On representative democracy

11.19.10

The other day, a conversation thread on Facebook about the online petition demanding Jean Charest’s resignation turned into a friendly debate/discussion about Quebec politics. The comments posted by a number of people were interesting and varied, and at one point, the discussion became about the accountability of politicians to the people they serve, and the nature of democracy, kicked off by the following comment by Phil:

My Quebec resembles the Swiss or Swedish kind of socialism way with shelter and food as a basic human rights, one where large decisions are made in a perpetual referendum where everyone vote and gets a say in where tax money goes. Out with representatives and in with True democracy.

Alexandre expanded on the thought in a follow-up comment:

The democracy you describe is strangely similar to the one I have in mind, one where each issue debated at the political level needs to be voted on by mini-referendums (by computer votes, secured, etc.). Ultimately, we could downsize the government significantly and use that kind of system to steer all the debates. Do you want an investigation on the construction industry: Yes, No… Political parties would then have 1 month on big issue and 2 weeks on smaller issues to inform, convince and steer the population to vote and then the vote would be held and the PEOPLE would chose the outcome, totally oblivious to any party in power at the moment, with no veto, no muzzling, just the people choosing their way. That would be true democracy.

I’ve heard these arguments before. They’re the basis for the anti-Charest petition, and, in fact, are at the heart of the political system itself. How much of an obligation do politicians have to vote according to the mood of their constituents? How far can – or should – they go in using opinion polls as a basis to govern? And at what point do they no longer represent the people who put them in office, by ignoring them too much?

We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a representative democracy. That means, we vote every once in a while for people to represent us and make the decisions of governing on our behalf. If we don’t like their decisions, we can vote them out of office. But we don’t put every decision to a direct vote, and I don’t think we realistically could, or even should.

A pure democracy would be impractical. It would get bogged down with the logistics of endless votes. It would cause a self-selection bias with low turnout and only the fringe minority casting ballots. It would force people to make decisions on issues that they know little or nothing about, because – unlike politicians – they have day jobs and can’t possibly keep up with every issue that elected officials and their paid staff spend time on.

And, more importantly, a pure democracy would be irresponsible, even if we could implement it practically. Why? Because a majority-rules only system has no built-in protections for minorities. “Do you want an investigation into the construction industry?” seems like a fairly straightforward question – if the population wants it, do it; if not, don’t.  But what about other questions, like, “Should people have to prove that they can speak French before being allowed to vote?” A 2007 CROP poll showed majority support for the idea, which went much further than even the Marois-proposed legislation at the time. How about, “should people be allowed to wear a hijab in the workplace?” Do we take France’s example and strip the rights of religious minorities, just on the majority’s say-so?

And hey, just look at what happened when the Habs started letting people vote on the three stars of the game. Agree or disagree with the old star rankings, at least they were usually reflective of the game itself, and players from the opposing team would earn stars if their performance merited it. Now, with Price getting top star virtually every game, it’s turned into a joke. Good thing it means next to nothing. But now imagine a similar system in place for things that actually matter.

Governing is already largely about a popularity contest. If governments stray too far from what the people want, they pay the price on election day. It’s why they already rely so heavily on polling data and public opinion in order to govern. But to take it a step further and assume that all significant decisions should be taken to a vote would be to make matters all that much worse.

No, I’m not in favour of the nanny-state approach or the “father knows best” idea of governing. I don’t think our politicians know best. I think we need lots of scrutiny and checks and balances to avoid letting them do whatever they want.

But I also think that decisions sometimes need to be made that aren’t just reflective of what the mood of the people is on a particular day. Sometimes, people with a little bit of inside or expert knowledge about a situation are better qualified to make the kinds of day-to-day decisions that it takes to run a government.

And that’s why a pure democracy wouldn’t work, and a representative democracy – to borrow an old, tired, Churchill-ism, is the worst system, except for all the other ones we’ve tried.

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