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June 09, 2005



Between me getting on at you about CBI, and Jarndyce about referendums - I'd start getting paranoid if I was you!

The use of Tocqueville's a little cheeky in defence of absolutist democracy. He admired democracy, but with a distinct coolness, very aware of what was being lost from the Ancien Regime. My guess is he'd be go back to a line towards the end of DiA to explain why he'd be sceptical: "our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free."


Thank you for the Baroness Warlock reference. That a Tory government should trust any serious issue to that intellectually frivolous, conceited ass is very vexing. I'd like to know why she changed her mind - it can't only be a relish to be in the papers again. Perhaps someone in her family or her circle of acquaintance had a bad experience with her preposterous system? It's hard to believe that governance that involved massive use of referendums would result in a decision as stupid as hers.

Rob Read

To be allowed to be wrong is the most important right!

It's the ability of Democracy to make decisions for those citizens that oppose those decisions that is total democracies biggest weakness.

It would be amusing if for every referendum, you could before the voting, submit a form strongly opposing one of the decisions, if the referendum goes against you, you get compensated for your emigration costs, but lose citizenship...


My argument, note, isn't against complex systems as such, only unnecessarily complex ones. I argued here (http://www.thesharpener.net/?p=52) for a relatively complicated system of PR. This would, IMHO, demand increased public participation and engagement, as well as responsiveness from the elected, without the need for regular referenda. I will read the Frey paper, though, with an open mind.


I hadn't even thought of the wisdom of the crowds argument...three cheers for decision markets.


That's very interesting about Mary Warnock. I have a little anecdote.

I went to a Cambridge college where she was mistress. She had the habit of inviting new undergrads to her flat in groups for drinks. She then circulated around the groups chatting to the undergrads.

When she got to my group, she spoke for several minutes to the person next to me about the subject this student was reading (anthropolgy). She then turned to me and asked "and what are you reading"? "Economics" I replied.

She stalked off with barely another word. She clearly had very strong opinions about economists. After that episode I had fairly strong opinions about Baroness Warnock and the weight I attached to her judgement.

Kevin Carson

The problem is that direct democracy is impossible, except in a decentralized system where most political decisions are made in face-to-face meetings of the people affected by them.

We're biologically engineered for life in a primate social grouping of a few dozen. So by nature, we're very well informed on the doings of our families, friends and coworkers, and to some extent of our neighborhood or town. Most people don't have a lot of energy or time left over for worrying about the doings of people they've never met, making policy in some office a thousand miles away. For the people actually making policy, on the other hand, the policy elites ARE their primary social grouping, and policy issues are primary material for gossip. So those running the state/corporation will always have an advantage on inside information, agenda-setting, etc.

I'm all for direct democracy. But the way to achieve it is to decentralize most political issues to the neighorhood or town meeting, and the cooperatively-managed workplace, so that the very existence of centralized organizations is minimized. Once they exist, their control by a ruling class is inevitable.


I find your use of De Tocqueville in support of referenda really weird. Given his worries about atomisation and centralisation, and his strong support for local deliberative government, surely he would have been terrified by the idea of referenda, which would allow the expression of an opinion without being schooled in their use. Although the language isn't the same, Kevin's point above seems rather apposite here.

Tim Worstall

The country with the greatest amount of direct democracy (as far as I know, anyway) is Switzerland with their system of national and cantonal referenda. Not a noticeably badly governed country really.


Rob, Blimpish: You're right about de Tocqueville. I only dragged him in as support for the vague hypothesis that the form of government can change the character of a people - no more than that.
Kevin - I agree entirely. The trouble is that there will remain some issues (such as decisions to go to war or enter international treaties) that can only be taken at a national level. For these, surely, referenda are a way of weakening the power of a political elite. Unless, that is, we break-up nation-states...


Oops, I may owe an apology re my comment on B. Warnock. Sorry, Conservatives, this morning's paper makes it look likely that it was a Labour government that she reported to.

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