November 3, 2011

"The Case Against Referendums: From Greece to California, They Always End Up Undermining Democracy."

David Bell in TNR:
Modern states are far too large and complex for direct democracy. Since it would be hugely impractical for the people, as a whole, to decide on everything from the size of foreign aid budgets to new environmental regulations, they delegate the business of government to elected representatives....

[I]n practice bodies of elected representatives so often seem to devolve into corrupt, complacent and long-lasting oligarchies. Anger at the shenanigans of the political class has helped keep the old suspicions alive right down to the present day, and has led, in democracies across the world, to countless institutional schemes designed to keep elected representatives in check: “imperative mandates” (detailed orders for how to vote in parliament, drawn up and approved by constituents); term limits; making the job part-time; judicial oversight; etc. The single most popular such scheme, however, has been the referendum....

[But referendums] take relatively technical issues away from legislators who have the time and expertise to deal with them, and give them to voters who do not....

[Referendums] tie the hands of legislators in potentially destructive ways....

[R]eferendums tarnish the legitimacy of legislators by subjecting their work to direct popular veto, and therefore casting it as a less genuine expression of popular sovereignty—despite the fact that the routine functioning of a democratic constitution is the most important expression of this sovereignty.
By the way, the U.S. Constitution prescribes the specific method for legislating and amending the Constitution, and that excludes the referendum as a check on Congress, but there is also an argument that the state-level referendums violate the U.S. Constitution. In 1912, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it was not the proper role of the courts to give an answer to that particular question of law, and referendums have continued ever since. What a missed opportunity!

43 comments:

edutcher said...

Considering the Lefties are pushing getting rid of the Electoral College, this is the perfect rebuttal.

Bob Ellison said...

Bell almost had it figured out there: Modern states are far too large and complex for direct democracy.

But then he got confused.

MadisonMan said...

Why can't journalists write Referenda?

traditionalguy said...

That is what democracy looks like...voting.

The legal system is based upon the therapeutic effect of simply giving the parties a Hearing.

It is a refusal to listen that demands Tea Party insurrections and Occupy insurrections.

The refusal to listen is a talent that TOTUS has perfected until the whole world wants to arise and destroy the lawlessness at the top.

That is the very reason that my friend Herman Cain is out of retirement and a relevant candidate...he knows how to lead and listen at the same time.

Herman develops a trust that calms down everyone who is not getting all they want, but know that they are being listened to, even when the answer is no or wait.

The eruption of the smoke of continual hourly drip, drip, drip of Uncontrollable Black Man'Sex Urges SCANDAL is a tactic to prevent Herman from playing that role which he plays so well that he was running away with the popular vote in polls.

But Ricky Perry and Mittsi Romney can't beat something with nothing.

All Ricky offers is a soft talking bully using dirty tactics; and all Mittsi offers is a wooden smile that says what you want to hear but leaves you knowing that he has just lied to you again,and again, and again.

The Crack Emcee said...

Allowing citizens to vote on an issue undermines democracy?

That IS democracy!

I wonder what some people are smoking today,...

cubanbob said...

The left already gave us The Best And The Brightest in the 60's. Wrong solution. Now if voting were limited to net taxpayers then the mobocracy problems TNR is concerned about would be lessened. People are usually more sober and rational in their decision making when its their money instead of Other People's Money.

Ann Althouse said...

@Crack Have you ever read the Guarantee Clause? The deal is a "republican form of government," which clearly is *not* direct democracy.

YoungHegelian said...

[But referendums] take relatively technical issues away from legislators who have the time and expertise to deal with them..

Well, legislators may have the time to deal with issues (it's their job, after all), but I don't see how legislators can be imbued with miraculous learning abilities that allow them to know "technical issues" that they've never received specialized training in.

Most of them are lawyers, and so we can assume familiarity with the basics of the law. Other than that, it's potluck.

The Crack Emcee said...

BTW - what's missing, "From Greece to California," is the authority of critical thought. Both Greece and California are suffering under the burden they put on themselves - they voted for socialism and now they're hurting because of it - where is that message being clearly articulated and where is the authority that will make them deal with that issue? it doesn't exist, so - even if the citizens of Greece and California are clearly wrong on every issue before them - those issues can still be portrayed as existing within a reasoned debate.

It's madness.

beast said...

But then if we have legislators who are experts on a subject to make decisions we always run into the argumentum ad verulaculinum problem especially when its not easily recognized-for instance I do not consider lawyers by necessity as experts on justice.

edutcher said...

tg needs to get over Ron Paul.

The Crack Emcee said...

Ann Althouse,

@Crack Have you ever read the Guarantee Clause? The deal is a "republican form of government," which clearly is *not* direct democracy.

This is claiming referendums undermine democracy - not a republican form of government.

The statement simply can't be true.

traditionalguy said...

In Georgia the referendums are usually, " Shall the Constitution be amended to provide that...."

The internet digital world speeds us up until waiting 2, 4, or 6 years to vote out the money man, who is our money man, takes too long.

But if we want to, we can attack and disburse the modern day Bonus Armies that demand their earned bonus like the Tea Party does their Social security and Medicare.

In that case voting every 2, 4, or 6 years is too soon. How about once every 10 years? Yhay sounds much more Republican.

cubanbob said...

The Crack Emcee said...
BTW - what's missing, "From Greece to California," is the authority of critical thought. Both Greece and California are suffering under the burden they put on themselves - they voted for socialism and now they're hurting because of it - where is that message being clearly articulated and where is the authority that will make them deal with that issue? it doesn't exist, so - even if the citizens of Greece and California are clearly wrong on every issue before them - those issues can still be portrayed as existing within a reasoned debate.

It's madness.

11/3/11 10:15 AM

Greece and California have done the world a great favor by providing a cautionary tale. Democracy isn't perfect, it's just better than any other form of government. Our founders were wiser than most and gave us a republican form of democracy to curb the worst tendencies of pure democracy. They knew what they were doing and so far, they have been proven right.

The Crack Emcee said...

cubanbob,

Greece and California have done the world a great favor by providing a cautionary tale. Democracy isn't perfect, it's just better than any other form of government. Our founders were wiser than most and gave us a republican form of democracy to curb the worst tendencies of pure democracy. They knew what they were doing and so far, they have been proven right.

Agreed. Though the human cost of an uninformed citizenry (I'm including the pols here) is taking it's toll.

We need critical thinking, desperately.

Michael said...

Referenda in general are a bad idea. But Greece is different than California. When fundamental issues are at stake - surrender of national sovereignty - there can be no other source of legitimacy. If the Eurocrats had allowed votes on the Lisbon Treaty or the Euro itself, they would never have gotten into this mess.

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

.

Part of the problem is that more and more law, or regulations with the force of law, is being written by unelected and effectively unaccountable regulators.

.

Crimso said...

"Why can't journalists write Referenda?"

I'd settle for "these data," "data are," etc.

Crimso said...

'The deal is a "republican form of government," which clearly is *not* direct democracy.'

IANAL, so bear with me, but does that apply only to the Federal government? Just curious (and lazy).

KLDAVIS said...

Crack, "Referendums...End Up Undermining Representative Democracy"...better?

Oligonicella said...

Yes, they missed the opportunity to curtail the public even more.

Pity.

cubanbob said...

Michael said...
Referenda in general are a bad idea. But Greece is different than California. When fundamental issues are at stake - surrender of national sovereignty - there can be no other source of legitimacy. If the Eurocrats had allowed votes on the Lisbon Treaty or the Euro itself, they would never have gotten into this mess.

11/3/11 10:50 AM

The Euro was a too clever by half idea. It was a deal where the Germans got a devalued (but not debased) DM so their economy would not collapse and create a lot of jobs in East Germany. The Southern Europeans were 'banking' that the Germans wouldn't let them destroy the value of the new currency and that the German's would be able to enforce fiscal discipline on their governments instead of the usual chicanery. It worked for a while, especially for the German export sector. The Krauts couldn't believe the Southerner's were that foolish and the Southerner's couldn't believe the German's were that foolish. In retrospect a bad decision but it did sort of appear to make sense at the time.

DADvocate said...

Technical issues aside, a large number of people have shown themselves to want, and believe they can have, lots of stuff for nothing. The Greeks believe they can retire at 52 years old and be non-productive members of society the remaining 30-40 years of their lives.

Such attitudes will destroy any society from within and the many in the U.S. hold the same entitlement beliefs, some whom are otherwise intelligent. I shudder to think what the outcome would be if we had referendums on entitlements.

Carol_Herman said...

Well, the crud in Brussels have taken over all of Europe! Where everyone knows the EURO is a curse.

But the politicians don't want to lose their jobs. So, they've always countered any revolution against the EURO. Where Europeans would go back to their old currencies.

In Ireland, at first, there was a referendum. And, the Irish voted against the EURO. So, the belgians (and the germans. And, the french), forced another referendum. Which the Irish accepted.

The greeks have failed at handing off anything more to the bankers in Dusseldorf!

The germans "recommended" that the UN "blue hats" be sent in to collect what's owed to the bankers in Dusseldorf!

In the "old days" when you lent money ... you got to collect interest payments in return for the risks you were taking "giving money to other people."

The Greeks may yet teach us about democracy? But their politicians are also fearful of being tossed out of office.

Call it want you want. But it's easier to get rid of cancer, than of politicians who get voted into office.

Referendums are like safety values. When the pressures build up within a society ... those who took risks ... SHOULD LOSE!

Instead? We're still seeing BAILOUTS.

While after Tuesday's election results coming in from Colorado ... it does seem like at least one million Americans didn't let the politicians add "tax" onto the backs of the state's citizens.

Maybe? There are winds that are a-changing?

t-man said...

Bell makes a better case against universal adult suffrage than he makes against referenda.

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Its easier to buy 30 legislators than 20,000,000 voters, for better or for worse.

ws4whgfb said...

I thought the Greek referendum on the EU bailout was that smartest thing to come out of that country since Euclid. I was sorry to see they cancelled it.

I think the EU is against democracy because they are trying to preserve their way of life from the time when moslems will be a majority in europe.

Rusty said...

We need critical thinking, desperately.

Considering the state of public education; good luck with that.

traditionalguy said...

Many jobs that are coming open are filled by hiring a 50 something who retired so he could cash out at the retirement levels he had vested when the scary times hit.


But they then stayed in the job market with their credentials plus a network of life time scratch my back friends.

This blocks normal hiring and promotions from being made within the organization.

The OWS guys are really mad at this more than the Banks.

Bruce Hayden said...

Probably being from the west explains it, but I have always liked referenda. And, this was always a heated topic with my mother, who was the state legislative chair (and chief lobbyist) for the League of Leftist Women (aka League of Women Voters). She thought that all legislation, etc. should come from the legislature, where she, and the other lobbyists, could steer the legislature appropriately.

The one issue I thought illustrative involved the Colorado Lottery. It was passed into law, with a lot of the state proceeds going to parks and open space. Fine, a year or two later, the money got diverted to other causes by the legislature. So, it went back on the ballot as a constitutional amendment, so that the legislature couldn't appropriate the money raised to other (pet) causes. And, as a result, Colorado has a lot of open space that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

And, that is the answer to the previous poster who noted that the initiatives in his state are titled as amendments - that is to make sure that the state legislature doesn't just repeal what the voters just did by ballot.

And, to make it more humorous, my mother was always complaining about how cluttered the Colorado Constitution had become. Well, much of that was to keep the legislature from reversing the intent of the voters.

Bruce Hayden said...

BTW - probably should have used "referendums", but 4 years of HS Latin, and 2 years of Latin in college, and I just cannot help myself using the more archaic "referenda" as the plural.

bbear said...

"...the U.S. Constitution prescribes the specific method for . . . amending the Constitution"

Yeah, it does. And I looked for the amendments carving-out 'exceptions' to our 4th Amendment protection against warrantless searches, but I couldn't find any. Then I looked for where "commerce among the several states" was amended to mean stuff you grow in your own garden for your own use, but I couldn't find that either.

Crunchy Frog said...

California without direct democracy would be even more of a nightmare than it is already.

The problem stems from the way state legislative districts are apportioned. It's not just gerrymandering (although that makes it worse), it's that the voting public is only a subset of the public at large, and that the ratio is not consistent throughout the state.

Consider two districts, X and Y: District X is suburban, majority Republican. Percentage voting age 70%. Of that group, 85% are eligible and registered to vote. Of those, about 60% turn out for a hotly contested statewide election. Out of approximately 400K people per state Assembly district, that comes out to around 140K voters.

District Y is in an immigrant neighborhood in the inner city. It is younger (60% voting age) and has a much smaller percentage of adults eligible to vote due to citizenship issues (50%). Voting among those eligible is not as highly stressed, so turnout is 40%. Total votes in District Y: 48K.

Net effect is that, per voter, there are three District Ys (D) for every District X (R), skewing the legislature way farther left than the voting public.

Jose_K said...

Zimmerman Particiaptive d}Democracy. Sums up the pro´s and co´s of direct democracy.he made the same argument.


Why can't journalists write Referenda?
Not even in lenguas romances is written that way anymore

Jose_K said...

I do not consider lawyers by necessity as experts on justice
We are not experts in justice but in law. The last goal of law is peace thru an ordinated solution of problems under constraints of time,reality and rights that can be taken as the least bad solutions by the parties .That is,, basically avoid people to kill or take revenge ad infinitum over anything
If you want justice ask the Lord or whatever you believe in not a lawyer

Revenant said...

Bell seems to be under the mistaken impression that "democracy" means "government's ability to get stuff done".

Jose_K said...

The deal is a "republican form of government," which clearly is *not* direct democracy.
Scalia was asked by an italian at the Rai if the United States was a republic or a democaercy and he said more or less: what are you talking about , and answered a democracy, clearly. he saw the question as academics mambo jambo?

sorepaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cokaygne said...

What Michael and bbear said. Congress has used the Commerce Clause to regulate EVERYTHING and the courts have let them get away with it.

I guess you could say about referenda what Churchill is supposed to have said about democracy - they are terrible but better than the alternatives.

What really gets me is the author's assumption that legislators have special knowledge and experience that the people do not have. I have met and worked with a lot of legislators. Almost all of them, liberal and conservative, have been nice, well-meaning people who want to do the right thing. Another thing they had in common, though, was that they were stupid bozos.

Seriously, look at what is happening to Cain. Why is this the most important issue in the presidential campaign? Why would any sane person who has a reasonable private life and a successful private career want to go into a profession where nothing matters except what you might have said twenty years ago that might have made some anonymous person uncomfortable?

RichardS said...

The U.S. Constitution, of course, was created by a referendum.

The Progressives gave us referenda, in the name of correcting abuses in government by the powers that be. Nowadays, however, it they can be a useful corrective to the administrative state, in which much law is written by tenured, credentialed people, with lifetime appointments in hte executive branch. (This could be called an aristoracy if we are to be stict about defining our terms.) If we restore the non-delegation doctrine, then referenda would be less useful.

Finally, I'm puzzled by the idea that direct democracy is unrepublican. As John Adams noted, "A democracy is as really a republic as an oak is a tree, or a temple a building. There are, in strictness of speech and in the soundest technical language, democratical and aristocratical republics, as well as an infinite variety of mixtures of both."
Everyone agrees that Rome was a republic--but it had hereditary aristocracy. Even Madison called it one in the Federalist, the very series in which Madison defined a republic as a representative democracy. That also explains his phrase "bestow that name on" in his discussion of the definition of the term in Federalist 39. There's more than one form of government for a republic.

Adding direct democracy to representative government is also different than making direct democracy the only means of legislating.

RichardS said...

P.S. If we have a "living constitution" then, presumably, the definition of what constitutes a republic may change over time. That's waht the Progressives argued when they gave us some direct democracy.
If we want a fixed definition, then Rome must count as a republic, as must Sparta, which had hereditary monarchs.

jvermeer51 said...

"[But referendums] take relatively technical issues away from legislators who have the time and expertise to deal with them, and give them to voters who do not...."

A little honesty here. The author is not really concerned about how those knuckle draggers get those technical details wrong. He's worried that the knuckle draggers have substantially different points of view than the society's rightful rulers, the liberal intelligentsia.
"the routine functioning of a democratic constitution is the most important expression of this sovereignty."
Wait, don't liberals want a living evolving constitution; in other words, a constitution which means whatever liberals need it to mean whenever they need it?
Liberalism is about an anti-democratic, authoritarian and collectivist state run by an unaccountable elite with really high IQs and who never went to North Idaho College. All this really clever bs about referenda is just kabuki theater.

Peter Ryan said...

There's a very simple way to have massive democracy that in essence supports a referendum on every goverment policy:

Include a checklist with each tax return.

An employee submits their W-4, they can check the boxes for the programs they want to support, whether defense or research or education or social spending or whatever. Their taxes are then distributed as they direct. When an employer sends in the payroll taxes, they have the same check list as well.

Certain taxes will not be effected, such as Medicare and Social Security, since they are already specialized payroll taxes. Any differences can be changed on April 15 each year.

The advantages are enormous: those who pay the taxes will have more say in where the money goes, and there is little chance that people will have the ability to take from one group and give it to another.

We are in the computer age. This kind of data entry is a piece of cake, especially if it's web accessible.

Will it ever happen? Hell no. What would the politicians do all day without other peoples' money to throw around?