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Direct democracy and blaming "the voters"

So, we've got California, with really messed up finances, a lot of which can be blamed on the voters' decisions made via direct democracy: tax limits, spending mandates, supermajority legislature. Many people say the voters get what they deserve for not having self-control or common sense and such.

Well, let's peek at the world of voting paradoxes, though I'm not sure this is even a paradox. Weirdness, maybe.

Imagine a population:
40% responsible liberals, who want high services and taxes to pay for it ("Massachusetts")
40% responsible conservatives, who want low taxes and will take low services ("New Hampshire")
20% who either irrationally don't think things through, or rationally but selfishly figure they can move to another state after the system collapses, and either way will vote for low taxes and high spending. (no stereotype)

Now imagine a ballot with both a tax cut and a spending increase on it. The former will get 60%, from the conservatives and the others, and the latter will get 60%, from the liberals and the others. Voila: irrational (well, budget busting) results, despite only 20% of the population being irrational or uncaring.

And it doesn't have to be even or as much as 20%. 45-35-20, 45-45-10, 49-49-2, 49-41-10. Lower margins but same outcomes. 98% could be making responsible decisions but the vote doesn't come out that way.

Before dumping on "direct democracy" as a concept, let's look at the real problems. Most obvious is voting on the measures in parallel, without any idea of how the other one would come out. If voting were sequential, truly responsible voters could deal with that -- tax cut wins, liberals regretfully vote down services, or vice versa. Of course, in this case the outcome becomes very order-dependent, power accrues to whoever can set the sequence. And sequential voting doesn't work well with existing balloting practices and frequency.

Another fix is to identify contradictory laws, and force voters who vote for both to also make a tiebreaker vote; Switzerland does this, IIRC, not that Switzerland has voters proposing laws or spending. (Initiatives are for constitutional change, and the legislature is responsive enough that there's no need to go to the voters for budgets -- unlike Cal where you can avoid the 2/3 barrier in the legislature.) That calls for someone making such decisions. With high feedback that could be done democratically: vote on the consistency pairs of ballot proposals, though combinatorial explosion happens quickly.

Yet another is requiring spending measures to include their own tax raises; Oregon does this, though it doesn't solve the general problem of inconsistent laws. Would also prevent a democratic force-through of a Keynesian stimulus, should such ever be needed.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 24th, 2010 05:50 am (UTC)
Living on the West Coast has shown me exactly how horrible an idea direct democracy is. Oregon also has the added misfortune of allowing amendments to the state constitution by majority vote, which is regularly used to make laws that the legislature cannot overturn or sideline.

I grew up reading about direct democracy in various SF stories and thinking the idea sounded reasonable. If I had the option, I'd now vote yes on a bill to outlaw all ballot measures other than bond measures and similar tax increases.
Feb. 24th, 2010 06:40 am (UTC)
Well, it worked in Athens. But then they had something closer to real deliberative direct democracy, and moved over time away from the Assembly to 500 person random councils.

Seems to work in Switzerland too, minarets notwithstanding. But they have a more representative legislature, more frequent ballots -- might keep people more engaged -- and the legislature gets to make counterproposals to initiatives.

Also they're a country, not a subnational state, so the migration problem of some voters lacking long-term interest might be less.

I'm not sure that's an "added" misfortune; California has the same provision, e.g. Prop 8. And overriding the legislature is the point; the People are ultimately sovereign. Of course, in theory such amendments should be as easy to overturn: just a reconsidered majority.
Feb. 24th, 2010 06:44 am (UTC)
To have any hope of direct democracy working, I think you need both a relatively small populace (less than one million people is likely best) and an exceedingly uniform populace. For a very large and exceptionally diverse state like CA, I'm betting that similar wretchedness to what's been happening there for the last 30 years is fairly inevitable.
Feb. 24th, 2010 07:00 am (UTC)
Switzerland has 7 million people and 4 official languages, though 3 of them are 99% of the people and German is 60%. Still, French and Italian too -- doesn't sound quite "exceedingly uniform".
Feb. 25th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)

I had no idea that there was such a thing as Romansh. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Now I have to run off and implement a Romansh/Maltese MT system.
Feb. 25th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
What, not everyone knew that? :)

I can thank childhood National Geographic, which had an article on Switzerland. Another one on East Germany -- or maybe both Germanies and the Berlins? -- comes to mind.
Feb. 24th, 2010 10:28 am (UTC)
Well, it worked in Athens.

While all Athenians (i.e. the 12% who were actual citizens and not women, slaves, or their equivalent of hispanics) could theoretically vote on issues, I have seen assertions that only some 2% of the population were actually involved in politics.

Also, the Athenian democracy was infamous for its arbitrary and extreme political measures. The term "democracy" was originally a pejorative that could be translated as "misrule by the people" (a more flattering term would be "demarchy").
Feb. 24th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC)
Meh, from what I've read, they didn't have much trouble getting the 6000 people for the Assembly, especially once they started paying for attendance. I don't think Attica had 300,000 people, let alone 300,000 citizens.

AIUI, most of the records we have are written by aristocrats, so there's something of a bias. But Athenian democracy lasted 200 years, with reportedly low corruption, and enough robustness to spring back from short-term conquests and coups like those of the Spartans. Only the long-term conquest of the Macedonians squelched it for good.

Arbitrary and extreme political measures -- there's a few bad anecdotes, but do they make a fair comparison to the decisions of oligarchies or the Roman Republic? American Jim Crow and internment of Japanese-Americans?
Feb. 24th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
For a quick source, see Wikipedia. It sets the population figure at 250,000 - 300,000, of which 30,000 were citizens.

They did have some trouble rounding up 6000. In the early democracy they had to literally rope people in, and in the late democracy they paid people to participate.

Fair comparison? Most certainly. The Athenian democracy governed an imperialistic and deeply segregated state. Slavery and xenophobia were more widespread in Athens than in other contemporary Greek city states, and Athenian women had lower status than women elsewhere. And the Athenian method of dealing with a distrusted population was genocide rather than internment.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC)
My brain is often too-fried from job-hunting or board game design these days to comment intelligently on your posts. Having said that, I do read and enjoy them.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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