Friday, December 15, 2017

Brexit Regret And Representative Democracy

Is direct democracy a good idea?

One of the worst ideas of the 20th century was the public referendum. The idea of a representative democracy is not that each person gets to vote on every damn thing that comes down the pike, but that the people vote for Representatives who then in turn craft legislation and decide what's best for all of us, even if it would not necessarily be something that we would vote for ourselves.

Representative democracy acts as a handbrake on Mob Rule.  And our bicameral legislative branch provides particular stops to prevent democracy for running away with itself. Our House of Representatives, like the British House of Commons, provides more direct representation of the people.  As they are elected every two years, they could be quickly voted out of office for making unpopular choices.  This is the voice of the rabble.

Our Senate, which was originally made up of wealthy landowners who were appointed by their States, provided a more long-term and balanced view of government.   The Senate was considered the more grown-up deliberative body, akin to the British House of Lords.  Since they were only elected or appointed every six years, they could take the long view on things, and make choices that might not be popular in the moment, but were the right thing to do for the country.

And for both legislative bodies, it was true that representatives and senators could vote against the popular will of their people, if they felt strongly enough that what they were voting for was best for the country overall, even if it meant sacrificing their political careers.  And in a few heroic instances, some members of Congress have done just that.  Whether or not we agree with their decisions, they should be lauded for taking a stand.

Sadly, many people believe we should have a more direct representative government.  However experiments with this sort of thing has brought out the flaws of the idea.  California, for example has this crazy proposition system where people can petition to have propositions put on the ballot and people vote their own laws into existence.

The problem with these propositions, is that things that seem popular at one moment might turn out to be bad ideas later on and they are awfully hard to undo.  While it may seem to some that this is the best way to enact direct democratic government, with one man and one vote, it also means that whatever the mob finds interesting or popular at one moment can end be end up being enacted into law fairly permanently.

Given the chance to vote down any taxes, taxpayers will do so, even to their own detriment.

There are basically two scenarios that play out with this proposition system.  For people paying taxes, the gut instinct is to vote down any kind of spending whatsoever, even spending on things they may need, like infrastructure or schools.  It is like this scene from The Simpsons where the school board meets to vote on various pending items and the attending members shout down every piece of spending as they don't want to spend any money or raise their property taxes.

The second scenario that plays out is it when people believe that you can get free stuff from the government and not have to pay for it.  If enough people are convinced they can get free money and someone else will pay for it, they will vote for this. And democracy fails when everyone starts to believe they can vote themselves a raise.

Of course, the worst scenario is the combination of the two - where voters shout down taxes and then vote themselves free stuff, the cognitive dissonance apparently not affecting them much.

Our founding fathers foresaw this, having seen various types of governments struggle for centuries. They knew that direct democracy was unworkable as it would devolve into mob rule.  In fact, what many people laud as our "great democracy" really was not very democratic in its origins.  As I noted earlier, Senators were usually wealthy property owners who were appointed by the States and not directly elected by the people.  And in the early days of our country it was only property holders that were allowed to vote -  and a course those were white male property owners.

Our founding fathers worried about entrusting unemployed people or hobos or ne'er-do-wells to steer our ship of State.  They feared - and rightfully so - that the lower classes, if given a chance to vote, would vote to take money away from the upper classes.  And it was those upper classes - the landowners and the slave owners - who instigated and fought our revolution to be independent from Britain, to be free to make even more money.  They weren't about to give this up for the rabble.

It is interesting to watch what is going on in Britain right now with the Brexit disaster.  Britain seems to be dragging its feet on Brexit negotiations, and I get the impression that maybe a lot of people are having a Brexit hangover and wondering what the hell it is they voted for.  They held a nationwide referendum which, oddly enough, was non-binding and after the Brexit vote won by a very narrow majority, they decided to go ahead and separate from the European Union.

I think a lot of people in the UK are starting to realize the folly of putting national identity up to a vote.  If the British Monarchy were put up to a vote, right after Princess Diana was killed in that car accident, would Queen Elizabeth be on the throne today?  Or would she be on the dole today?  The problem with a referendum, is that it can be based on popular opinion, and popular opinions change over time, which is why people do opinion polls in the first place.  What seems like a good idea one day, might be a shitty idea the next.

As I noted, our condominium is voting to dissolve itself and have the entire 22-acre complex torn down and sold to a developer and made into high rise apartments, condos, and offices.  This is a pretty major decision for the property owners and the condominium documents require an 80% vote in order to dissolve the condominium - a very high threshold to achieve.

Thus, I'm appalled that it requires an 80% vote to dissolve our Condominium Association, but Britain requires only a simple majority to dissolve itself from the European Union.  What on earth were the British people thinking, particularly since it was a non-binding referendum?  It seems that once the voters indicated - by a bare majority - that they wanted to drive the car off the cliff, British politicians felt duty-bound to take the wheel and steer toward the Grand Canyon.  "Give the voters what they want!"  Jolly good fun.

Democracy was never intended to be real-time, one-man, one-vote democracy where we each are polled on our opinions on topics of the day.  The reasons for this, even our founding fathers in the 1700's knew.  They knew that we could be swayed buy events or propaganda or trends.  They knew that we, as a whole, could act like a mob and be stampeded in one direction or another, and regret it later on. They knew also that government should be a deliberative process, where people take the time to figure things out and not just rashly jump on some bandwagon and impulsively pass laws.

And as it turns out, it's a pretty well-designed little clockwork they made for us.  As we see today, president Trump struggles to get his legislative agenda through, as the proposals he is making are often not very well thought out.  We are discovering that legislation requires compromise and accommodation as well as contemplation.  While a President can make bold promises, Congress realizes they have to be reelected every two (or six) years and are more accountable to their voters.

It is a system that works pretty well, even with all its flaws.  Maybe it can't always spring into action on a moment's notice, but perhaps that is a good thing.  Radical change in any society is usually detrimental to the majority of members of that society.

The entire Brexit fiasco should be fair warning to the rest of the world.  Representative democracy is just that, democracy by representation, not by direct vote.  When you let people vote directly on law-making, the results you may later regret.