Emptying ballot boxes during elections for the Swiss Parliament in Bern, Switzerland, December 2015.
Emptying ballot boxes during elections for the Swiss Parliament in Bern, Switzerland, December 2015.
Fabrice Coffrini / Reuters

In the wake of last year’s dramatic vote on the Greek bailout and ahead of the Brexit showdown, referendums are getting a bad rap. Last week, in an article titled “Let the people fail to decide,” The Economist noted that such votes can “lead to incoherent policies,” and thus “fewer would be better.” Not to be undone, John Kay of the Financial Times warned against the tendency to “confuse democracy with populism,” drawing from British statesman Edmund Burke’s famous 1774 speech in which he argued “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment: and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Are they missing anything?

Whatever drawbacks referendums may have, they are the only true form of democracy. The United Kingdom, like most modern countries, is a nation in which power resides in representatives who are supposed to follow the preferences and will of their constituents but are removed from them. Switzerland is the closest to what Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates had in mind when democracy was conceived. The country has had 611 referendums since it was established in 1848, on issues ranging from abortion to asking taxpayers to pay for the children’s national zoo.

No system is perfect. Referendums are disruptive and laborious, and they can be abused if issues qualify too easily. The yes-or-no nature of the decisions makes it easier for majorities to ride roughshod over minority interests. People also need to exercise sufficient care to form their judgement on the matter at hand, and then make the effort to vote.

Sometimes referendums make things messier. For instance, in 2014 Swiss voters approved by a slim majority a measure to limit immigration, in violation of the country’s agreement with the European Union. The EU says the vote could jeopardize Switzerland’s access to the European market, and it remains to be seen whether the treaties can be renegotiated. Voter turnout rates average about 42 percent in Switzerland, lower than for candidate elections, since voting on issues requires greater effort. However, turnout can be very high for hotly debated issues; for example, the turnout for the immigration initiative was 64 percent.

A woman hands out leaflets campaigning to stay in Europe for the Brexit vote in London, Britain, May 2016.
A woman hands out leaflets campaigning to stay in Europe for the Brexit vote in London, Britain, May 2016.
Kevin Coombs / Reuters

There are, however, considerable advantages to having a dose of referendums every now and again. The ancient Greeks were wary of mob rule and felt that they were good opportunities to vent anger and act as circuit breakers to placate crowds and keep them from throwing rocks—as may occur at the forthcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The debate and choice involved in a referendum also center on a particular issue rather than a personality or a political party. Just follow a few days of press coverage in the United States and the United Kingdom and compare the emphasis on personal attacks versus policy content.

Referendums also force voters to have skin in the game. It is easy to blame a politician for disappointing us, but who is to blame when we’ve made the choice ourselves? The debate over Brexit shows that people care, and caring is the foundation of any well functioning democracy.

Most importantly, referendums mitigate three of the most toxic features of republics. Elected officials have incentives to overpromise and under-deliver, so disappointment is practically pre-programmed. They are also encouraged to accelerate the benefits for “right now” and postpone the payment to “later,” which punishes future generations. Third, lobbying is more cost-effective when a few politicians can be swayed to support a particular interest. Convincing large numbers of people requires greater transparency and more intense deliberation. As Jürgen Habermas, the famous German philosopher, argued, “the better the debate, the better the decision.” His words may have even inspired the founders of The Economist when they penned their mantra: “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

A man walks past a poster of the Swiss People's Party demanding 'Stop - Yes to ban of minarets' at the central station in Zurich ahead of a refendum in October 2009.
A man walks past a poster of the Swiss People's Party demanding 'Stop - Yes to ban of minarets' at the central station in Zurich ahead of a refendum in October 2009.
Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Switzerland, that bastion of popular votes, has been ranked by the World Economic Forum as the most economically competitive country in the world for seven years running. It has among the lowest rates of unemployment, crime, public deficits, and CO2 emissions. It has among the highest per capita incomes, confidence levels in its government, and funding of its pension schemes. The Economist even ranked it last year as the country in which one would most wish to be born—without seeming to fully understand what has made it this way. The Swiss have achieved this in good part by repeatedly voting in referendums for no shorter work weeks, enforcing a debt moratorium on parliament, passing laws to encourage the use of renewable energy, and even voting to increase taxes that were necessary to become more fiscally sound.

Compare this to the record of countries such as the United Kingdom and others. The deficiencies such an exercise would reveal may explain why the people of the United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere are increasingly frustrated with their political systems that are more dependent on representatives. Fewer than three in ten Americans trust their federal government (slightly higher than the level of trust in a used car salesman), down precipitously from nearly eight in ten one generation ago, according to Pew Research Center. The United Kingdom has experienced a more moderate, yet similar, decline.

If nations were able to attract candidates of Edmund Burke’s quality and stature, then there might not be a need for referendums. But this seems unrealistic. The Swiss model turns the equation on its head, based on the premise that there are too few Edmund Burkes alive and that we should not rely on them anyway. The robustness of a system is measured by how much abuse it can withstand. It is far better to engineer a system to ensure that politicians, even the inferior ones, manage to serve their constituents' interests. Referendums can be decisive in this respect. Yet The Economist criticized referendums because “they tend to make politicians look as if they do not know what they are doing.”

Precisely. The Swiss can call referendums to challenge and reverse legislation passed by parliament. Such votes have succeeded only two percent of the time, according to Laurent Bernard from the Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich. (Around six percent of the laws passed by parliament have been challenged by referendum so far, with 178 referendums.) But the very possibility of repudiation, and the embarrassment that ensues, may be the reason challenges are so rare and may be the most effective control to ensure that what parliament does is what the people want.

Switzerland is not alone. Sweden voted against using the euro in 2003; Chile voted for free schooling for everyone in 2011; New Zealand opposed a partial privatization of public-owned companies in 2013; Uruguay decided not to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years in 2014; Ireland refused to abolish its Senate in 2013; and Bulgaria accepted the construction of a nuclear plant in 2013.

Such successes show that the people as a whole can be a more reliable source of wisdom and positive outcomes than any group of politicians. At a time when people are increasingly disappointed with their political systems, it is worth reflecting on what has gone wrong and experiment with ways to fix it. In this respect, republics may find that more democracy is better than less.

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