A Proposal For Direct Democracy

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.

33 thoughts on “A Proposal For Direct Democracy”

  1. Good piece….I am a councilist myself…..I like the idea of direct involvement of the people…..it cannot be any worse than the crap we have now…..any improvement would be a godsend….

  2. I agree with your criticism of democracy, but I have a lot of doubts about a direct democracy: we can’t expect most voters to actually read the laws they will be voting on if their elected representatives don’t even bother, so they would vote on their impression of the law created by their favorite radio or TV station. And the fiscal policy votes will be heavily skewed towards more government spending and more tax cuts, while proposals to raise taxes or cut specific spending will be much less popular.

    1. The success or failure of direct democracy will hinge on the engagement of ordinary people. There is a case to be made that people lack the time and knowledge to make rational decisions.

      There are two responses to this. Firstly, that argument has been used against every expansion of democracy in history, only to be proven wrong. Secondly, direct democracy could/requires an increase in political interest. There is a reasonable case to be made that part of the reason for political disinterest is the lack of engagement from the political system. Perhaps if people were regularly asked their opinions, they may give it more thought. Of course, we can’t know this in advance.

      Finally, people may be uninformed and easily influenced, but that is a problem with any democratic system including our own.

      1. I’m afraid if people will get asked their political opinion all the time, they may start tuning it out more. It’s kind of exciting to vote once every 4 years (or 5, or 6, depending on the country), but when you have to do that weekly, it just becomes a hated chore.
        I would prefer a trial jury-like model: you have a large pool of qualified participants (qualified meaning that they have to pass some basic competency test), and for a given law proposal – or all the proposals in a given period, a group is selected randomly, and hears the arguments for and against the law, and then makes the decision. If I understand correctly, that’s something that’s been tried with some success on a smaller scale.

  3. I am a fan of direct democracy but I worry about voter fatigue (disinterest, stupidity, ability to be manipulated by slick advertizers, etc.) Maybe we could have our representative systems but then have some kind of trigger that would require a plebisite (online petition with 50,000 signers, etc.) on any legislation passed. Each issue would then have its own website with “Pro” and “Con” pages for people to post their opinions to. Maybe there need to be a minimum number of votes be cast to make it a true vote of the people.

    Keep posting on this topic. Maybe it will take off!

    1. Voter participation is crucial to the proposal. It only works as well as people engage with it. If people get tired then it will fail, but if people embrace it, then it will be a huge success. I think some sort of trigger or push for people (especially in the early days) would go a long way as well as quorums.

  4. A fine idea, although the problem will always be an educated body politic suitably informed to vote with reason rather than emotion. I would however suggest a small test bed; Ireland would be perfect. It’s certainly worthy of exploration.

    1. I think its a Catch 22. It won’t work unless people are engaged and people won’t get engaged unless they feel their opinion matters. Hopefully, this will allow it to break out. It is certainly worth trying.

  5. I think the greatest handicap that I foresee is funding the many referenda unless an ingenious way is developed that allows this to be done cheaply and efficiently. I like the idea though

  6. Robert, back in the 1890s and 1900s, American politics were at least as corrupt and certainly more openly corrupt than they are now. Progressives in that era induced many U.S. states to establish the process of referendum, in which the voters could overturn a law; the initiative, in which a minimum number of voters could propose a law or constitutional amendment for referendum. I think that these were good ideas on the whole, but, as with many reforms, the opponents of reform figured out ways to hijack them for their own purposes.

    The problem is that in U.S. state elections there are usually many referenda for the benefit of special interests which are not understood by the public, but are understood very well by the small and usually well-financed group that supports them. I imagine that, as an economist, you are familiar with the works of Macur Olson; he explains the principle very well.

    One of the main reasons for California’s budget problems is Proposition 13, an amendment to the state constitution enacted by overwhelming public vote in 1978, which severely limits the ability of state and local governments to raise taxes sufficiently to cover the need for public services.

    I don’t say the initiative and referendum are bad ideas—only that they do not, in and of themselves, restore control of government to the people.

    1. Absolutely direct democracy is only an institution, not a solution in itself. It still contains the danger of being hijacked or manipulated by big money or suffer from collective action problems (as Olson famously discussed). It won’t be an easy fight, but I believe it is one we can win.

      1. One of the ways to nuetralise big money is to introduce a motion that money spent on one side of the referendum must be given to the other side to promote thier point of view

  7. No one has mentioned Switzerland. More people vote in referenda than for political representatives. As to important issues, a petition will trigger a referendum. Also implement recall of politicians so that the voters can fire a politician before the end of his term. A plebicite is raised by the government and referendum raised by the voters. Jim Powell South Africa

  8. I agree!

    Get rid of the middle men, and the overall debt will drop. Few people would vote to give government clerks pay raises, and fewer people would vote for 30% welfare.

    And we would have fewer wars.


    How have you been?


    1. Look to the history of Switzerland. The Second World War went around them. They have control over the politicians and the President is a figurehead. When diplomats are received, is is by a multiparty delegation. Super egos cannot develop under this system

        1. Hi Ghost(?). My parents were born in Ireland, I was born in England and emigrated to South Africa in 1975. I was privileged to be in South Africa for the transition in 1994. The empowerment of the black population has been a fraud. South Africa went from being ruled by a minority (white elite) to being ruled by a minority (black elite). Most democracies, inluding Enland, Ireland, South Africa and to an extent, America are 5 year dictatorships. I believe America has Referendum, initiative and Recall in some States at lower levels of government. The Swiss seem to be the best exponents of Direct Democracy. It will always be a case of cat and mouse with Direct Democracy between government, business and the voters. The advantage withDirect Democracy is that it is more in the open. Look at my web site http://www.directdemocracy.org.za.

  9. The Finns are way ahead of you guys 🙂 In the beginning of this year they started a project named Open Ministry (http://openministry.info/). Every legislation that gets more then 50.000 supporters, must be handled in parliament.

    The final decision is still made by the politicians, but this is definitely a step to the right direction!

    To be honest, you can’t let the masses decide on things they no nothing about, we had some referendums fail horribly recently (I’m from Slovenia), due to peoples ignorance and blind hate towards the current government.

  10. We had Direct Democracy in our original Constitution. It was effectively taken away from the people by a Fine Gael government. It was never their right to do so. Protect me from the so called protectors. The people know what is right. The people got it right in the Lisbon Treaty. The politicians ignored them and put the whole damn thing to the people again. Just because people are educated does not mean they will automatically do the right thing or indeed make better decisions than those less educated. As a matter of fact it ought to be pretty obvious that they have used their knowledge to lie, cheat and steal from the people and abuse the people’s rights. In other words they have used the peoples ignorance of politics the legal system etc to abuse and take away the peoples rights. None of them are to be trusted. The people know what is right. The people have always known what is right. Governments on the other hand do not.

  11. While I would say that the Swiss-like system of continual referenda you’re proposing here would be something of an improvement on what we have at the moment, it would exactly be direct democracy.

    Representatives would still decide on all major policy proposals. This would merely be a case of asking the public a yes/no question on whether to go ahead with what’s already been decided.

    What I would propose as an alternative would be to devolve more power to local governments, and then break up county and city councils into local networks of face-to-face deliberative assemblies. There people could meet and decide policy for everything that goes on in their local area and appoint mandated delegates or spokespersons to communicate their decisions on issues that go beyond the local level at regional and national-level assemblies.

    Using this method, decision-making on political and economic concerns would be fully direct and participatory; power would be completely decentralised and flow from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.

  12. In my opinion, not so much a direct democracy but a semi-direct democracy. I, myself do not agree with having congress dictate their pay raise, nor exempt them from health care that the public uses. Those are just some example that I believe us citizen could of voted on.

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