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Is referendum a good way to take decisions

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Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by CSE » March 25th, 2019, 11:54 am

In the discussion about the Brexit, Teralek posted the follwing comment:
Teralek wrote:
March 20th, 2019, 6:23 am
[...]
In principle I don't agree with enforcing permanent and deep changes on a country based on simple majorities. The public has whims, a close vote today might have a completely different outcome in 2 months. This isn't like voting for PM where you can change your mind every 4 years, this will have a lasting impact for generations. A decision as such put on referendum should only pass with 2/3 majority. I don't even agree to put such a thing on referendum, some things should be left for the experts. Most of us, me included, aren't experts in economy or even on how to run a country.

To put in referendum the UK membership of the EU, with all the caveats included, such as membership of the single market, is like me putting on public referendum my doctor's diagnostic and prescription... silly.
[...]
As a Swiss citizen, I am used to have almost every topic decided by a vote, so of course, I have problems to agree that we should let difficult/complex decisions to experts:
  • Who selects the experts? In most topics, I can find an expert that will support any possible decision.
  • Being a (scientific) expert does not remove personal opinions and even if the expertise would be generally accepted, this does not yet guarentee that the expert will push the optimal solution for the country (but perhaps for himself)...
  • Perhaps the correct decision is not the "optimal" option of experts - because you have to take into account the acceptability and nobody is forced to be objective anyway (I prefer eating choclate, even if I should eat less sweet. It is my life!)
At the end, delegating power is what representative democracy is all about - then we should decide that all decisions are parlementary (and let them consult whatever experts) and remove referendum rights; this is sort of the normal situation in most democracies worldwide anyway (how often do British people actually vote on a referendum?). This is a legitimate option (possibly adding a referendum of non-confidence forcing re-elections of the parlement), but in the case of Brexit, or of Maastricht in France, this was exactly rejected in favor of a referendum in order to have a broader acceptance... so the delegation seem to actually exactly fail in the most complex and fatefull topics...

Assuming that a referendum is legitimate, it does indeed has weaknesses:
  • Decisions close to 50/50 are unduly influenced by the mood of the moment and leave the country devided.
  • In a society with the attention span of a Tweet, complex topics are difficult to sell - so simple (simplistic) solutions have a higher chance to win, even if they are not even functioning.
  • It bears the risk of dictature of the majority; I live in Switzerland, from the french-speaking minority. In theory there could have a vote where ca. 75% of the (German speaking) voters decide that School must be held in German.
Some elements allow to correct mostly the last danger (dictature of majority), as example:
  • A culture of concordence (still quite strong in Switzerland), helps bringing to vote mostly propositions that are somewhat broadly acceptable and have not a part of the country (geographically, culturally) that absolutely cannot tolerate it. Some party try to ignore it, but mostly loose as the people are all aware that they may be the next "minority".
  • Federalism: by keeping decision at the lowest possible level, a local community can decide without impacting the neighboring communities
But there is a tendancy that with time: emotions and "tweet"-level deepness of thought is influencing more and more the outcome of referendums. In Switzerland, it is seen by the more frequent adoption in referendum of texts that are not legally sound, for example (I can give examples if requested) and that need to be "hoehorned" into acceptable legal structure before coming into force if we want to keep the core of the system (incl. foreign agreements, human rights) intact. This also happen in elections, by the way, as I cannot explain differently a Trump.

So finally my question:
Are referendum still the ultimate democratical way to get a broad decision for important topics, or do the dangers of emotional moods make it dangerous and it should be eliminated, or significantly modified?
Is it even compatible with democratic rights to forbid referendums? Is democracy actually always the decision of majority, or are there other ways to define it?

Finally: while I like the idea of "such referendums" needing a majority of 2/3... who decides that a referendum is "such"? Then it should be the rule for any referendum, with always "change" requirering 2/3? This will be difficult to keep society moving with such hurdles...
But perhaps a law saying that any result less than 55% must be revoted after 3 months may be interesting.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Alias » March 27th, 2019, 1:29 am

Are referendum still the ultimate democratical way to get a broad decision for important topics, or do the dangers of emotional moods make it dangerous and it should be eliminated, or significantly modified?
Not ultimate, obviously. The efficacy of a referendum depends on how well the populace has been informed and how the question is phrased. (Consider the Brexit debacle - severely deficient on both counts.)
Elections are also emotional, moody, manipulable and poorly informed.
Democracy is a fragile thing, easily harmed, and politics are open to many abuses.
There is no perfect system; you can only do the best you can do.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Steve3007 » March 27th, 2019, 7:03 am

The famous 18th Century Conservative political thinker, Edmund Burke, opined:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

I think this goes to the heart of a lot of what is wrong with the use of referenda, using a simple majority and a one-time vote, to make large political decisions with permanent consequences. That's why, in a representative democracy, we generally vote for people not issues, and it's why we get to vote again every few years. Obviously there are also many downsides to this, some obvious ones being that personalities and appearances can take on undue importance and there's a tendency for continual swings back and forth in policy where each government sets about undoing the actions of the previous one.

But I think the OP goes a long way in illustrating why these downsides of the election of representatives are not generally as bad as the downsides of government by plebiscite.

---

This is an interesting idea:
CSE wrote:But perhaps a law saying that any result less than 55% must be revoted after 3 months may be interesting.
It looks like, potentially, a reasonable compromise between requiring a 2/3 majority (which, as CSE points out, is a very high bar to clear) and not directly asking the people at all. It at least partially solves the problem that a single referendum is a snapshot of public opinion at one particular moment, swayed by various possibly dubious arguments and claims. If the vote is close (as it was for the Brexit referendum) this can result in massive, permanent decisions being made on something that is hardly any better than the toss of a coin.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Steve3007 » March 27th, 2019, 7:22 am

CSE wrote:Who selects the experts? In most topics, I can find an expert that will support any possible decision.
I think this paints an unnecessarily bleak picture of the concept of an expert or specialist in a field. If it were true, and if you were to conclude that all those different experts' views should be given equal weight, then it would not be possible to asses the validity of any non-trivial factual claim on any subject. It's not as bad as that. Although clearly the general problem of assessing the evidence of expert witnesses is a real one.

In a representative democracy, theoretically, our political representatives are the experts in policy-making to whose judgement we defer, in the same sense that a doctor is an expert in medicine to whose judgement we defer on that subject. But doctors have to pass medical exams. I wonder, should we require our political representatives to have to do something analogous to that?

And if we decide to dispense with representatives and represent ourselves, should we be required to be schooled in policy-making?

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by CSE » March 27th, 2019, 10:07 am

Thanks for your answers!
Alias wrote:
March 27th, 2019, 1:29 am
Are referendum still the ultimate democratical way to get a broad decision for important topics, or do the dangers of emotional moods make it dangerous and it should be eliminated, or significantly modified?
Not ultimate, obviously. The efficacy of a referendum depends on how well the populace has been informed and how the question is phrased. (Consider the Brexit debacle - severely deficient on both counts.)
[...]
There is no perfect system; you can only do the best you can do.
Yes, I understand - let me perhaps reformulate the question.

Assume a fundamental decision to be taken, that cannot be easily reverted and will engage the country's future for a long time with deep impact.
In democracy, the "people" fundamentally should decide (directly or indirectly). The result of the last election (in representative systems) may not be representative of this fundamental question (other issues where also present in the public mind at that time, the opinion evolved since then...). And the next election is too late to really correct the (by hypothesis) hard to reverse decision.

Is the referendum not really the only undisputable way to know the opinion (of course, at this point of time and with the specific phrased question) of the people?

Steve3007 wrote:
March 27th, 2019, 7:03 am
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

I think this goes to the heart of a lot of what is wrong with the use of referenda, using a simple majority and a one-time vote, to make large political decisions with permanent consequences. That's why, in a representative democracy, we generally vote for people not issues, and it's why we get to vote again every few years. Obviously there are also many downsides to this, some obvious ones being that personalities and appearances can take on undue importance and there's a tendency for continual swings back and forth in policy where each government sets about undoing the actions of the previous one.
[...]
While I can follow the ideal (I elect somebody I trust to make the right decision), I strongly doubt that I will find people to trust enough to make the right decision in every field of the political debate. Worse: I doubt that if I find such a person, she will be elected (she probably won't even be candidate! In most big party machineries, the ones that finally get to be candidate are the ones that can play with the system and not displease most people, which is not the same as representing them best).
So we do have two systems - direct and representative - that both have downsides.

Hence my question: is finally the referendum not the most honest way to let the people decide when there is a specific question?

Would we need to change how referendums are conducted to conteract the present impact of emotions / tweet-level thinking, e.g. by repeating big questions a few time and get several snapshots when no clear majority emerges?

Steve3007 wrote:
March 27th, 2019, 7:22 am
[...] if you were to conclude that all those different experts' views should be given equal weight, then it would not be possible to asses the validity of any non-trivial factual claim on any subject. It's not as bad as that.
[...]
Not equal weight? You push back the question to who decides the weights... the one who decide the weighting decides the outcome.
Of course you can try having "objective" criteria, but in my experience in complex questions (e.g. Brexit) there are genuine experts on both sides with solid and rational arguments. If there was a clear "best" policy, we would not have this discussion but try to find it.
The problem is that almost always, there is no "best". There are compromise or options to be chosen, and what is better is a subjective opinion reflecting your values.

Assume Brexit will be tough for the economy. I doubt it will make people hungry, just a bit less rich. Perhaps being you own master and keeping your identity (or whatever the proponents had as argument) is worth being a bit less rich for some people.
[Warning: this is an example, please do not start a Brexit debate here, there is the other thread!]

Steve3007 wrote:
March 27th, 2019, 7:22 am
In a representative democracy, theoretically, our political representatives are the experts in policy-making to whose judgement we defer, in the same sense that a doctor is an expert in medicine to whose judgement we defer on that subject. But doctors have to pass medical exams. I wonder, should we require our political representatives to have to do something analogous to that?

And if we decide to dispense with representatives and represent ourselves, should we be required to be schooled in policy-making?
Another good question (note that "politics" is an obligatory topic in our obligatory school here - does not cover all the policy-making issues, though).
It is finally the question if democracy as we understand it is the right system (one person, one vote) or if at the end there should be conditions to be allowed to vote (in history, you had these; starting with genre (male only), or economics (need to be landowner) and so on). What would be the criteria? Education? This is a slippery slope, and certainly worth its own debate!

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Alias » March 28th, 2019, 11:27 pm

CSE -- Assume a fundamental decision to be taken, that cannot be easily reverted and will engage the country's future for a long time with deep impact.
In democracy, the "people" fundamentally should decide (directly or indirectly). The result of the last election (in representative systems) may not be representative of this fundamental question (other issues where also present in the public mind at that time, the opinion evolved since then...). And the next election is too late to really correct the (by hypothesis) hard to reverse decision.

Is the referendum not really the only undisputable way to know the opinion (of course, at this point of time and with the specific phrased question) of the people?
It does seem the most accessible. And that's no problem, as long as you keep the people accurately and currently informed along the way.
Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens.
But I don't see twitter as a reasonable alternative.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by CSE » March 29th, 2019, 9:30 am

Alias wrote:
March 28th, 2019, 11:27 pm
It does seem the most accessible. And that's no problem, as long as you keep the people accurately and currently informed along the way.
Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens.
But I don't see twitter as a reasonable alternative.
This is exactly the aim of the discussion.
We agree that normally, people is not accurately and currently informed. But that this is required for referendum-type decision. And that we do not see an obvious replacement for said referendums.

The lack of information is not due to the fact that it is impossible to inform itself, but that it requires effort (and some conpetence). It seems that at the time of Tweeter and push news on your mobile, the people on average does not want to spend the effort and/or has not the competence.
This has somewhat changed from the past: at least here, in the past (10-20 years ago are enough), you had well structured media landscape. While you had media from different opinions (and of course some low quality scandal papers, but known as such), the major players were trying to remain somewhat neutral (so to split opnion and facts, in a sense, to do what journalism is all about). In particular the national TV chanel made quite a good job of it (meaning every side complained it was favoring the other). Now that news and info is a free commodity, it is exactly worth its price.... thus a significantly higher effort and awareness is required to be informed correctly compared to the past (where most families at least looked at the news on a somewhat serious TV).

If we agree on this, how to keep referendum a viable alternative which does not become dominated by fake news and emotions?

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Mark1955 » March 29th, 2019, 1:56 pm

Steve3007 wrote:
March 27th, 2019, 7:03 am
The famous 18th Century Conservative political thinker, Edmund Burke, opined:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
This is the biggest bit of self satisfied BS that any politician or political commentator has ever come out with. The patrician attitude that I the voter am just there to select between one of a few of the 'right sort of people' who will then run the country for me. It is how a lot of MPs think democracy works, which is why they are so upset about the Brexit vote; we the plebs got above oursleves and voted the wrong way. They are currently trying to 're-educate ' us. The only reason a lot of referenda is a bad idea is that it requires the political types to explain things to the ordinary people. The problem with this is that are rather a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' hanging around in politics that they woudl struggle to explain at all.
If you think you know the answer you probably don't understand the question.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Alias » March 30th, 2019, 1:15 am

CSE wrote:
March 29th, 2019, 9:30 am
The lack of information is not due to the fact that it is impossible to inform itself, but that it requires effort (and some conpetence). It seems that at the time of Tweeter and push news on your mobile, the people on average does not want to spend the effort and/or has not the competence.
They shouldn't have to. Access to information - clear, concise, fair and accurate information - ought to be a right of every citizen who is charged with the responsibility of democratic decision-making and the burden of supporting a social structure with their work, their taxes, their patriotism and their willingness to take up arms. Much is already asked of them; something this basic should be given to them.
There is no way - no way - that democracy can possibly work without an impartial source of information. This is why freedom of the press is a vital and fundamental tenet of constitutional governance. But political freedom is not enough: the press also needs to be independent of religious and economic influence.
If we agree on this, how to keep referendum a viable alternative which does not become dominated by fake news and emotions?
Public television and radio, with assured, arms-length public funding and no commercial or ideological pressure. Make that independent funding sufficiently generous to allow quality programming and excellent journalism. There is no shortage of TV producers and news-paper and -magazine editors who want to provide this service; there is only a shortage of opportunity for them to do so.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by LuckyR » March 31st, 2019, 2:25 am

Simple questions (that can be asked and answered comprehensively with a yes or no answer) are perfect for referenda. OTOH complex problems (such as policy decisions) are best answered in a debate/committee format and lend themselves better to a legislative process.

What topping to put on the pizza vs the contents of the Affordable Care Act would be two examples.
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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Alias » March 31st, 2019, 9:19 am

Yes, but far too often, very complex issues are presented in the form of a Y/N question. The people being asked such deceptively simple questions have insufficient, inadequate or inaccurate information - sometimes deliberate misinformation - on which to base to base their answer.
Should the international law enforcement community crack down on terrorism?
Should the US enact protective tariffs?
Should Britain Leave the European Union?

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by LuckyR » April 1st, 2019, 2:49 am

Alias wrote:
March 31st, 2019, 9:19 am
Yes, but far too often, very complex issues are presented in the form of a Y/N question. The people being asked such deceptively simple questions have insufficient, inadequate or inaccurate information - sometimes deliberate misinformation - on which to base to base their answer.
Should the international law enforcement community crack down on terrorism?
Should the US enact protective tariffs?
Should Britain Leave the European Union?
Excellent examples as to why my post is correct
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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Alias » April 2nd, 2019, 12:12 am

Of course it is.
But when the electoral process is as **** up as is in most 'democratic' nations today, legislative committees don't necessarily - well, in fact, rarely - serve the interest of the constituents. A referendum, however flawed, is the only way the public can express itself.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by Belindi » April 2nd, 2019, 6:18 am

I have no areas of expertise and few areas in which I am very experienced. I know almost nothing of economics or how the international peace is kept. I trust professional politicians and the experts they employ to do all this on my behalf. Similarly I trust educationists to know how and what best to teach my children in school. I don't entirely trust politicians nor even experts but they are a better bet than most voters who cannot be trusted to inform themselves from reputable sources.

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Re: Is referendum a good way to take decisions

Post by CSE » April 2nd, 2019, 10:49 am

@LuckyR : I do agree that for simple questions, it is easy. But the problem is that there are never really simple questions that have the kind of impact on society that make if referendum-worthy (in countries without direct democracy). As @Alias showed, even such apparently yes/no question like staying or leaving EU are obviously very complex and both "how" to manage staying and "how" to manage leaving are impacting the answers.

@Alias, I agree that a strong "service publique" media is probably part of the solution. I guess both the Swiss, German, French and the English public chanels do have a good reputation and make a correct job (for those I know something about, no clues about US). But is that enough? Most people do watch private chanels and serials or gameshows, and not the political debates... This is what I mentioned: the problem is not the lack of information, but the lack of motivation of most citizen to actually take the effort to get informed and make an opinion that goes beyond slogans, emotional responses and tweet-length statement of truth by influencers.

@Belindi, I understand your trust in "experts" - and I would trust politicians to formulate the alternative in a way which is legally consistent better than myself. BUT again, the delegation of power was not done on a specific question and you had to choose between a list of candidates that were proposed by parties, so could not actually select freely somebody you really trust. So for an important decision that cannot be easily overturned after the next election, the legitimacy of a representative chamber is questionable.

Summary:
  1. There are no really simple questions
  2. In most countries, a somewhat balanced information is available for free
  3. However most people do not take the effort to get a reasonable opinion and vote based on emotions or slogans of parties (this is my opinion, not a proven statement).
  4. Still, the referendum seem the only legitimate way to really know the opinion of the souvereign people as there is doubt whether the "representents" actually do represent the opnion on a specific topic of the people, while a referndum clearly does.
Question: does somebody has an idea how to "force" the people to either get an informed opinion or to shut-up?
Or is it not necessary, but in this case, does the "tweet" and "push short news" effect not comdemn democracy to become random?

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