Too Much Democracy?


The problems with a Direct Democracy

The state of California is in a lot of trouble right now.  Their financial budget is completely spent and their revenue is not enough to support all the programs and spending.  Although there are many different problems to blame for this, direct democracy is one of the main culprits of this problem.  A direct democracy is a form of government that directly asks the people to vote on policy initiatives, recalls and referendums.  Traditionally, the US is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic.  We elect our officials into office and trust their judgement to benefit the people in the best way they can.  However, many state governments, particularly in the west, have a combination of a representative democracy and a direct democracy.   Since the 1978, California has had an exponential rise in ballots of initiatives that have been open to the public to decide on.  Their government is becoming increasingly more of a direct democracy.

 

In 1911, California first implemented direct democracy and they had 2.3 million residents living there.  The idea of a direct democracy was more manageable at that time.  It was also used as a safety for when public officials proved to be corrupt or unresponsive to the citizens needs.  Presently, California is closing in on 37 million people, according to the 2010 census.   Also, the use of the direct democracy has changed since it was started in 1911.  In 1978, proposition 13 was the first time California used direct democracy for public policy that were not a last resort due to corruption or unresponsiveness from the government officials.  Now, many of the issues on the ballots are constitutional amendments, human rights, and other public policies.  37 million people making all of the decisions takes too much effort and is so complex that it is not a reasonable was to pass initiatives and referendums.  On the ballots, the public likes to vote in support of government programs and aid, and do not consider the costs that it would have on them.  They reject the initiatives to raise the taxes to support the funds for new programs, and this cycle just repeats over and over.  When the public doesn’t understand and accept all of the consequences of the initiatives, they should not be held responsible to make the decisions.  The idea of a direct democracy is great for small areas and can be proven to be the best way to productively create and pass laws.  However, in a state the size of California, this is too daunting of a task and it ultimately leads to a tyranny of the majority.

Do They Really Know What is Best for Themselves?

John Stuart Mills argues that people know best what they want and they should have a right to vote.  But when is it too much?  People don’t always know what is best for them and should depend on experts/ higher authority for better judgement on complex issues, such as economic reform.  In modern politics, this could be true for many examples.  I would not go so far to say that we should always adhere to everything that government officials decide, but generally, they are working in the best interest of the people and have the resources and knowledge to make the best decision. Current issues are very complex because we live in a very complex world of technology, economics, and industry that is more confusing than the common public fully understands.  Also, with the huge amount of initiatives that California has, few people have the time to sit down and study each initiative to fully understand each one.  Between the years 2000-2008, California had more than 60 initiatives that were sent to the ballots.

 (source: The Economist 12/09)

The majority of people are not going to think about the well-being of others and their interests.  They will serve their own self interest before they think of others.  John Stuart Mill strongly supports the public having a voice and a role in their government.  Mills believes the government must protect all individuals, even the minorities.   He also supports the public having a voice, but he would most likely argue that this amount of public power takes away the power and legitimacy of the government.

 

Tyranny by the Majority

With direct democracy, the majority wins every time.  The minorities have no influence on the policies because the decision was not representative of the population.  It is always what the majority wants.  It also undermines the representative democracy because they are discounting the rights of the minorities, thus eliminating the representative part of the democracy.  For example, in 2008, gay marriage went to the ballots for people to decide on it’s legality.  The majority decided that it was going to reject this, and although the courts had just previously allowed gay marriage, they had to respect the wishes of the voters and they banned gay marriage once again.  By allowing this law to be overturned by the public diminishes the legitimacy of the government.  They cannot stand up to the public and dictate laws.  They are trampled over by the public and they just let it happen.  A government needs to have the power to create laws that may not always be strongly supported, but are necessary.   Nobody wants taxes.  It would be great if we did not have to pay taxes to support the government, however, there are laws and we must obey them.  The freedom of speech is very important and is a core element of our government.  But letting the public choose their laws- rather than just expressing them to their representatives in government- takes freedom of speech to a whole new level.  They are the voice of the government.

The freedom of expression imposes a duty on individuals to test and improve their own beliefs.  The citizens of California must prove that they are responsible enough to make educated decisions, or let others help them make these decisions.  Otherwise, their government needs a reform so that the public officials have the final say.  It sounds very un-American to say that the public has too much of a voice in government, but I believe that it is sensible to give the final power to the government.  We  cannot rule ourselves.  It is a necessity that the government has legitimacy and the ability to enforce the laws that are reasonable and ultimately for the greater good.

What do you think?  Do you agree that too much democracy is bad?  If so, what changes can be made?  Or do you believe that taking away this power would take away the freedom of speech of the public? Comment below!

Advertisements

About lmaren

UM student, sophomore, harp performance major, political science minor.

View all posts by lmaren

Subscribe

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

4 Comments on “Too Much Democracy?”

  1. nluongo Says:

    I agree with you that this direct democracy can be problematic as a method of government. People who are uninformed will make policy decisions without fully realizing the consequences of those actions. However, I think that the system can be modified to make it more realistic. For example, you talk about things like government programs that people will vote for without considering the cost. The ballot system could be changed so that it tells people exactly how the government plans on paying for the program to give people more information to cast their vote on.

    In any case, this raises an interesting question of how much people should be able to govern themselves and how much they should leave it up to elected representatives. I think that, for the most part it should be left to officials, whose sole job it is to consider these complex issues. I also think that, as you mentioned, it should be possible for the people to take back control if they feel those elected persons no longer serve their best interests. So, as is usually the case, I think some mix of the two should exist.

  2. nasearc Says:

    I have lived in California since I can remember and my parents and other voting adults have always had the right to direct democracy. Although I do think that direct democracy can work, I don’t think it is working in California. For example, several years ago the people of California voted to have a high speed train stretching across the state (the long way). Since then tens of millions of dollars of California money has been put away for this project. Even though California public transportation isn’t the best and a train like this is needed in the state, there simply isn’t enough money. However because the people of the state voted for it, the money for the project cannot be used for anything else, like improving education or trying to decrease California’s massive debt. However, when referencing proposition 19 (regarding the legalization of marijuana) I think that direct democracy served its purpose and will serve its purpose.
    Although the legalization of marijuana did not pass in 2010, the polls were close and people were able to express their opinions. The results of the bill were 55% against the legalization of marijuana and 45% for the legalization. So this bill was almost passed, and it gave that 45% of Californians the opportunity to express the opinions that are underrepresented within the state government. For the most part I think that direct democracy is bad and can lead states and countries into an incredible amount of debt, however in some cases direct democracy can give underrepresented people a voice.

  3. erfreed3 Says:

    The application of direct democracy is fascinating in that it gives people direct say on how to spend public money. However, the question quickly becomes who is qualified in making those types of decisions? In the private sphere, people should obviously be able to spend money on what they want. Yet on a public level, it becomes trickier. Perhaps this is because not enough of the public is knowledgeable on public spending. In a way it’s much like a Catch-22. On one hand, with direct democracy the public is given the freedom to decide what the public wants. However, what the public wants is not necessarily the same as what the public needs. In California, it seems as if direct democracy has yet to work out and I have reason to believe that it will never work out. Plain and simple: direct democracy is too much freedom. The whole point in electing politicians to office is to have people to manage the affairs of the state. Why them rather then us? Because when we elect them, we recognize them as experts, and generally to be qualified for their position. I’d much rather put my faith into a person I can study than the general public, which may be misinformed on what the state needs. An elected person can decide what the state can afford to spend money on as well as what is the state’s priority. For this reason, I believe that direct democracy is bad. It allows people that are not experts to make decisions. In my opinion, if you are not an expert on how to manage the affairs of a state, you are not qualified to make a decision. That’s what voting is for: to give the public a voice through experts.

  4. mimirofl Says:

    Given the nature of American elections, the author makes a great argument. Most American’s have lives and don’t have the time to invest doing detailed research into contemporary political matters. Nor does the average American have the time, nor necessarily the ability, to engage in a candidate’s position on these matters. Thus, the result is that for the most part, most American’s are basically “voting blind”. They don’t really know for whom they are voting for or what policies they are supporting. It is always hard to find the balance between government and the people’s power because if we took this away, we would argue that it violates our rights but if we kept direct democracy, then some of the votes aren’t throughly thought out which might lead to bad changes. I think the winner-take-all system is something that should be reformed, because it is not competitive due to opponents being limited to the major parties.

%d bloggers like this: