16 January 2009

Why I Don't Like Referenda

In my comments on the Manchester Referendum, I said I wasn't a fan of the use of referenda, so I thought I should explain why. The idea of each citizen having a direct and equal say on each public policy decisions is perfectly reasonable, but the practicalities lead me to believe that's an inferior option to representative democracy. The one possible exception to that would be major constitutional matters, as the danger of allowing politicians to control the extent of their power could outweigh the problems associated with referenda.

The main objections I have to referenda are:

- They lead to ill-considered decisions. One of the reasons for having representative democracy is to ensure that the people making the decisions have the time and resources to study the issues and make informed decisions. Of course, it doesn't guarantee they will, but the chances are much better than if the whole population has to make the decision, as many won't have the time or desire to study the issues and the large number of voters makes rational ignorance much more of an problem.

- They can produce contradictory results. For example you could ask the electorate "Do you want to pay less tax?" and "Do you want to see significantly more money spent on public services?" in simultaneous referenda. I think there is a reasonable chance that both could result in the majority saying "yes," which would create a near impossible situation for the government. If the referenda were binding, the only obvious options would be to increase borrowing or inflate the money supply in order to meet both obligations.

- They reduce democratic accountability. At present, if the government follows a course of action and it fails, the responsibility lies with the government. If some of the decisions were to be made by referendum, the government could always claim that decisions made in referenda caused the problems, rather than their own decisions.

If there is a genuine need to take certain decisions out of the hands of politicians and put them back into the hands of the electorate, using some kind of jury system seems like a superior approach to me, as it would resolve the first issue. It is that kind of jury system which I'd like to see used as a replacement for the House of Lords, but I'll talk about that in a separate posting.


AntiCitizenOne said...

> They lead to ill-considered decisions.

Our current MPs system doesn't seem to stop this either. At least in a referenda the people voting are the people affected. MPs give themselves special exemptions.

Paul Lockett said...

I'd view that as a separate issue which isn't necessarily due to a lack of understanding. The problem there is that MPs have bad incentives for decision making and too much freedom to create unequal laws.

The two things which I think could do most to rectify that are a written constitution guaranteeing that laws must be applied equally to all and an absolute right of veto in an upper house operating on the basis of random selection.