The public feeds on mediocrity, but does not love what is mediocre. (Francesco Nitti)
Argument for Democracy
As a simple matter of justice, the purpose of government should be to make wise political decisions that promote the flourishing of its citizens. A government should thus be devoted to the public interest, not the personal interest of a sovereign class or ruler. Yet a ruling class or king might still be effective at promoting a people’s flourishing, so why prefer democracy on principle?
- Against autocracy. Wise decisions require rational reasoning, and we know that the human mind has so many cognitive biases that an individual’s decisions cannot consistently be rational. Reasoning is more rational if it involves a collective effort; such is the basis of science and of dialog. Therefore, wise political decisions require a collective effort. Therefore, a government should consist of a group of people, not a monarch or a dictator.
- Against oligarchy. Because people are selfish and tribal, they are inclined to misuse power to pursue personal and group interests at the cost of the public interest. To keep this inclination in check, a group’s sovereignty must be contingent on the public will rather than on wealth, knowledge, inheritance, or military power. Therefore, a government devoted to the public interest cannot be oligarchic, which leaves democracy as the best or least bad form of government.1
Argument for Direct Democracy
- Due to the complexity of modern society, a people cannot make every political decision itself. It must delegate much of the policy-making to professionals. In a real democracy, these professionals are civil servants—instruments whose sole job is the execution of the people’s will.
- In a representative democracy, party politicians form a superior class, a protected industry with total power over taxpayers and voters between elections, a political cartel with self-preservation as its primary interest. To wangle legitimacy and to distract the docile masses, their parties arrange psychosocial circuses every few years. The
election periodmedia spectacle then culminates in a pacifying vote for a meaningless power shift within the politician’s unbreakable coalition; basically a vote for whom the people want to see most on television over the next legislative period.2
- Only the tools of direct democracy can keep career politicians and governmental bureaucrats in check. To prevent a representative democracy from devolving into a pseudo-representative oligarchy or particracy, initiatives and referenda must be viable instruments. Without them, a people can do little to hold politicians responsible and accountable between elections, to curb corruption, and to control rent-seeking.3
- In conclusion, a representative democracy is effectively an oligarchy unless it has direct-democratic elements (initiatives, referenda, recalls, and direct election of executives) at its core.
Merits of Direct Democracy
What is the primary job of party politicians? To make wise political decisions? No! Representatives primarily seek to market their party, to manipulate public opinion, and to foster personality cults. People vote more with emotion for politicians they like than with reason for ideas they find wise, and whenever people want to vote for ideas, they have to vote for an ideologically assorted bundle with a grinning face on it. Initiatives and referenda allow citizens to unbundle specific issues and to vote for ideas instead of personas, and direct-democratic campaigns move the public debate from political gossip to political content, from media scandals to grand ideas, from purely emotion-based side-taking to more evidence-based problem-solving, from “These are the teams you can side with” to “These are the hypotheses on how we can flourish as a community.”
Direct democracy elevates a people’s spirit through liberty, sovereignty, and a sense of collective responsibility. In a political science experiment, Benjamin Olken from MIT Economics randomly assigned 49 Indonesian villages to make development policies either through representatives or through a referendum. He found that the direct-democratic villagers were significantly more informed about the issue, more satisfied with the result, and more willing to contribute, even though their policy outcomes did not differ much from that of representative-democratic villagers.4 Autonomy matters.
Econometric analyses found that “public supply is less costly, and the share of public expenditures in GNP is smaller, the more direct democratic institutions are used.”5 Evidence also shows that “spending increases as the number of representatives increases” and that “initiative states [in the US] spent and taxed less than noninitiative states beginning around the mid-1970s, controlling for demographic and political factors.”6 In general, direct democracy ensures that expenditures on public goods are determined by public demand (i.e., what citizens want to pay for) rather than supply factors (i.e., what politicians want the citizens to pay for). Lastly, Swiss cantons and American states with more direct democracy have higher economic productivity measured as output per capita.
Direct democracy helps to maximize societal well-being by pushing policy closer to the median voter. “Since ballot propositions are filtered through the electorate, only policies that make the median voter better off can gain approval in an election or credibly threaten the legislature.”7 Moreover, subjective well-being (happiness) is higher in communities with more direct democracy.8
Problems of Direct Democracy
Should the uninformed masses vote on complex issues? Do ordinary voters not lack the expertise to make policy decisions? — People are not mass adapted to decide on questions of detail, so it seems that it would be better to leave decisions up to experts whose job it is to make them. Yet although professionals must work out the technical details of policies, the problem of ignorance is not a defeating problem for direct democracy:
- Many policy issues are more about a community defining and implementing its values and less about it knowing the truth. (However, a counterargument could be that people’s values are often strongly influenced by their knowledge of certain facts.)
- “If policy disagreements arise from different information rather than different underlying preferences, and if each person receives an information signal about the right course of action, aggregating the opinions of a million voters can be highly accurate by the law of large numbers even if each person’s chance of being right is small.”9
- Studies found that “voters with apparently low levels of political information can use information shortcuts to emulate the voting behavior they would have exhibited if they were as informed as the best-informed persons” and that “common stereotypes about voter incompetence rely on shaky theoretical and empirical foundations.”10
- Wrong decisions are likely to inspire a communal effort to make them right instead of causing a sense of impotence and political apathy.
- Extensive pre-referendum discussions allow experts to contribute relevant facts and arguments. How effective are such discussions in educating the masses? One study found that the direct-democratic campaign around a Canadian referendum had an educative effect even on the most ignorant parts of the electorate.11
- More broadly, “the evidence suggests that information cues [from interest groups, media, coworkers, family, friends, etc.] are fairly effective in allowing voters to make reasoned choices in the voting booth.”12
- If the majority truly were myopic, they would vote on new spending programs and tax cuts in an irrational manner that demonstrates their failure to understand or consider budgeting. In reality, initiatives and referenda do not significantly affect issued amounts of dept.13
Will the majority not use direct-democratic tools to oppress minority groups? — As a mathematical fact, the well-being of the majority must take precedence over minority interests if overall societal well-being is to be maximized. Furthermore, none of the evidence suggests that direct democracy threatens minority rights any more than representative legislatures.14 In addition, a well-chosen constitutional framework can counteract mass hysteria and temper excesses of the majority.15
Special interest subversion
Will the initiative process not be misused by wealthy, organized special interests? — Lobbying by special interest groups is a danger the populace must watch out for. Still, the more people care about an issue, the more likely they are to vote in their own interest, and “the evidence generally shows that direct democracy serves the many and not the few.”16 For example, numerous opinion surveys on fiscal policy at both the state and local level show that initiatives tend to deliver the policies desired by the majority.17 The same was found for social policies.18
Will direct-democratic tools not render politicians timid and ineffective while dulling their sense of responsibility? — The ultimate responsibility should always be with the leader, and in a real democracy, the leader is the people itself. If a politician cannot satisfy the public’s will or if he is intimidated by it, he does not deserve to be its humble servant.
Does direct democracy not abdicate sovereignty to those who know best how to manipulate public opinion, i.e., media empires? — Although mass manipulators will certainly steer the direct-democratic process, the digital revolution has radically democratized the media industry. Today, ordinary citizens have not only unprecedented access to information, but also low barriers to entry if they want to build their own media platform.
The ideal of a rational democracy—of citizens using the tools of direct democracy to make prudent policies based on objective facts—seems overly optimistic. A series of studies on evidence-based arguments in direct-democratic campaigns found that “only 6.8% of media items contain a reference to evidence, and just 6.4% of the arguments refer to evidence.”19 This, however, is a practical, not a principal problem, and any political system in which initiatives and referenda are no viable option does not deserve the label ‘democracy’ in the first place.
- An anarchist may argue that no form of government is good. I believe that this depends on the sociocultural context, particularly ethnic fractionalization, but this is a topic for another article.
- This might be a bit too cynical, but you get the idea.
- For example, politicians are rent-seeking when they set themselves overgenerous pensions or when they draw juicy salaries for raising their hands in quarterly meetings.
- Benjamin A. Olken, Direct Democracy and Local Public Goods: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia, American Political Science Review, 2010, Vol. 104(2), pp. 243-267
- Bruno S. Frey, Direct Democracy: Politico-Economic Lessons from Swiss Experience, The American Economic Review, 1994, Vol. 84 (2), p. 341
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 194f.
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 192
- Bruno S. Frey & Alois Stutzer, Happiness, Economy and Institutions, Economic Journal, 2000, Vol. 110 (466), pp. 918-938
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 193
- Arthur Lupia & John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy: New Approaches to Old Questions, Annual Review of Political Science, 2004, Vol. 7, pp. 468+470
- Matthew Mendelsohn & Fred Cutler, The effect of referendums on democratic citizens: information, politicization, efficacy, and tolerance, British Journal of Political Science, 2000, Vol. 30(4), pp. 685-698
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 198
- D. Roderick Kiewiet & Kristin Szakaly, Constitutional limitations on borrowing: an analysis of state bonded indebtedness, Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 1996, Vol. 12 (1), pp. 62-97
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 201
- In Switzerland, for example, a constitutional referendum requires a double majority both of the votes and of the cantons.
- John G. Matsusaka, Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, Vol. 19 (2), p. 200
- John G. Matsusaka, For the Many or the Few, 2004
- Elisabeth R. Gerber, The Populist Paradox, 1999
- Iris Stucki, Evidence-based arguments in direct-democratic campaigns (Dissertation), University of Bern, 2016, p. IV