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Debate: Direct democracy

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What are the pros and cons of direct democracy?

Background and context

Direct democracy is the term used to describe particular forms of voting within any democratic system. The term direct democracy is commonly used to refer to three distinct types of vote: 1. referendums, which are votes on a specific single issue or piece of legislation (instead of a party or candidate);
2. citizen initiatives, whereby citizens can propose new legislation or constitutional amendments by gathering enough signatures in a petition to force a vote on the proposal; and recalls, under which citizens can force a vote on whether to oust an incumbent elected official by collecting enough signatures in a petition.

The common characteristic of these mechanisms is that they place greater power in the hands of voters, as opposed to elected representatives. Direct democracy is, therefore, frequently seen as conflicting with representative democracy, in which voters elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. By contrast, under direct democracy, voters can themselves make decisions about specific policies or issues.[1]

The main questions framing this long-standing debate include: Do citizens make good laws? Are they informed enough and capable of understanding the nuances of policies, or are representatives better at doing this? Does representative government produce reprsentative leaders that make representative laws, or is direct democracy better at this? This, and many other questions frame the overarching question and debate: Is direct democracy beneficial to democratic government?

Contents

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Citizen decisions: Are citizens good at making policy?

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Pro

  • Citizens are competent enough to make good policy As Lupia and Mc Cubbins argue, voters do not necessarily need perfect information to make reasonable decisions. They can rely on information shortcuts and cues - and even if they are sometimes affected by their emotions their decisions do not have to be worse than the politicians' ones. As an example we can look to Switzerland where direct democracy works perfectly well as the people are able to decide even on complex issues regarding taxes or other "complicated" policies.
  • Citizens are best at determining their own interests. While politicians try to determine what's in the best interests of citizens, citizens themselves are better at making these kinds of determinations.
  • Direct democracy encourages citizens to educate themselves. It is certainly true that direct democracy requires that citizens participate actively in the political process and that they inform themselves on the issues surrounding them. This creates a strong incentive for citizens to inform themselves on the important issues of the day.
  • Being part of the process is a requirement in a democracy. Citizens identify themselves more closely with the government policies when they are allowed to cast votes. Only when they do so is the government a "government by the people, of the people and for the people." This is not a privilege for citizens. It is a responsibility.
  • Nothing wrong about NIMBYism through initiatives. The people are right when they oppose a policy in their neighbourhood that would worsen their quality of life. The politicians who advocate new nuclear power plants or motorways are usually unwilling to have them at their own back-garden; why should the ordinary people be different? In summary, NIMBYism is beneficial for society because it prevents wrong decisions made by people who wouldn't have to carry the burden of living in a particular area.


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Con

  • Voters tend to be self-centered in a direct democracy. Voters tend to look after their self-interests, rather than the bigger picture of what needs doing. NIMBYism ("Not in my back yard" thinking) is an example of this, where voters avoid making personal sacrifices in "their own back yard" even if the sacrifices are essential to the common good.
  • Voters are too apathetic to make good laws The average voter may not be interested in politics and therefore may not participate. In a system with citizen initiatives and direct democracy, high voter apathy may make the subsequent decisions unrepresentative of broader public opinion or possibly just bad policy.
  • Direct democracy fosters emotional decision-making. When presented with a single yes/no question, usually without any information on the issue at hand, people tend to make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on emotions, driven by anger, fear and hatred. For example, in the first Irish referendum on Lisbon Treaty, 15% (!) of the voters made up their mind on the day of the referendum itself. [3]
  • Direct democracy disables unpopular but necessary decisions. The problem with direct democracy is that the general public can hardly ever think about the issues at hand in the long-term. People may be aware of the fact that something needs to be done about some burning issue, however, they are unwilling to propose any plan if it entails some discomfort to them. An example of this is called NIMBYism: "Not In My Backyard" point of view. In practise it occurs when a broadly necessary thing, such as wind-turbines, are rejected "in my back-yard" due to selfish interests. Elected leaders can help push these kinds of necessary decisions through.
  • Having to vote on every issue is a burden on citizens. One con of direct democracy is that the people have to vote on EVERY issue, which would take time away from your day.


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Vs rep government: Is DD superior to rep government?

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Pro

  • Rep democracy produces un-representative leaders. Individuals elected to office in a representative democracy tend not to be demographically representative of their constituency. They tend to be wealthier and more educated, and are also more predominantly male as well as members of the majority race, ethnic group, and religion than a random sample would produce. They also tend to be concentrated in certain professions, such as lawyers. Elections by district may reduce, but not eliminate, those tendencies, in a segregated society. Direct democracy would be inherently representative, assuming universal suffrage (where everyone can vote).
  • Direct democracy helps check political class Politicians are the victims of many things: be it their selfish interest (or bias) which may result in rearing to corruption, or just the pressure that rich and well-organized interest groups exert to persuade the politician that it is in his electorate's interest to pass (or vote down) the legislature in a move which is in all actuality detrimental to the majority of his voters (see a book by Fareed Zakaria Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad). That means that often the politicians do not represent the people of the electorate, and thus act in contradiction to democracy. Direct democracy places a check on these shortcomings.


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Con

  • Direct democracy is too slow and inefficient. Another objection to direct democracy is that of practicality and efficiency. Deciding all or most matters of public importance by direct referendum is slow and expensive (especially in a large community), and can result in public apathy and voter fatigue, especially when repeatedly faced with the same questions or with questions which are unimportant to the voter.[4]
  • Opponents cannot amend/refine bills in direct democracy James Boyle. "The initiative and referendum: its folly, fallacies, and failure." (1912): "the modern Initiative is far inferior in principle to the ancient Pure Democracy for the latter theoretically anyhow possessed the principle of majority rule.[...] The authority to formulate a law is equal to the power to pass it if the latter power does not include the right to change it or amend it before it is passed. Therefore under the Initiative and Referendum the majority 92 or 95 per cent find themselves in this predicament they must either accept the bill which the 8 per cent has drafted for them on its own motion and without consulting any other authority or proportion of citizens. The majority must either do this or they must succumb to Philosophic Anarchism, the absence of any Law except that of the individual will."


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Democracy: Does direct democracy uphold democratic principles?

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Pro

  • Direct democracy promotes democratic principles. Initiatives, recalls, and referenda are the ultimate opportunity to the citizens to say "Hang on a minute, this is not in my interest at all", and for citizens to directly shape the policies that affect them. This is the ultimate form of democracy, and is certainly more democratic than a pure representative democracy.
  • Political parties are unfortunate consequence of rep. democracy. The formation of political parties is considered by some to be a "necessary evil" of representative democracy, where combined resources are often needed to get candidates elected. However, such parties mean that individual representatives must compromise their own values and those of the electorate, in order to fall in line with the party platform. In direct democracy, political parties have virtually no effect, as people do not need to conform with popular opinions.[5]
  • Direct democracy checks the tendency toward package deals. Given that voters decide on single issues instead of a package of policies that might not fully be in the voters' interests, the people are freer to choose what is the best for them. In a representative democracy, however, these package deals are usually comprehensive programmes that are altered after the elections are held. That means that politicians from the parties that form a government are free to choose which part of each package works the best - for them.


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Con

  • Direct democracy over-simplifies policies to a "yes/no" vote. In a representative democracy, laws in the parliamentary bodies undergo a lot of scrutiny, repeated rewritings, curbings, mitigations and other checks that in the end, the law that is passed is usually okay on principle with most of the representatives. These represent all kinds of voters -- and indeed, a democratic decision is one that implements the majority decision while keeping all minority rights, even though the result of that may be a little hard to read. However, direct democracy and its means (mostly referenda) need simplification (commonly to yes/no questions). As a result, most things passed by measures of direct democracy are unbalanced and that very often, measures of direct democracy contribute to majority rule without any respect for the minority.
  • Referenda devalue role of legislative bodies ("Teach Yourself: Politics", Peter Joyce): "In some countries (such as France) they were deliberately introduced to weaken the power of parliament. Although they can be reconciled with the concept of parliamentary sovereignty when they are consultative and do not require the legislature to undertake a particular course of action, it is difficult to ignore the outcome of a popular vote when it does not theoretically tie the hands of public policy makers."
  • Campaigns for ballot measures often have unfair resource advantages "Competing groups in a referendum do not necessarily possess equality in the resources which they have at their disposal and this may give one side an unfair advantage over the other in putting its case across to the electorate. This problem is accentuated if the government contributes to the financing of one side's campaign, as occured in the early stages of the 1995 Irish referendum on divorce." ("Teach Yourself: Politics", Peter Joyce)
  • Referenda are often a malignant form of protestation. As the post-referendum survey in Ireland shows, one of the reasons people voted against the Lisbon Treaty was that some of them saw it as a good way to protest against the government's policies (instead of a reason one might expect - that they were against the treaty itself).


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Accountability: Does direct democracy improve accountability?

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Pro

  • Rep democracy is less accountabile than direct democracy. Once elected, representatives are free to act as they please. Promises made before the election are often broken, and they frequently act contrary to the wishes of their electorate. Although theoretically it is possible to have a representative democracy in which the representatives can be recalled at any time; in practice this is usually not the case.
  • Direct democracy avoids appointment of unaccountable officials. Elected individuals frequently appoint people to high positions based on their mutual loyalty, as opposed to their competence. And, these appointed officials are not appointed by citizens and cannot be recalled by them. In a direct democracy, these officials would be elected by, and could be recalled by, citizens. This means that these officials are much more accountable to citizens and the democratic process.[6]


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Con

  • Direct democracy lacks accountability of decision-making. One of the key pillars of democracy is accountability for decisions that are made. Such accountability exists in a representative democracy, where an elected representative that passes a bill will face the consequences or rewards of the outcome. The voters can vote against the leader in the subsequent election, and generally take actions that hold the leader to account. In a direct democracy of course, conversely, the broad base of voters cannot be held to account for any bad decisions they collectively make.
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Corruption: Does direct democracy help combat corruption?

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Pro

  • Direct democracy generally reduces the risks of corruption. The concentration of power intrinsic to representative government is seen by some as tending to create corruption. In direct democracy, the possibility for corruption is reduced.
  • Rep government can lead to conflicts of interest. The interests of elected representatives do not necessarily correspond with those of their constituents. An example is that representatives often get to vote to determine their own salaries. It is in their interest that the salaries be high, while it is in the interest of the electorate that they be as low as possible, since they are funded with tax revenue. The typical results of representative democracy are that their salaries relatively high.


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Con

  • Direct democracy creates risk of corrupt recall efforts. There are examples of recall elections being launched against elected officials that are corruptly conceived by smear campaigns that have a particular interest at heart, and are willing to spend massive amounts of money to convince the public of false rumors. This is just as problematic as other instances of corruption that can come from the actions of elected officials themselves.
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Historical figures: Where did historic figures stand?

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Pro

  • Many founding fathers believed in government by the people Thomas Jefferson once said: "Men by their makeup are naturally divided into two camps: those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of higher classes; and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them the safest and most honest, if not always the wisest repository of the public interest. These two camps exist in every country, and wherever men are free to think, speak, and write, they will identify themselves."[7]


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Con

  • American founders favored rep democracy over direct dem Direct democracy was mainly opposed by the framers of the United States Constitution and some signers of the Declaration of Independence. They saw a danger in majorities forcing their will on minorities. As a result, they advocated a representative democracy in the form of a constitutional republic over a direct democracy, and gave the Congress sole legislative authority in the first article of the Constitution: "All legislative powers herin granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which should consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."[8]
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Economics: Is direct democracy always desirable?

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Pro

  • Direct democracy is relatively cheap John F. Knutsen. "Direct Democracy." 1993: "One objection to widespread use of direct democracy concerns its alleged high direct costs. According to Kendall and Louw (Kendall, 1989, page 135), the Swiss Federal chancellery estimates the costs of a national initiative combined with a federal counterproposal to about 1 Swiss franc per voter. Even when special ballots have to be held to decide single issues, the costs are modest. In California such a special ballot was held in 1973. It cost the state about USD 20 million, or about 80 cents (USD 0.80) per capita. (Walker, page 93). In addition to the direct costs incurred by the government, comes the costs associated with launching an initiative. In Switzerland this cost is estimated to at least one franc per petition signature (Junker, page 122). In California initiative campaigns cost several million dollars. In per capita terms however, these costs are still marginal, which is why this method of making decisions is so effective. Even if we assume that the Swiss spend a few million francs (everything included) on national issues every year, this has to be compared with a Swiss federal budget of about 23 billion francs (1985) (Junker, page 40)."
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Con

  • Direct democracy is expensive "Direct democracy becomes too costly in other than very small political units when more than a few isolated issues must be considered. The costs of decision-making become too large relative to the possible reductions in expected external costs that collective action might produce." (Buchanan, J.M. and Tullock, G. (1962)The Calculus of Consent:Logical foundations of constitutional democracy)
  • Direct democracy generally only works on a small scale. Direct democracy works on a small system. For example, the Athenian Democracy governed a city of, at its height, about 30,000 eligible voters (free adult male citizens.) Town meetings, a form of local government once common in New England, has also worked well, often emphasizing consensus over majority rule. The use of direct democracy on a larger scale has historically been more difficult, however. It requires intricate communication and information-campaigns, all which are expensive, complicated, and prone to break-downs of various kinds.


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Pro/con sources

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Pro

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See also

External links and references

Books

  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. (December 1999). The Initiative: Citizen Law-Making. Praeger Publishers.
  • Fareed Zakaria, "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy Home and Abroad"
  • Peter Joyce, "Teach Yourself: Politics"

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