When you think about it, democracy is really the tyranny of the majority. It is where the majority gets to impose it’s will on the minority, regardless of what is right or proper. This was made obvious to me in 1999 when Labour campaigned on introducing extra taxes for the “rich” (ostensibly to improve health), knowing that the majority would support this. Essentially, the majority voted to take another $3000 a year out of my pocket. Now the number of people in that tax bracket has tripled and it is getting harder for governments to turn that clock back.
Least you think I may have sour grapes about this, I am actually quite philosophical about it – it is the price you pay for living in a democratic country. And there is no doubt that living in a democratic country is infinitely preferable to anything else on offer. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said ” Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others”.
What brings on my philosophical musings on democracy is the “March for Democracy” that took place in Auckland yesterday. I will skip the re-ignition of the debate on smacking except to note that I get VERY tired of the “misleading question” complaint. Matt McCarten is complaining how the referendum question was really a version of “who’s against responsible parenthood and warm apple pie?”. He would have liked the question to run as:
““Do you support allowing anyone who happens to become a parent the unfettered right to give the baby or the child the bash whenever they feel it’s appropriate and requiring that everyone else mind their own business?””
I have seen this re-wording ploy an absurd number of times. Apparently it seems to escape most people’s attention that the re-worded versions are generally far more manipulative than the original referendum question. All of them are worded in the most pejorative and biased way possible.
One of the nice things about democracy is that we all get to voice our opinions, but some of us need to remember that democracy means that the majority rules. Which brings me to the referendum.
As I have pointed out Democracy is the tyranny of the majority. The main thing that stops democracy disintegrating into simple mob-rule, is that we limit the power of the majority to one vote every three years. Sure, the wise politician (are there any?) will keep an eye on the feelings of the majority during his/her tenure, but there is really only one vote that counts. This is where binding referenda step onto dangerous ground. It is not so much that the questions can be manipulated, or that the process can be hi-jacked by lobby groups, as the editor of the Sunday Herald posits. After all parliament manipulates words and is infested by lobbyists. No. The real problem is that such a direct democracy is entirely directionless and self-interested. The editor of the Herald points to the perilous example of California:
“Binding referendums would simply magnify the potential for damage to good governance. Administrations trying to develop coherent public policy could easily have their hands tied by pre-emptive plebiscites. That’s what’s happened in California, where three decades of tax revolt, starting with the infamous Proposition 13 in 1978, have brought the state to the brink of bankruptcy. As the Economist has noted, it has “launched an entire industry of signature-gatherers and marketing strategists [who] circumscribe what representatives can do by deciding many policies directly”.”
Direct democracy cannot, by definition, have a vision or direction behind it’s strategy. It is entirely focussed on a single issue all the time. For this reason, the law of unintended consequences is particularly vicious in this regard. Worse still, most people have little or no idea of the realities of economics and often fail to use even a modicum of common sense. In California. the people kept reducing taxes while insisting on the same level of funding activity from government – bankruptcy is an inevitability in this situation. It is not that the man in the street is especially dumb; just that the tight focus of a referendum makes it harder to see the consequences without stepping back and looking at the wider picture – and who bothers to do that?
Matt McCarten voices his support for binding referenda and then proceeds to illustrate just why we should fear them:
“My dilemma and vested interest is that my union, Unite, is sponsoring a citizen-initiated referendum to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and then in steps to 66 per cent of the average wage. If enough New Zealanders sign our petition, I like the fact the Government then has to send a voting paper to the nearly three million registered voters asking if they support the minimum wage for workers going up. I’d be delighted if we won the vote: Parliament would be required to pass a law raising the minimum wage.”
Sadly, Matt cannot see the disastrous unemployment rate that would be precipitated by such a policy. Scarily, it is easy to envisage that such a referendum might easily attract a majority vote, guaranteeing New Zealand a similar future to California’s.
There are many other ways of providing participatory democracy in a system of triennial voting. Lobby groups are an obvious one. Binding referenda initiated by the government (such as the one on MMP) are another. Perhaps the simplest way of deactivating the smacking debate is by holding a binding referendum on the repeal of section 59 itself. Or offering a yes/no question on the Burrows amendment.
My personal favorite is to allow private citizens to add to the member’s bills (you would have to ensure each bill met strict criteria of format and possibly require an attached petition to discourage the crazies). Giving politicians something more concrete that a “we want this” has got to be more likely to evoke a reasonable response, rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Private citizen bills would also be considerably less threatening than binding referenda.
Democracy is not mob rule. But it is a tyranny and, as such, must be used with a great deal of care. There have to be limits to the voice of the people, least the voice overwhelm good reason. But let it not be that the voice of the people is only heard once every three years. Because that is also a tyranny. And not one we can tolerate.