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Source: (consider it) Thread: How Much Democracy is Too Much?
stonespring
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The title of this thread is provocative but most people would agree that having every citizen in a large country be able to propose legislation and having every citizen vote on every piece of legislation proposed would not only be impractical, it would lead to very unstable government and some very bad laws. As a child, I assumed the more democracy, the better but as an adult I understand the value of delegating most legislative decisions to elected representatives.

Brexit and the recent Turkish referendum are examples of the downsides of submitting very important decisions (especially when what is in fact a large number of decisions is bundled together in a single yes/no question) to the whole citizenry, many of whom might not understand the full consequences of what they are voting for. Does this mean that referendums in general are a bad idea? If referendums are ok, even recommended, in some circumstances, what are those circumstances?

What about citizen-initiated legislation? Switzerland and the US State of California are famous for initiatives that land their place on the ballot because enough people sign a petition. In California, there are quite a few of these and most people arguably do not read the large booklet sent to them explaining all the ballot initiatives - and even if they do, the explanations often only go so far to explain the full ramifications of voting yes or no on any given initiative, especially for the more obscure or complex ones. Is this example of direct democracy generally a bad idea? If there are cases when it is good or to be recommended, what are they?

Finally, what about limits on the power of majorities? I am not only talking about Constitutions, Bills of Rights, etc., that protect civil liberties but also more generally about provisions that require a supermajority vote of either the legislature or the populace in order to enact certain changes. An extreme example of this is the filibuster in the US Senate (while it lasts), that, in its current incarnation requires a 3/5 majority for most legislation (although the 3/5 majority needed to approve Presidential nominees is now effectively dead). Is there value in forcing the consultation of opposition parties (and thereby increasing the likelihood that minority interests are taken into account) whenever the party in power does not have an overwhelming majority (which is almost all the time)?

Another example is the Northern Ireland Assembly with its mandatory coalition of the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties, requirement of cross community support on certain types of votes, and petitions of concern that with 30 or more votes can make any bill require cross community support. Granted, this arose out of the particular circumstances of the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement, but are its infringements of majority rule a good thing that might be applied to other jurisdictions with less violent and fractious pasts (but not necessarily good for everywhere) or is it merely a necessary evil? The power-sharing requirements in Lebanon are another example, and many countries reserve legislative seats for ethnic and other minorities, even if that means that the minorities have disproportionate representation.

Term limits on how many times a person can be elected to a certain office are yet another example of limits on what a majority of citizens may want - which for the purposes of this thread I am calling "limits on democracy." Are these always bad, always good, or only good in certain cases (what are they)?

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Schroedinger's cat

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Is having elected representatives not democratic then? If they are fairly elected and all fairly heard - not like in the UK system - then it seems that the system is democratic, and works well.

Referenda are a really good idea given two caveats:

1. The population is used to them, and so understands the process and the implications.

2. They are not binding, but informative. Meaning that in the case of a close vote, this can be considered to be more ambivalent.

I am all for more democracy. But maybe I mean something different from you - I mean that my voice should be heard, either directly or indirectly, in the decisions that are made.

Currently, in the UK, my voice is not heard, and there is a growing sense of this, with the #NotInMyName hashtags and similar. I think it is a really dangerous thing to take the UK as an example of "democracy", when we are not.

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Martin60
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Bollocks.

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L'organist
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What is democracy?

We laud the ancient Greeks, the Athenians in particular, for being 'democratic' while ignoring the inconvenient fact that their cities only 'worked' because of slavery.

IMO the two things that could help democracy in the UK would be (1) to make voting compulsory, and (2) to give all ballot papers a "none of the above" option.

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Enoch
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quote:
Originally posted by L'organist:
What is democracy?

We laud the ancient Greeks, the Athenians in particular, for being 'democratic' while ignoring the inconvenient fact that their cities only 'worked' because of slavery.

IMO the two things that could help democracy in the UK would be (1) to make voting compulsory, and (2) to give all ballot papers a "none of the above" option.

Why? If 'none of the above' won, would the people just be unrepresented?


I'd like to vote in an election where my vote always had some effect on the result. No UK administration since the 1950s has had any real claim to legitimacy, and I don't agree with the argument some politicians put that First Past the Post forces the electorate to accept a binary party system, which therefore must be A GOOD THING. If that were the case, we'd have only two parties.

We haven't and except for the 20 or so years after 1945 that hasn't been the case since the late nineteenth century.

It's also regarding the electoral system as something that should rightfully be designed to suit the politicians. I don't agree with that either. I'd like an electoral system that produced an assembly that represented the electorate, even if the result also inconvenienced the politicos. Anything else is democratically defective.

That's why I favour the Irish system.

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anteater

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I see problems in representative democracy, and am not sure how far AV solves it. Referenda (if handled correctly) can help.

First, how do you avoid the cozy buggins-turn cartelisation that happened, for instance, in Venezuela? It is said that Greece also suffered from this and maybe the EU parliament (although the cozy arrangement there seems to be changing).

And related to that, is the difficulty of handling single issues - like EU membership. I often ponder why it is that if the UK genuinely wants out, UKIP was so unsuccessful in getting people elected? But not to the EU parliament.

I would answer that it is because they have to have a total package and this often doesn't convince, plus they are viewed as unlikely to succeed. It took the SNP years and years to morph from the party originally associated with all sorts of views from Nazi supporters to Communists, into a party not just united by a desire to kick the English (back) up the arse.

Greens also can't break through, but I could well believe that a referendum on a single issue Green policy - like Nuclear power, could come out in their favour.

And all you'd have to do IMO to take the aggro out of referenda is to make it a rule that if it is won, then it has to be reconfirmed after, say a year.

I bet lots of Americans wish they had France's two-step election for President. Really good idea, that is.

[ 27. April 2017, 11:09: Message edited by: anteater ]

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stonespring
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To clarify, I am strongly in favor of representative democracy and am not necessarily opposed to all referenda, ballot initiatives, and other examples of direct democracy. I am just trying to generate discussion on what kind of "limits," if any, on votes by either the legislature or the populace should exist in order to protect minority rights, encourage deliberation and consensus building, etc. For example, many people argued that Proposition 8 in California that banned same sex marriage (before the Supreme Court overturned all such bans) should not have been on the ballot because it involved taking away a right that had already been granted (not sure if I agree with this). Many people also oppose a plebiscite on same sex marriage in Australia, even if it would very likely result in passage and the legalization of SSM well before any election that might result in a government willing to hold a conscience vote on SSM that would pass in Parliament, because they worry that the campaign for a "no" vote waged by opponents of SSM would encourage animosity and/or violence against LGBT persons.

I'm open to accusations of elitism and also am open to hearing the ideas of those who strongly oppose any centralization of power in government and therefore think the only legitimate form of government is local direct democracy (many almost-anarchists feel this way).

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Alan Cresswell

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There are several issues raised that seem to me to fall into three categories.

1. Representative democracy

I think everyone agrees that this is a good thing, however the questions relate to how that works in practice.

One relates to the election of representatives. Do they genuinely represent their constituents? Under FPTP it's common to be elected on significantly less than 50% of the vote, and hence are not elected by even a majority of those who voted (much less the population of their patch). A system like AV should result in the election of someone closer to a consensus candidate who is broadly representative of the majority. But, even so in any constituency there will be a sizeable number of people who have radically different views from the majority - how are they represented? A proportional system reduces that problem, but at the cost of representatives covering larger regions with multiple members. Which IMO isn't a problem, but some people are deeply attached to a single MP for each patch of territory.

And, then once elected what do they do? Do they simply follow the party line, or are they free to act independently in response to the needs and desires of their constituency?

2. Referenda

My views have been made clear on this several times. But, I would say referenda mark the end of a process of Parliamentary scrutiny, not the start. The job of government and Parliament is to propose, debate, amend, debate, vote on, debate and amend legislation. Which should, of course, be done with public consultation so that the views of Parliament are not widely divergent from the people they represent - but not beholden to the general public either. In a few cases, especially of major consitutional importance, the result of this deliberation may be a detailed legislative act of Parliament that can be ratified (or rejected) in a referendum. In that case the proponent for the change should be the government, not the opposition or some cross-party coalition (though they may start the process in Parliament leading to the government adopting that position).

3. Popular initiatives.

As above, these shouldn't be referendum questions, though it may be acceptable to ask the public in a clearly non-binding information gathering exercise to aid Parliamentary discussion. There should be a mechanism to allow members of the public through petitions etc to introduce business into Parliament for discussion. Which may, in due course, result in legislation which would warrant ratification through a referendum.

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Sipech
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I just fear that western democracies may have crossed the threshold beyond where reasoned and informed decisions can be made on en masse. Instead, elections are decided by who can get their pithy slogans into the collective consciousness; slogans which either appeal to hope or to fear & prejudice. And at present, fear & prejudice seems to be a more potent force than hope.

On another note, I've wondered for some time if there is an inherent 'maximum population' for which democracy is an effective form of government. If we consider the great political theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Marx, Mill, etc. they all wrote when the governable population was far smaller than it is today. I confess this is only the embryo of an idea, but I wonder if it is developed whether it is true that beyond a given population size, the diversity of economic and social conditions, opinions, etc. make it impossible for a democratic government to govern effectively.

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no prophet's flag is set so...

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Why is it that only nutjobs want to lead? Frankly it looks like elections themselves are too much democrazy when billionaires can buy elections, distorting and outright lying. We have people without consciences, no knowledge of history and geography, and they are in charge. Surrounded by people who are ignorant of anything except how to exploit.

The people in charge enriched themselves while ruining their employees, investors and countries and who still feel as pure as saints, and when people complain, they lie, twist and distort and blame immigrants, brown people, Europe, Ruskies, Koreans. Without conscience.

So I'd say the trouble with democracy is both knowledge deficits/propaganda and no morality or ethics.

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Schroedinger's cat

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# 64

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quote:
Originally posted by Martin60:
Bollocks.

Yes, I recognise them. Now please take them off the table.

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Eutychus
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quote:
Originally posted by Sipech:
I just fear that western democracies may have crossed the threshold beyond where reasoned and informed decisions can be made on en masse.

This is my instinctive explanation for why Switzerland gets away with more referenda: it's smaller, less industrialised, etc.

I think another consideration is religion.

Northern European/Scandinavian countries tend to have an extremely democratic culture to the point that a strong national leader can almost be seen as bad form; countries with a stronger Catholic background tend to have more affinity for strong elites. As De Gaulle once famously put it, "how do you govern a nation which has over three hundred kinds of cheese?"

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Enoch
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quote:
Originally posted by Sipech:
I just fear that western democracies may have crossed the threshold beyond where reasoned and informed decisions can be made on en masse. Instead, elections are decided by who can get their pithy slogans into the collective consciousness; slogans which either appeal to hope or to fear & prejudice. And at present, fear & prejudice seems to be a more potent force than hope.

On another note, I've wondered for some time if there is an inherent 'maximum population' for which democracy is an effective form of government. If we consider the great political theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Marx, Mill, etc. they all wrote when the governable population was far smaller than it is today. I confess this is only the embryo of an idea, but I wonder if it is developed whether it is true that beyond a given population size, the diversity of economic and social conditions, opinions, etc. make it impossible for a democratic government to govern effectively.

I hope you're wrong, though I fear there may be something in what you say.

Isn't that one of the things subsidiarity is supposed to be about?

And that's another thing I detest our politicians for. They've never even looked at it as a concept, yet alone embraced it. And now their abominable rhetoric means they never will. It will become something like the French butter mountains.

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Eutychus
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quote:
Originally posted by Enoch:
It will become something like the French butter mountains.

I'm pretty sure they have disappeared (source).

Just another example of the complexity that is the modern world.

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Gramps49
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The problem with democracy, true or representative, is the rights of the minority are ignored.

That is one reason why there is a judiciary counterbalance in the US Constitution.

Is it perfect? Dred Scott will tell you no. Proven again and again (death penalty).

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sharkshooter

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quote:
Originally posted by Gramps49:
The problem with democracy, true or representative, is the rights of the minority are ignored.
...

As opposed to, for example, communism, where the rights of everyone are ignored.

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no prophet's flag is set so...

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# 15560

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quote:
Originally posted by Gramps49:
The problem with democracy, true or representative, is the rights of the minority are ignored.

We almost had a different democratic system in Canada until the Liberal gov't broke a campaign promise. Not sure that we would have got this one, but one that makes a lot of sense if worried about minorities is proportional representation, i.e., take 2% of the votes, get 2% of the seats in a legislature.
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lilBuddha
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quote:
Originally posted by Gramps49:
The problem with democracy, true or representative, is the rights of the minority are ignored.

That is one reason why there is a judiciary counterbalance in the US Constitution.

Is it perfect? Dred Scott will tell you no. Proven again and again (death penalty).

Democracy sucks, just less than other form of government.

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Marvin the Martian

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# 4360

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quote:
Originally posted by Sipech:
On another note, I've wondered for some time if there is an inherent 'maximum population' for which democracy is an effective form of government.

I think there definitely is, and that it's a lot smaller than many people think. I even suspect it may be smaller than the (current) UK.

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L'organist
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posted by Enoch
quote:
I'd like to vote in an election where my vote always had some effect on the result.

What you mean is that you'd like to vote in an election where your, personal, vote ends up being represented, and that cannot be, under any system, since there will always be a winner and a loser or losers in any election. Yes, it can be frustrating to live in a constituency where one's choice of party has no chance of being elected but that can't be helped. If you accept the principle of representatives having a constituency where there is some realistic chance of them getting to know, and being known by, the people they're meant to represent then there are bound to be people within that constituency who feel they have no point of agreement with the person or persons elected to represent the area - and that will be true whether FPTP, TV or AV is used.
quote:
No UK administration since the 1950s has had any real claim to legitimacy,

Not so. It may be that you disagree with the fact that it is possible for a national government to come to power without gaining more than 50% of the vote, but that doesn't mean that a government elected under FPTP lacks legitimacy.
quote:

... I don't agree with the argument some politicians put that First Past the Post forces the electorate to accept a binary party system, which therefore must be A GOOD THING. If that were the case, we'd have only two parties.


Quite so, but FPTP can result in a situation where a smaller party polls million of votes but gets no seats - the classic examples of this being Liberals for much of the 1970s and 80s and UKIP in the last general election.

Everyone speaks of the results of elections (2015 in particular) as showing how 'rigged' the system is against the LibDems, but the real scandal of 2015 can be seen in the very different results of the SNP and UKIP: for its 1,454,436 votes the SNP were rewarded with 56 seats, while UKIP polled 3,881,099 votes for just 1 seat. Like it or not, the people with most justification for feeling agrieved at the last election result were the 'kippers.

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Rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet

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Marvin the Martian

Interplanetary
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On the wider subject, I think it depends on whether democracy means:

  1. The people should get whatever government they want, whether or not it would actually work.
  2. The people should have the right to choose between two or more proposed governments that would work, whether or not they actually want any of them.

Thus far, most representational democracies - especially those with written constitutions - have effectively been (2), but the rise of populist movements across the world, from the Arab Spring via Brexit to Trump, is pushing the concept of democracy ever further towards (1). Which raises some questions:

  • Can a democracy protect the people from their own bad choices?
  • Should a democracy protect the people from the consequences of their bad choices?
  • Does the concept of democracy in fact require that the people have the right to make bad choices if they want to?
  • Is it more important to have a democratic government that doesn't work or a non-democratic one that does?
  • What is more important: the policies by which the government governs, or the process by which those policies are agreed?

With Brexit, Trump, the prospect of an increased Tory majority in June, the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France and so on, I have observed more and more people saying that if the people are going to keep electing populist right-wing demagogues who will fuck everything up then they're too stupid (amongst other things) to be allowed a choice about who governs them. There was even an article in the I yesterday saying that the current Tory majority in the polls is tantamount to a dictatorship, as if them having such a level of popularity with the electorate is a bad thing. It would be ironic to say the least if the fear of a right-wing 'dictatorship of the majority' led those who fear it to create a left-wing 'dictatorship of the minority' instead.

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Enoch
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# 14322

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I'd like to believe that giving people a genuine responsibility to decide their own fate, manage their own affairs as far as possible, would be its own encouragement to their behaving prudently. It's most of the time denying this, that means that they aren't used to it and when given the chance to do something stupid, then they take it.

Of course I may just being Panglossianly optimistic, but I hope not.

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