Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Plague Reaches EUObserver

Repeat after me: Not being able to win a referendum is not "undemocratic". The are many things that you'd never win a referendum on. Taxes. Piers Morgan. Quantum Physics. But that doesn't make any of these things undemocratic. Instead, we have democratically elected legislatures, the marketplace and scientific consensus to decide on these things instead, respectively. Can we please, please, please stop pandering to the electorate by pretending that referendums are the only form of true democracy, or even the best kind?

P.S. I should emphasise that the Ph.D. thesis by Jens Peter Paul that is discussed in this article does not suffer from the same problems, which is actually rather important given that it deals with the theory of democracy (and its practice). Without having read the whole thing, the statement of results (p. 248-252) seems to imply the following assumptions about a well-functioning democracy, which seem correct:
  1. In a healthy democracy, there is a (high-quality) public discourse about important decisions, in the form of newspaper articles, interviews in talkshows, etc.
  2. In a healthy democracy, members of the legislature do not feel obligated to rule out one or more alternatives.
  3. In a healthy democracy, parties position themselves in the debate based on their substantive preferences rather than power-seeking behaviour.
  4. In a democracy, election results can only be said to legitimate decisions taken in the previous legislative period to the extent that those decisions were prominent in the election campaign.
  5. -
  6. In a healthy democracy members of the legislature are not exposed to undue pressure.
Comparing these ideals to what actually happened, the qualification "undemocratic" might not be that far off the mark. However, that's not a conclusion you can draw based on what the article says, which focuses mainly on what Kohl said - being interviewed by the author of the thesis - about the unpopularity of the euro.

(Referendums don't play a prominent part at all in the thesis - the word on appears a handful of times in the main body. Funny how reporting on science works...)


Anonymous said...

I do not know if you can read German. If so have a look at the linked PhD thesis. Their main point is actually that the "democratically elected legislature" i.e. the Bundestag failed massively in the years running up to the introduction of the Euro. With few exceptions the issue was too complex for most MPs, there was not much interest, too much herd-like behavior, partial sidelining of the opponents for the sake of the greater good. The decision was made by the executive not by parliament.

martinned said...

@Anonymous: I can read German, but I'm afraid you forgot to include your link. (It didn't end up among the spam comments either, I checked.)

Anyway, that sounds quite plausible. I'm wondering, though, why any of that would be an argument for referendums, or for the legitimacy of a hypothetical referendum. Why is the result of a referendum with low turnout and voters who don't understand and don't care more legitimate than a decision that is essentially taken by the government, a body that is democratically legitimated through Bundestag elections?

(Remember, those elections are de facto Kanzler-elections, so that's not the problem. The Chancellor's decision making powers wouldn't have more legitimacy if she were directly elected, because essentially she is.)

Anonymous said...

The link is in the EUobserver article you've linked to. http://www.statement-television.de/app/download/5792929033/Bilanz+einer+gescheiterten+Kommunikation.pdf

martinned said...

Ah, thanks.

And I suppose those kinds of problems might make the decision "undemocratic", it's just that the article goes on and on about referendums, and how Kohl is saying he never could have won one.

The thesis actually looks interesting. I've added it to my stuff-yet-to-read list. Strange, though, that EUObserver say it was recently published, when it seems to have been completed in 2010.