Wednesday, July 04, 2007

On referendums


Here's a few things I posted on various blogs recently:


@Robin: By "sides", I meant the UK and the rest of the EU.


As for the voting system, and other Westminster traditions, I must say I rather like them. Presumably, things could be arranged more efficiently, but if we always did things in the most efficient manner possible, life would be very boring...

Speaking of efficiency: it is hardly for reasons of efficiency that I described the continuing involvement of the UK in the EU as inevitable. In politics, many things happen on a daily basis that are inefficient, no matter which version of efficiency you apply. I think that for the UK, when push comes to shove, EU membership is still less unattractive than any alternative. And, given that they can't very well leave, they will from time to time be stuck negotiating about Treaty reform.

As for the Euro, as an economist I have to say that Gordon Brown's four tests make more economic sense than the provisions of the Treaty on this point. However, like much of my glorious "science" they are so vague that they can be used to argue towards any outcome that seems desireable. My personal prediction is that the UK will keep the pound for the foreseeable future, until, by some unpredictable mishap, it starts to lag significantly behind the world's three biggest currencies. (Dollar, Euro and Yen) At the moment, it is already number four, but it is still sufficiently important that the City doesn't need to work in Euros. But if the pound's position should decay, a transition to Euro would be in the advantage of the London financial market, not to mention that there would be less prestige involved in such circumstances.
Posted by martinned on juni 19, 2007 at 05:00 PM CEST

At 12:13 PM on 22 Jun 2007, martinned wrote:

I am getting increasingly annoyed with the recent fad of having referendums about everything and anything. Referendums have long been a part of the constitutional system of Switzerland, but they don't fit in parliamentary systems like the Netherlands (my country) or the UK. There is nothing elitist about this position. The point is succinctly summed up by the quote from Burke that I posted somewhere on this blog last week, but also by several of the Federalist papers:

The government of a country is an extremely complex problem. Even something relatively simple as a Constitution for Europe is still so complex that the most heard complaint in the Dutch referendum was that they voted no because the thing was too complicated, and the government didn't explain it properly. Because the government of a country is so difficult, we elect some of the brightest from our midst to work on it full time; government is no sport for amateurs. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but parliament should not delegate its responsibilities to the (rationally ignorant) population.


I'd like to note, for the record, that I am generally against referendums, even if I approve of the likely outcome. My being a Europhile has nothing to do with it. In fact, in my latter capacity I am quite pleased with the kind of public discussion the last referendums stirred up.
Posted by martinned on juni 26, 2007 at 12:19 AM CEST


@Marcel: If one could truthfully say that European citizens really "want" anything with regards to the EU, then there would be no excuse for not having a referendum. That is what the idea of direct democracy is based on: the idea that everyone is as smart as the speaker, or at least smart enough to form something resembling a rational opinion on the issue at hand. (Leaving aside such nuggets as rational ignorance for now.)

The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people don't have any such opinion. What they have is prejudice, bigotry, and stock phrases they heard on TV. In such circumstance, the challenge is to design a democratic system that does justice to people's right of self-determination, which requires a clear mandate for government action, and the need of protecting people against the consequences of their (rational) ignorance. That is why we have delegated decision making, where the people elect representatives, who carefully study the problems the country is faced with, and take their decision. That system is the result of a careful weighing of factors, and should not be thrown aside simply because an (increasing number of) populist politicians are using referendums as a cheap way to win support and get rid of some proposals they don't like at the same time.

Just like UKIP in the UK, looking at the parties over here (NL) that have been demanding a referendum, it's parties cynicism. The parties have been asking for a referendum are the creepy populists on the left and the right, as well as the party (the SP) that wants to get rid of the treaty alltogether. Just today, all that pressure has forced the center-left PvdA party, who have been under pressure from the more populist left-wing SP, to declare in favour of a referendum as well. It's all cynicism.
Posted by martinned on juni 26, 2007 at 06:24 PM CEST


@Anon. I emphatically deny that I have cast all Eurosceptics as "bigot, predjudiced, and you attempt to paint anyone who does not share your view as, others do of a like mind to you, as many things. Nationalists, fascist right wingers, little Englanders, whatever.." If I gave you that impression, I apologise.

Rather, I meant to use such terms to describe how the majority of people, generally, get their opinions other than by rational decision making. This is not me calling everyone else dumb, but rather the consequence of rational ignorance; most issues the government are faced with are fantastically complicated, so non-politicians, including myself, simply do not have the time to carefully consider them. (Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that politicians do carefully consider the issues.)

There are reasonable argument in favour and against this treaty, but that does not mean that we should hold a referendum about it.

@Marcel: Don't we usually assume that bureaucrats and politicans try to accumulate as much power as possible? So why would they be so eagre to give competences away?

Finally, I would like to not that in my country there is no legal basis for holding a referendum. Our constitution does not mention such an instrument, and there is no legal procedure for deciding whether one should be held, other than the possibility that the States-General, ie. parliament, can pass a one-time law to that effect. But even then, they can go no further than to "consult" the public, because the constitution allows for no other method of ratification than a parliament vote, and parliament votes are required to be "free of outside pressure".
Posted by martinned on juni 27, 2007 at 03:22 PM CEST

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