It’s fair to say that almost all people value our democratic government and are thankful we don’t live in a dictatorship. We value the ability to chose our leaders and influence our nation’s policies. However, it is also fair to say that almost all people know there are many flaws in our system. We complain about the distance between our leaders and the people. Every election raises the question of how much influence ordinary people actually hold and there seems to be an endless list of broken promises. The people’s voice is easily ignored and unpopular policies are often pushed through. So allow me to propose an idea for direct democracy that would solve this problem and bring the people and the government closer together.
Most developed countries are known as representative democracies. This means the ordinary people elect representatives to a parliament where they will speak and vote on their behalf. In this way there is a separation between ordinary people and government policy. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, most parliaments were convened before technology made it feasible for ordinary people to make decisions on government policy. Secondly, many politicians feared the will of the people could turn into a tyranny of the majority. Most constitutions were drafted to allow representatives to prevent “mob rule” where the uneducated masses would make poor decisions. Representatives were supposed to be more enlightened and able to do the right thing, and act as a check on the wild impulses of the masses.
However, there are problems with electing representatives. Any politician will vote on an enormous range of issues, but only be elected on a handful. For example a politician or party may focus heavily on crime and immigration in an election, and receive a mandate for it, but that does not mean people support its health policies. It is therefore likely that the government will make decisions that it has no mandate for and is contrary to the will of the people (the gap between politicians and people over EU treaties is the best Irish example). People also can not pick and chose the policies they agree with, but most vote for a bundle. If I agree with a party’s health proposals but disagree with its crime proposals, should I still vote for it? Furthermore, once elected there is little check on a government’s power and Ireland’s current government is a prime example of how easily governments can break their promises while facing little repercussion.
The calibre of politicians also leaves a lot to be desired. In Ireland a large proportion of politicians are elected based on local issues and personality. Actual national issues get far less prominence than they deserve and this questions how much of a mandate the government actually possess. Furthermore the dominance of political party’s mocks the notion that representatives will examine each issue on its merit and be willing to stand for what is right. Instead the political whip system reduces politicians to sheep forced to follow the lead of the party (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Politicians can also be self-serving not to mention corruption. They rely on political donations and in return are heavily influenced by corporations. Taken to its extreme it can lead to the “buying” politicians and legalised corruption.
There are also issues that cannot be foreseen at election time, but prove to be enormous. The bank bailout is an excellent example and the main issue that made me focus on direct democracy. No politician was elected promising to give billions to the banks yet this is what the government did. It was shocking to watch the government continue to bail out banks despite the fact that this was enormously unpopular. The most frustrating part was that there was little that could be done about it. Ordinary people were completely excluded from the decision process and their representatives went rogue. By the time of the next election, the damage had been done and was irreversible (not that the new government tried to change it). It is outrage that in a supposedly democratic country the people were powerless to influence our government actions. It laid bare the flaws of representative democracy.
Therefore I propose to cut out the middlemen and have people decide directly on the issues. Every major piece of legislation would have to be put to a referendum of all citizens and require a majority to pass. This way people will directly decide the policies of the government and all decisions will have a democratic mandate. No longer will governments be able to implement deeply unpopular laws or break their promises. The wide chasm between people and their leaders will be significantly narrowed.
Furthermore there could be a system where people can propose issues of their own. For example there is a large body of support for legalising cannabis, yet no politician will dare act on it. If a petition reached a certain number of signatures, say 50,000 in Ireland, then it could be put to the people in a referendum. This way it could be truly said that the people are the government and they run the country. This could truly enshrine the principle of democracy. Democracy would be a continuous process that people are constantly engaged in, rather than something that only matters once every five years. Referendums could be held once every month or so and be a regular event that could even be done online (though precautions against fraud would have to be taken).
There will probably still be a need for a parliament to deal with minor issues that need not be put to a referendum. To decide what constitutes minor and major, there could be a rule that any law which fails to get three-quarters of the parliament to support it will be put to a referendum. The parliament could continue as a speaking chamber and a forum for debating the policies. While the people will decide the policies, the parliament could be the ones to implement them.
Of course, my idea is not 100% clearly defined (as no plan truly is). For example, who decides what issues will or will not be put to a referendum? Who will implement the policies once chosen? (One idea I have is that ministers could be directly elected like the President, but this raises problems over how they will fund their budgets). How will fraud be minimised? What if people suffer from voting fatigue and stop voting? (Perhaps nominal fines could ensure the system continues). What about stupid proposals? Would we have to vote on every daft and unworkable proposal? An ordinary person would lack the knowledge to draft a complicated piece of legislation, so who would do it? Would the constant need for approval slow down the speed at which government operates?
As you can see, my plan has some gaps in it and potential problems. However, this is meant only as an outline just to give people an idea. Every system will have its flaws, it’s a question which has the least while the most benefits. Continuous voting will slow decision making down, but it will ensure that more people will support the final decision and feel connected with their government. It is possible that people will make poor decisions, but this is just as likely as politicians making poor decisions. In a democracy, we must trust the people. Some bad decisions will be made, but I believe this will be outweighed by the good ones and the control people will finally have over their lives.
When democracy was first proposed as an idea, it was widely mocked and criticised. The people were too ignorant to make good decisions, the result would be chaos. Only the King was wise enough to make laws. Now we know how wrong those critics were. Democracy turned out to be one of the greatest assets we have. It is hard to overestimate the benefit that comes with be able to influence our country’s decisions. Let’s take it to the next level. Let’s give full power to the people. Let’s decide our lives. Let’s return the government to the people. Let’s have direct democracy.