, democracy by referendum is a great deal closer to the original idea than the every-few-years voting which is all that most countries have.
The test is: Who gives the order?
It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course. A referendum organised by the government, posing a question of the government’s choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much help to democracy. Not many referendums are quite as blatant as the Chilean one of 1978 ("In the face of international aggression . . . I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile"). But General de Gaulle in the early 1960s plainly saw his de haut en bas sort of referendums as one means of making sure, as he put it, that "the entire indivisible authority of the state is confided to the president," meaning himself. Napoleon liked the technique, too. Even more modest politicians are unlikely to resist the temptation to put a spin on their referendums’ wording: "Your government, having after careful thought decided that X is the right thing to do, asks you to agree . . ."
No, the proper referendum for democracy-strengthening purposes is the one which happens whether the government wants it or not. This can be arranged by constitutional requirement, an instruction in the constitution saying that certain kinds of change in the law must be submitted to a vote of the whole people. Better, because this way is more flexible, an agreed number of voters can insist, by putting their signatures on a petition, that a law proposed by parliament must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection. Best of all, an agreed number of signatures can ensure that a brand-new idea for a law is put to the voters whatever the president or the parliament thinks about it.
Change calls for change
These are the channels through which power previously dammed up by the politicians can be made to flow into the hands of ordinary people. The politicians, naturally, present various arguments against doing anything of the sort. Some of their arguments do not stand up to a moment’s examination. Others are more serious, and one in particular raises a genuine problem for direct democracy if a current weakness in the economies of Europe and America becomes a permanent fixture.
On the other hand, the defenders of the old-fashioned form of democracy have to face the fact that the world has changed radically since the time when it might have seemed plausible to think the voters’ wishes needed to be filtered through the finer intelligence of those "representatives". The changes that have taken place since then have removed many of the differences between ordinary people and their representatives. They have also helped the people to discover that the representatives are not especially competent. As a result, what worked reasonably well in the 19th century will not work in the 21st century. Our children may find direct democracy more efficient, as well as more democratic, than the representative sort.
This is a far bigger change than any alteration in the way in which the representatives get elected-proportional representation rather than the first-past-the-post system, alternative voting, and so on. These are just variations in the method by which power is delegated. Direct democracy keeps it undelegated. First, then, a picture of how direct democracy actually works, a matter about which most people have only the haziest idea.
It is still, admittedly, a pretty scattered phenomenon. Slightly over half of the states in the United States use it, some with fairly spectacular results, though it so far has no place in American politics at the federal level. Australia has held almost 50 nationwide referendums, and its component states almost as many again (one in every six of which was about bar-closing times). Italy has recently become a serious exponent of direct democracy, and its referendums in 1991 and 1993 played a large part in breaking up the corrupt old Italian party system. The new light has flickered occasionally in Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other countries. But the best country to look at is Switzerland, which virtually invented direct democracy, and uses it at every level of politics. The next three articles describe how the Swiss manage to keep their politicians under control in the central government, in the country’s 26 cantons, and in the 3,000-odd communities which make up the cantons.
Part 2 – So long as it’s clear who’s in charge
Take Switzerland for both a model and a warning
THE first lesson from Switzerland is that direct democracy is hard work. The second is that, though it makes politicians less important than they like to be, it does not remove the need for an intelligent parliament; the system works most efficiently when politicians stop assuming they know best, but do their proper job with modest zeal.
This proper job, as with any parliament, is to sit down, discuss the problems of the day, and propose solutions for them. The difference in a direct democracy is that the parliament’s solutions are not necessarily the last word in the matter until the next general election, which may be years away. In Switzerland, 50,000 signatures on a petition, a bit over 1% of the current total of qualified voters, are enough to haul any new countrywide law before a vote of the whole people. Twice that number of signatures will put a brand-new idea for a law to the people’s decision, even if parliament wants nothing to do with it. Because of a Swiss quirk, new federal laws coming from outside parliament have to take the form of amendments to the constitution, with the result that Switzerland’s constitution has come to look like an over-stuffed cupboard; but there is no reason why the same process could not put such new laws on the ordinary statute-book, as happens in many American states and in most of Switzerland’s own cantons.
From the ridiculous to the sublime
In all, almost 450 nationwide questions have gone to a vote of the whole Swiss people since the current system got going 130 years ago-over half the world’s all-time tally of national referendums, and overwhelmingly most of the genuine, non-Napoleonic, sort. At three and a half a year, that may not sound all that much. But the pace has been accelerating lately; and, when you add the votes in which the Swiss decide what to do in their cantons and communities, it means that three or four times a year they are invited to read in the meticulously impartial documents sent to them through the post, or watch on television, or pull off the Internet, the arguments for and against up to a dozen assorted issues, and give their decisions. That is hard work.
Those decisions, at the all-Swiss level, range from the tiny to the huge. Last March the country’s voters solemnly decided to let the French-speaking Catholics of the hamlet of Vellerat (population 71) leave the mainly Protestant and German-speaking canton of Bern to join the French-Catholic canton of Jura, which had itself for the same reason been allowed to break away from Bern in 1978. In September 1993 the Swiss rather belatedly gave themselves a day off work every August 1st, the anniversary of Switzerland’s birth a mere 705 years ago.
Such things bring a condescending smile to the foreigner’s face. But, a few months before the holiday vote, a band of signature- collectors who wanted to stop the Swiss air force buying any new fighter aircraft for the rest of the century, and to reduce the number of bases the army is allowed to use, had got within a few percentage points of winning their case. And six months before that the voters, against the advice of most of their leaders, had momentously decided not to join the European Economic Area, lest even this small step to Euro-cohesion should eventually enmesh them in a European political union most of them do not want.
It should not be deduced from that act of defiance, however, that direct democracy spells chaos for Switzerland. In return for the parliament’s acceptance that the people are the boss, the people are quite often willing to heed the parliament’s views.
Only a handful of the measures that could under Swiss rules have been summoned to a referendum in the past 130 years actually have been summoned. Of the laws written by parliament which have been called before the people’s judgment, half have then been given the people’s okay (see the table above). Nine-tenths of the new legislation proposed by the signature-collecting process has been turned down by the voters. When parliament puts up a counter-proposal, it is accepted two times out of three. If anything, people and parliament get on better these days than they used to; only about a quarter of the acts of parliament put to the referendum since 1960 have been rejected, compared with well over a half 100 years ago.
Still, a certain weariness has crept into the proceedings lately. The turnout for referendums, once pretty regularly 50-60% or more, went into a decline in the 1950s. Despite a few moments of big-issue excitement, it has been floating around the 40% mark for most of the 1980s and 1990s. The people of Switzerland have lost some of their enthusiasm for voting, compared with people in most of the big representative democracies (see the chart below).
It does you good, in moderation
This almost certainly does not mean that the Swiss no longer think direct democracy a good idea. The much likelier explanation is that, as the population has grown (and since women won the vote in 1971), the number of signatures needed to summon a referendum has become a much smaller proportion of the total number of voters than it used to be. This means not only that there is a lot more voting to do-ten nationwide votes a year on average in the 1990s, compared with three in the 1920s and 1930s-but also that a fair number of referendums are the work of small and excited groups of enthusiasts. This turns people off, and some of them stop voting. The politicians thereupon explain that direct democracy is dying, so they themselves should be put back in charge.
This can be remedied when the Swiss overhaul their voting system, as they plan to do in the next few years, especially if they look at what some of their more adventurous cantons are already doing; see the next article. If the number of signatures needed to call a referendum is raised to something nearer its old share of the electorate, there will be fewer referendums. If the procedure for collecting signatures is made a bit sterner (some Swiss supermarkets will let you do it at the check-out counter), maybe more of the referendums that do take place will be seriously thought through. The voting turnout will then presumably go up again; the fear that referendums are becoming the voice of excited minorities will subside; and the superior look on the politicians’ faces will duly disappear.
There is still a solid basis for partnership between the politicians of Switzerland and the people with their special power. The voters are content to let the politicians do most of the routine work of politics, and to listen to their advice on many complicated issues. The politicians, for their part, have learned that ordinary people are often surprisingly (to politicians) shrewd in their decisions.
In the 1970s, the voters refused to be frightened by anti-immigrant propaganda into sending home most of the foreigners working in Switzerland (and this December they declined to tighten the rules against asylum-seekers). In the 1980s and 1990s, they were persuaded to dig into their pockets to start paying value-added tax. And not long ago there was a splendid moment after most of the political class had shaken a furious fist at the voters’ refusal to accept an anti-urban-sprawl planning law. The politicians then discovered that just as much sprawl could be prevented, more cheaply, by a different scheme. Politicians and people may occasionally snarl at each other, but they have learned how to work together. The Swiss will go on doing democracy their direct way.
It’s not a war outcome of Swiss referendums, 1866-1993
(Accepted, Defeated, %Successful)
115 Parliamentary laws and decrees brought to people’s vote (56 59 48.7%)
110 New laws proposed from outside parliament (11 99 10.0%)
27 Parliamentary counter-proposals (17 10 63.0%)
143 Constitutional amendments proposed by parliament (104 39 72.7%)
Source: ‘Referendums around the World’ edited by David Butler and Austin Ranney
Part 3 – Here is how it can be done better
Some of the Swiss do it even more directly
IF THIS does not sound quite like the way your own national government operates, take a look at the next level down in Swiss politics. The country’s 26 cantons (six of them technically ‘half-cantons’, but for all practical purposes separate entities) are powerful bodies. They raise and spend almost as much tax money as the central government does—and a larger share, let envious over-centralised countries note, than half a century ago, when the central government swept up more of the total tax take than it does now. The cantons control all of the country’s police forces, virtually all of its education system, much of the law-making power over each canton’s economy, and a large chunk of Swiss welfare spending. And these sturdy bodies are, in the matter of direct democracy, generally even more people-friendly than the central government. Here are three examples.
The biggest canton, Zurich, with one in six of the country’s voters, gives to these voters a considerably wider range of supervision over the cantonal government than they have over the central one. Any law emerging from Zurich’s parliament, or any expenditure of more than SFr2m ($ 1.6m) a year, automatically has to go for public approval. The number of signatures needed to bring smaller matters to a referendum, or to start a new law on its way, is an even smaller proportion of the electorate than at the federal level. This means that Zurichers vote on about 16 cantonal subjects a year, ranging in recent months from the provision of SFr873m for the expansion of Zurich airport (approved) to an indignant signature-backed demand for ‘separation of church and state’ (defeated).
Indeed, Zurich has one voting device that goes beyond anything on offer in any other canton. Under its Einzelinitiative, the ‘single initiative’, one solitary signature on a petition can be enough to put a proposal for a change in the law to the people’s vote, provided the signatory gets some backing in parliament. This may sound like democracy gone daft. Yet in March 1995 one Albert Jorger was able to bring about by this device a sensible (and voter-constraining) change in the way Zurich’s schools are run. Before, the teachers had been appointed by each community’s voters, and this had led to some odd choices. Thanks to Mr Jorger and his signature, they are now picked by a professional selection committee (itself, to be sure, chosen by the voters). Most people reckon this has improved things. One part of the machinery of direct democracy has corrected another part’s excess.
Not too often, please
In the second-biggest canton, Bern, they have decided that the correction process needs to go further. The Bernese are a slow-speaking, circumspect lot, not given to dramatic action, but in 1995 they made some radical changes to the way their canton’s direct democracy works. They had come to the conclusion that they wanted not to have to vote so often, but when they did vote they wanted to be able to aim their votes with greater precision.
The voting-less-often part has been achieved by abolishing most of the mandatory referendums in which petty issues had to be brought to the people’s vote whether or not anybody asked, and by stiffening the signature-collection requirement for optional referendums. Other cantons, and the central government, may decide to imitate the Bernese in this; it seems a sound way of slowing down the now rather over-hectic Swiss referendum tempo.
Bern’s most adventurous innovations, however, are those in the precision-aiming category. The voters of Bern can now make up their minds about the general shape of a new law without having to wait until it has been drafted and enacted by parliament; this December, for instance, they were able to choose between five different ways of reorganising the canton’s hospital system. They can also pass judgment not only on proposed new laws but also on their government’s bigger administrative decisions. Since such decisions-the building of a new reservoir, say, or the expansion of an airport-can arouse a lot more passion than many minor laws, the extension of direct democracy into this field should encourage more people to vote.
Both of these things seem good ideas. There is more doubt about the new Bernese constitution’s other innovation, which is to let people vote not merely yes or no to a proposed law but to offer amendments to it, which the voters can then decide upon. There is a certain amount of grave head-wagging that this is going to produce laws which contradict themselves. The Bernese will find out, on behalf of the rest of the Swiss, whether this is so.
The face-to-face way
The other way of running a canton, of course, is not to bother about putting crosses on pieces of paper but to turn out once a year in the town square, call out your opinions, and stick your hand up to vote. Glarus, up in the mountains of eastern Switzerland, is one of five small cantons that make their laws by the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal get-together. Its 24,700 voters employ the usual paper-consuming method for choosing the canton’s seven-member government and 80-member parliament (and for doing their bit in federal referendums) but when it comes to the serious business they can assemble on a Sunday in spring to do the canton’s law-making, elect their judges, set their income tax and decide about any cantonal spending over SFr500,000 ($ 400,000) in the good old face-to-face way.
Last May about 6,000 of them turned out-almost exactly the same number, as it happens, as the voters in the direct democracy of ancient Athens, but in Glarus a third of them were women-and, having sworn the formal oath to do the right thing, settled down to an 18-item agenda. It went on for about four hours; most people stayed on their feet, there being few benches in the square, and some slipped off for a quick drink round the corner during the proceedings. It was decided to build a new hospital and, more reluctantly, a new roundabout on the main road at Nafels, a bit to the south of Glarus town. A proposal to stop schooling on Saturdays was rejected, and there was a tremendous row about limits on hunting. All in all, those ancient Athenians would have felt quite at home in Glarus town square, except for the sight of women voting.
As this suggests, direct democracy at the cantonal level is still in reasonably good shape. It is a puzzle that the French-Swiss cantons make less use of the referendum than the German-Swiss cantons do, or Italian-Swiss Ticino; perhaps, like their cousins across the border in France itself, they are more willing to tip their cap to the wisdom of those in authority. The Swiss should also take note that the turnout for cantonal referendums, as for federal ones, is less than it ought to be: only a quarter of Glarus’s voters came to that stirring Sunday morning last May. But these things will doubtless come right if the cantons absorb the lesson the central government is slowly learning. The people want to have the big decisions in their hands, but they do not want to spend so much time on fiddling ones.
Part 4 – Life at the democratic roots
The places where you realise what a sense of community means
KILCHBERG, a community of 7,000 people, sits on a hillside that slopes sharply down to the southern shore of the lake of Zurich. It would not be fair to call it a typical specimen of the 3,000-odd Gemainden (communes in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, comuni in the Italian part) which are the foundation of the country’s politics. Most of its people are comfortably well-off, many of them refugees from the higher taxes of the next-door community, the city of Zurich; less than a quarter are native citizens of Kilchberg. Only about 100 of the 7,000 are employed. From the graveyard of the Reformed church at the top of the hill the mortal remains of Thomas Mann and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer look out on a summer’s day at the silent snows of the mountains of eastern Switzerland.
Still, Kilchberg is a fair example of how Swiss politics works at the roots. Its 7,000 people hold all power not specifically allocated to the federal or the cantonal government. It raises its own income and property taxes (in all, the comunities dispose of more than a quarter of all Swiss tax money, not all that much less than the federal government).
It runs schooling up to the age of 16, including building the schools and choosing the committee that appoints the teachers. It distributes up to a monthly SFr3,000 ($2,370) per person to its poor—admittedly not very numerous in Kilchberg—as well as providing help to a handful of foreign refugees, mainly from Sri Lanka. It has its own volunteer fire brigade; two police boats on the lake; a couple of car-born policemen who keep an eye on illegal parking and look after the lost-and-found office; an old people’s home; and a community farm where, if the fruit-seller is out for lunch, you just leave your money on the counter.
The government of this busily innocent little place consists of a seven-person council, elected by the people, which supervises a modest staff of professionals (unlike some Gemeinden, whose part-time workers combine their work for the community with their ordinary jobs). The real power, however, is wielded by the voters who assemble up to four times a year to listen to the council’s recommendations and decide whether it is handling things properly. It is at these meetings that tax levels are fixed, new laws are passed, the community’s accounts are inspected, building regulations are decided (a crowd-drawer, this) and anything else anybody wants to bring up can be discussed.
Voting is by show of hands, but there can be a cross-on-paper vote if a third of those present demand it; they never have, so far. If somebody feels the council’s ideas are inadequate, he or she can by collecting 15 signatures insist on putting a proposed new law to the voters; it has not happened for a decade. A single person can demand some specific other action from the council, with the right, if the council does not agree, to take the matter up to the cantonal and federal levels. Only one such demand has been made in the past ten years, for the community’s farm to use organic farming methods. This smooth record suggests that Karl Kobelt, president of the council for these ten years, is a model politician of the Swiss School.
The cloud on the horizon is the fact that no more than about 400 people generally turn up at these meetings or maybe 700 when something especially exciting is on the menu. As a percentage of Kilchberg’s 4,000 or so qualified voters, that is worryingly smaller even than the quarter of the electorate the canton of Glarus brings out for its annual assembly. Nothing seems to have gone badly wrong as a result; if it had, the protests would have been heard by now. But something odd is happening when a system designed to deploy the power of the people turns out to be actually using only a tenth of that people power.
Dealing with this problem is harder for the little units of Swiss politics, which like to bring their people together for a fact-to-face talk about everything, than it is for the bigger units. The big ones, which call their people to referendums only on selected issues, and usually do the voting by post, can reduce the voting burden fairly easily—fewer mandatory referendums, suffer signature-collecting rules, and so on. That will probably get more people to vote.
To achieve the same result, unless their people rediscover a more general willingness to abandon the television set and assemble for a meeting very few months, the smaller cantons and communities may eventually have to renounce the intimacy of their talk-about-anything get-togethers, and turn to more prosaic methods of selective voting. It will be a sad loss of a vivacious piece of old-fashioned politics. But if that is the price of keeping the 21st century’s people at their democratic work, so be it.
Part 5 – The arguments that won’t wash
"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.
Part 6 – The underclass test
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.
Part 7 – Why the time for change has come
"In an equal and electronic world, the unequal old steam-engine won’t work"
THE argument for direct democracy is not just a matter of beating off the mostly unconvincing objections its opponents throw at it. The bigger part of the argument consists of pointing out that the world has changed hugely since the other version of democracy, the representative sort, first came into widespread use in the 19th century. These changes make the vote-every-few-years brand look increasingly unworkable, and strengthen the claim to workability of the emerging alternative.
The idea that government by the people really meant no more than letting the people from time to time elect a legislature and perhaps a president who between elections would take all the real decisions may have had a certain plausibility in the 19th century and the first part of the present century. Even then, the Swiss were unpersuaded: they got their referendum system going 130 years ago, and it worked fine. But for most people in those days it seemed important that only a small part of the population had a decent education, plenty of money, ready access to information about public affairs, and enough leisure to put that information to responsible use. Let this minority therefore provide the political class which would do most of the serious work, while the poor and relatively ignorant majority contented itself with the occasional broad choice between This Lot and That Lot.
That was the reasoning behind the idea of representative democracy. It was an over-simplification even in the 19th century, in the judgment of men as different as a conservative novelist like Anthony Trollope and Keir Hardie, the founder of Britain’s Independent Labour Party. By the end of the 20th century, it has become untenable.
The table on this page illustrates the economic and social upheaval the richer part of the world has gone through in the past 100 years. A century ago, the average Briton and American produced an annual GDP of only $ 4,200 and $ 4,500 respectively at today’s prices; today, the Briton’s great-grandchild produces more than four times that much and the American’s almost six times (and the growth in many other countries, such as Italy, has been even faster). A century ago, few people got a proper education: only one child in France, for instance, went to a secondary school compared with every 60 who do so now, and only one went on to college or university for every 50 who do now; and the spread of learning has been even more spectacular in, for instance, Japan.
These things have enabled the average citizen of the rich world to save much more money than he could even 60 years ago, and thus to expand his ownership of shares, housing, cars or whatever. Meanwhile the amount of time he has to spend at work has considerably diminished, leaving him more time to take an intelligent interest, if he wishes, in the way his country is governed. To do that he has at his disposal not only the enormous expansion of newspaper circulation that began a century ago but also the 20th-century innovations of mass radio and television and, the latest arrival, a 34,000% increase in the number of networks linked to the Internet in the United States and a 27,000% increase elsewhere in the world in the past eight years alone.
This is a revolution, and it would be extraordinary if such a revolution did not rattle the foundations of a political system based on pre-revolutionary assumptions. The rattling of representative democracy would presumably have started years ago if it had not been delayed by the cold war. The self-discipline required by the struggle against communism made the democracies reluctant to think of changing their own political arrangements; so the half-way-house sort of democracy erected in the 19th century lasted longer than it would otherwise have done. But once the cold war had loosened its grip, things were bound to start changing.
As good as you are
One sign of the change is already clear. By the late 1990s, many people have come to realise that they are as well (or as badly) equipped to make most political decisions as the men and women they elect to represent them. They have as much education, nearly as much access to the needed information, and as big a stake in getting the judgments right; if they give a question their attention, they can usually offer a sensible answer. The longer the past half-century’s economic expansion can be prolonged, and the wider the information revolution extends its embrace, the larger the proportion of the population of which all that will be true.
The ordinary man no longer feels, as his grandfather felt, that his representative is a genuinely superior fellow. Indeed, the huge new flow of information that has become available to ordinary people by grace of electronics in the second half of the 20th century has made it painfully clear that those representatives are not at all superior. They are as capable of laziness, stupidity and dishonesty as the ordinary man. That may have been true a century ago, too. The difference is that then it was not generally realised; now it is.
Even a dozen years ago, it was hard to imagine that Italy’s whole parliamentary edifice was about to be brought crashing to the ground because its corruption had become public knowledge and Italians were horrified by what they had discovered. At the end of 1996, Belgians are wondering whether something almost as bad may have happened in their country in the past few years. These are extreme cases. But in many other countries the voters no longer extend to the politicians as much trust and respect as they once did. Opinion polls in America, Britain, France and elsewhere all make the same point: people nowadays look on their representatives with a disillusioned eye. That is the result of the past century’s economic and social equalisation, and of the fact that a richer and better-educated electorate can now keep a pretty constant eye on most of its politicians’ activities.
The end of the cold war has brought another change, and this one too suggests that democracy needs modernising. The disappearance of communism has greatly reduced the ideological content of politics. The shaping power of ideas has not entirely vanished, of course. A recognisable post-cold-war frontier is starting to emerge between a new left and a new right in the debate about the competing claims of efficiency and compassion, the proper functions of government, the best economic way to pay for sickness and old age, and so on. But these are nuances compared with the thunderous old battles between socialism and individualism, between the command economy and the free market. This dilution of ideology has two consequences.
One is that the agenda of politics, the list of decisions to be taken, has grown much more prosaic. The choice at voting time is no longer even in theory a choice between two radically different bodies of ideas. It is a series of selections among relatively small differences of opinion about the details of economic management and fairly minor disagreements over the amount and direction of public spending. This is not the sort of thing that is best presented to the voters once every few years in the parliamentary-election programmes of competing parties. That is like being told to do your supermarket shopping in one half-hour trip every half-decade. The modern agenda of politics is much better handled by the regular routine of visits to the voting centre that is offered by direct democracy.
The other effect of the fading of ideology is that political parties are losing their old power. This is important because parties—the things you vote for or against on parliamentary-election day, and the building-blocks of the governments thus created—are keen supporters of representative democracy. Their existence largely depends on it. They therefore oppose direct democracy. In post-cold-war politics, however, the parties can no longer claim to be carrying banners inscribed with the name of a great idea that unites a whole segment of humanity. As the banners are lowered, the loyalties that used to hold the parties together begin to dissolve; people move more readily from one party to another; parties become woollier, weaker things. As they lose their old clout, they can no longer put up so much resistance to the modernisation of democracy. These days, voters do not need a special class of people called politicians to interpret their wishes; they have learned that politicians are a rather unreliable lot; and the trade unions into which the politicians have organised themselves, the political parties, are growing feebler. Between them, those three facts can push open the door to direct democracy.
ALL IS CHANGED
GDP per head, dollars* 1900 1995
Britain 4,200 18,900
Canada 3,000 19,200
Italy 1,400 19,000
United States 4,500 26,700
Educational Enrolments (thousands) 1900 1995
Secondary 98 5,822
Higher 30 1,526
Secondary 121 11,288 (1)
Higher 25 2,139 (1)
Secondary 519 17,117 (2)
Higher 238 14,120 (2)
Savings per head, dollars* 1930 1995
Britain 170 1,500
United States 140 950
Britain 54 43
Canada 57 39
United States 53 42
Internet – number of connected networks** 1988 1996 (2)
United States 301 104,000
Non-US 33 91,000
*1995 prices and exchange rates (1) 1992 (2) Projected
** Separate groups of linked computers that can share information
Sources: The Economist; International Labour Organisation; Internet Society; national statistics; OECD
Part 8 – The end of a dividing line
IT WOULD be wrong, however, to rest the case for direct democracy on utilitarian grounds alone. To vote directly on the issues of the day is more efficient than to delegate the issue-deciding job to a bunch of representatives, because it almost certainly provides more people with more of what they want at little or no extra cost. But it also does something else. By giving ordinary people more responsibility, it encourages them to behave more responsibly; by giving them more power, it teaches them how to exercise power. It makes them better citizens, and to that extent better human beings. It improves the producers as well as the product.
Getting more out of democracy, and out of the people who are supposed to be the operators of democracy, was bound to take time. For most of history most of mankind has been poor, ignorant and timid. It has not been hard for the minority who had some money, a sword and the rudiments of knowledge to persuade everybody else (and often themselves too) that they were the only ones fitted to take the decisions of government.
The turning-point came with the Reformation, which declared that every individual is directly responsible to God for his own life, and does not need a priestly class to tell him how to conduct that life. It then became possible for people to start working out the secular deduction from that religious premise. That too happened horribly slowly. But, two or three centuries after the Reformation, it was coming to be seen that equality before God must imply equality in the running of earthly affairs too.
Even then, this realisation had a hard time overcoming the self-interest of those who wanted to insist that they knew best how to run things. In particular, it was hindered by a damaging by-product of the Enlightenment, the next great sharpening of consciousness after the Reformation.
The Enlightenment was a necessary reassertion of the power of reason after too many centuries in which dogma had too often suppressed reason. The trouble was that this reassertion of reason tempted some people to think that reason could produce a scientific answer to every problem, including all the problems of politics. The most spectacular victims of the temptation of scientific certainty were the communists, who were so certain of the rightness of what they planned to do that they saw no need to consult anybody else at all. But a milder version of the temptation still tugs at other politicians. It is why so many of them still claim to possess a special skill which enables them to decipher what the incoherent voters are unable to say clearly: why, in short, they reckon they should be left in charge of the decision-making process.
Self-government and self-discipline
If you believe in democracy at all, it is hard to see why in most democratic countries the proceedings of democracy should still be divided between, on the one side, a few hundred people who take all the detailed political decisions and, on the other, the vast mass who walk down the road once every few years, push a button or mark a cross in a square, and then walk home again. Democracy, after all, assumes the basic equality of all grown-up human beings. Yet the overwhelming majority of these beings are still expected to be content with an occasional vote for a party some of whose proposals the voter agrees with, but others he doesn’t; then a wait of several years to see whether the winning party does what it has said it will do, and whether it does the right bits; and after that another stab in the dark to find out whether this time more voters can get a little more of what they actually want.
It is unlikely that the 21st century will put up with this for long. Of course, the fuller form of democracy, the one in which the voters directly take the decisions they want to take, will put down its roots only in places where the soil is ready.
The soil will generally be readiest in countries where economic and educational equalisation has made a special class of politicians largely unnecessary: which means, at first, chiefly in the countries around the North Atlantic. Even in these countries, parliaments will continue to exist; there is still plenty of useful work for a parliament to do once it has accepted that the people have a right to act over its head. And, if the new direct democrats of the 21st century learn from the experience of late-20th-century Switzerland, they will concentrate their referendum-voting work on things that really matter, by limiting the number of minor issues that parliament has willy-nilly to send to the voters and by tight signature-collecting rules for the referendums the voters can impose on parliament. Like all good things, direct democracy needs self-discipline.
If it is done right, though, it could finally remove one of the oldest and deepest of the dividing lines that run through mankind. So far, the business of government has always separated those who do the governing from those who are governed, the rulers from the ruled. The invention of democracy healthily blurred that distinction. But it did not wholly expunge it, so long as it limited the democracy’s voters to the subordinate role of saying every now and again which of various groups of politicians they on the whole preferred to the other groups.
The dividing line is bad for those on both sides of it. It is bad for the minority who hold most of the real power, because they can conceal what they are doing with their power, and can therefore be corrupted by it. It is bad for the majority, because it confines them to the generalities of politics and discourages them from voting with a proper, detailed sense of responsibility; that makes them superficial, careless and increasingly cynical. The division can now be removed. The idea that the people should govern themselves can at last mean just that.