Are referendums a desirable way of making political decisions? To anyone who has been following the news for the last the few months, the answer might seem ‘yes’, with seemingly more and more referendums being held in various countries across Europe. In fact, two important referendums concerning the future of the European Union, be it directly or indirectly, are just around the corner: the first about the association agreement between the Netherlands and Ukraine, the second about the future of Great Britain within the European Union itself. An often-heard argument in favour of these referendums is that there are no practical limitations to organising them anymore. However, direct democracy certainly has its drawbacks as well, the most important of which I’ll address in this plea.
A referendum (in some countries synonymous with a plebiscite) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to vote on a particular proposal. This might result in the adoption of a new law. Some definitions of ‘plebiscite’ suggest that it’s a type of vote to change the constitution or government of a country, while others define it as the opposite. Australia defines ‘referendum’ as a vote to change the constitution, and ‘plebiscite’ as a vote that doesn’t affect the constitution. In contrast, Ireland has only ever held one plebiscite, which was the vote to adopt its constitution, and every other vote has been called a referendum. ‘Referendum’ is the gerund of the Latin verb refero, and has the meaning ‘bringing back’ (i.e. bringing the question back to the people). Lastly, for all you grammar geeks out there: since the word is a gerund, its only correct plural is ‘referendums’.
Although some advocates of direct democracy would have the referendum become the dominant institution of government, in almost all cases the referendum exists merely as a complement to the system of representative democracy, in which most major decisions are made by an elected legislature. This is by far the most common form of state government in the Western world. An often-cited exception is the Swiss canton of Glarus, where meetings are held on the village lawn to decide on matters of public concern. In most jurisdictions that practice them, referendums are relatively rare occurrences that are restricted to important issues. The most frequent type of direct popular participation is the referendum on constitutional matters, but there are plenty of counterexamples that you can think of, such as the aforementioned referendum about the association agreement between the Netherlands and Ukraine, which will be held on April 6th.
Advocates of the referendum often argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of representatives, and determined directly by the people. Some adopt a strict definition of democracy, stating that elected parliaments are a necessary expedient to make governance possible in the large, modern nation-state (although direct democracy is still preferable), and that the referendum takes precedence over parliamentary decisions. Other advocates insist that the principle of popular sovereignty demands that certain fundamental questions, such as the adoption or amendment of a constitution, the altering of national boundaries, or the secession of a state, be determined with the directly expressed consent of the people. One recent example of that is the referendum that’s currently being held in New Zealand, where people get to decide on the future of their national flag. (The reason for this is that it’s supposedly too reminiscent of Australia’s flag — judge for yourself!)
Ignorance isn’t bliss…
However, deciding on something as simple as a national flag is clearly not the same thing as settling the future of an entire nation, as in the case of the upcoming British vote. It’s highly questionable whether we, as simple citizens, are capable of making informed decisions on topics that require a great deal of research in order to understand at all. You’re not going to tell me that a layman is capable of overseeing the consequences of Great Britain leaving the European Union, when even our political leaders can’t seem to agree with each other. (Fortunately, economists do a stellar job…) The same holds true for the referendum about Ukraine. This particular referendum is often reduced to a very basic question, such as whether or not one is in favour of further European integration. Needless to say, this is not at all what the question on the ballot paper will read, but rather an oversimplification that’s typically used by people who mean to sketch a black-and-white image in order to persuade floating voters. With the amount of people taking no interest in complicated economic analyses whatsoever — that’s to say: virtually everyone — this tactic is bound to pay off, as the outcome is extremely likely to be influenced by other factors, such as expensive advertising campaigns, strong personalities, and propaganda. James Madison, the fourth president in the history of the United States, even went so far as to say that direct democracy is the “tyranny of the majority”. While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly true that voters in a referendum are more likely to be driven by transient whims than by careful deliberation. We’re simply not as well-informed as politicians ought to be. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, for it’s their work, but it does mean that the effects of a referendum always remain to be seen. In fact, even if we were as knowledgeable as politicians, I don’t think it would make much of a difference. After all, we don’t have to commit to party ideals, but can instead make decisions that are relevant to us (and us alone). That might not sound like such a bad thing, but if it means losing the bigger picture in the process, it could actually put the country at a disadvantage in the long run. Maximise utility? Well, thanks, homo economicus.
Anyway, the most convincing argument against referendums that I can think of would have to be that there’s simply no need for them. The whole point of constructing a parliament is to create a representative sample of society, with all the different opinions represented in it, so that we don’t have to go about consulting every single citizen for every single political decision every single time.
Also, think about it. Who’s more likely to show up at the vote: a moderate person sitting somewhere in the centre of the political spectrum, or someone who feels very strongly (and, going by the Dutch news, rather angry) about an issue? It’s more likely to be the latter. Trust me, if you have people chopping off pigs’ heads and hanging them to church buildings in order to express their anger, it’s more likely to be the latter. This means that referendums are not only unnecessary, but also likely to produce less accurate (rather than more accurate) results than if we were to keep things in-house.
So, there you have it. To all the Dutch readers out there: if you feel that you’re not knowledgeable enough about the association agreement, why not consider staying home, like me? If we’re lucky enough, it could mean not meeting the required 30% turn-out, thus making the referendum invalid. Let’s hope so.