Why direct democracy will not work...

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Why direct democracy will not work
True political liberty includes the freedom to take absolutely no interest in politics, opines Padraic P McGuinness.

IT WAS ridiculous to invite Dick Morris, President Clinton's former spin doctor and behave-alike, to the Sydney Writers' Festival on the strength of some of his naive political notions about the future of democracy. But at least it was a change to have a speaker at a writers' talkfest who could talk about politics with some actual experience and knowledge. Usually it is a matter of crude agitprop masquerading as literature.

Morris's basic idea is far from new. It is that through the Internet we might be able to approach some kind of pure, theoretical direct democracy in which everybody gets to vote on every significant decision of government. Such pure, town-meeting democracy never worked even in ancient Athens and it had pretty bad results then, as Socrates found at the cost of his life.

There are several basic defects in such an idea. One which immediately has to be considered is that majority decisions are not always right or well-considered, nor even necessarily moral or legal. That is the reason why in so many systems there are checks and balances, with countervailing powers which can limit, at least temporarily, the popular will.

Direct democracy and dislike of checks and balances are not the same thing. The ``progressives'' in politics have always been fond of unfettered rule, a stance originating with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, which allows a political elite to govern in the name of its own interpretation of the popular will but without interference from the populace, and with only occasional elections taking place to replace one set of elites with another.

This arrogant approach still runs strong, and was clearly evident in the campaign for the bullies' republic. As always, the problem is to find some sensible compromise between the popular will as the final arbiter, and the fact that not everybody has the time or inclination to make good policy decisions.

To ask everybody to participate in political decision making, through the Internet or town meetings, is in fact to surrender policy making to the activists, the self-interested, the fanatical and the superficial. The great majority are simply not qualified to make an intelligent decision on a snap judgment basis, and they know it.

Representative government is about the selection by direct vote of people who are delegated to do the work which most of us do not have the time or the patience to perform. The fact that in many cases voters are not very good at selecting people who are good at policy making is one of the many defects of democracy (than which there is nothing worse except every other political system ever tried).

The systematic denigration of political representatives is really part of the sustained effort of those who cannot or do not want to obtain election to assert their own power anti-democratically. The worst politicians in our system are those who do not have to face their own electors on the ground the party hacks elected on party tickets. The fundamental flaw of proportional representation is that it substitutes voting for party tickets, for voting for individuals.

As can be seen at all levels in our democracy, but nowhere more clearly than in local government, the beneficiaries of ``participatory'' democracy are the articulate, the busybodies, the under-employed, the opinionated and those who are convinced that their own judgment is inherently superior to that of anyone else. Direct Internet democracy would greatly enhance the power of such people in political decision making, just as town meetings give many elected representatives the false impression that they are listening to the voice of the people. They are not.

In fact, one of the glories of democracy is that it allows people who just want to get on with their lives without concerning themselves with political issues, except occasionally, to do so. True political liberty includes the liberty to take no interest in politics and yet not be railroaded by activists. But this is possible only when there are limits on the decisions and actions of the activists.

Such limits are constituted by courts insisting on the rule of law, by constitutions, by checks and balances which ensure that no decision can be made quickly and without challenge, and by those in government, the bureaucracy, and the community, who insist that policy making should be the product of argument, research and debate, not snap judgment over the Internet or at public meetings.

In principle, a parliament is the place where much of this debate should take place, but increasingly such assemblies are dominated by the publicity seekers and the entertainers bent on gratifying their supporters and the media. But the committees still do an enormous amount of useful policy work, except in the case of those upper-house committees dominated by political point-scoring against the government of the day.

In the modern world one of the most alarming phenomena has been the growth of the mob as a political force. Traditionally, mobs were supposed to have been constituted of the uneducated rabble of the cities, the hoi polloi, the sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the great unwashed. But today our mobs are different they are largely constituted of the relatively well off and supposedly educated middle classes who latch onto either self interest (nimbyism) or some half-baked ideological slogan, whether it be reconciliation, environmentalism, campaigns against imaginative new buildings, spirituality or colonic irrigation, and vote according to their own uninformed and unstudied view, formed without any serious attempt to educate themselves about the facts of an issue.

These are the mobs who demonstrated against French nuclear tests, boycotted French goods and vilified the French; who rush like sheep from one fashionable nostrum to another, whether it be bombing Jakarta or sending the troops into Fiji, or banning genetically modified foods, only to quietly forget the madnesses which obsessed them yesterday and look around for a new cause for tomorrow. To surrender democracy into the hands of the New Mob through the Internet would be to abandon the last vestiges of political sanity, as well as any true democracy.


Dick Morris came, rambled on at length, did some TV visual, and left OZ. Thank you for leaving Dick.

This Internet debate has a long way to go, and it's not going the way the government hotshots reckon it ought to go in. It's a shemozzle down under. Once again thank you for leaving Dick. Why did you bother to come?

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 24, 2000



Here in the States, Dick Morris will go to the opening of a toilet lid if he thinks it will get him some publicity/attention and a speaking fee.

Sorry one of our greatly lesser exports pestered you.

-- Richard (Astral-Acres@webtv.net), May 24, 2000.


This article was both interesting and thought-provoking. The one thing that sticks in my mind, however, are the comments you once made regarding how the U.S. is "spreading" propoganda throughout OZ regarding gun control. It seemed to me at that read that you were under the impression that the opinions of the NRA represented the thoughts of the majority of average Americans and somewhat resented the interference and stereotyping that you saw.

As noted in this article, representation is NOT reflective of the majority if the majority doesn't express itself. Typically, expression is limited to those with strong opinions on either end of the spectrum COMBINED with the desire to express these opinions.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), May 24, 2000.

The majority does express itself quite well in OZ, nomatter how the rantings of the few go. For example, since the 1996 gun buy-back the support base for the National Party of Australia, the default rural political party and coalition partner of the Federal Liberal incumbants, has plummeted to below 4% in NSW - a minor affair and down from a traditionally solid 15% or more. This can be directly traced to several issues of which the gun buy-back is one. Heavy handed thuggery by opinion makers and shakers gets rewarded by taking away their power. This is not over by a long shot as seen in the by- election of Benalla last weekend when 90 years of conservative Country Party ownership was tossed aside in favour of Labor and their candidate. Huge swings are now the norm in OZ at election times.

Most politicians I know run away from the gun issue and today Australian have more guns per head than before the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Guns are a part of our rural scene, but it is hidden too. This starkly contrasts the American message where everyone 'appears' to be absolutely enamoured by weapons and douched with an extreme paranoia. Like with the Dick Morris show Down Under it's best you keep the crazies in America. Down here we vote 'em out in true swinging style. It's our type of democracy - something involving everyone and we don't need the Internet voting show. Here we actually talk to our representatives in person, eyeball to eyeball. No politician will take that contact away for fear of being sacked. There's an awful lot of politicians being lined up for the next round of sackings. It's contagious and almost ambarassing to watch but then I like anarchy and our politicians love pain - self inflicted mostly.

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 25, 2000.


Have a lot of friends from OZ. Most of them live in the US now. They seem to think that the crazies are down under. I don't know; I can only take their word for it. Seems to be a difference of opinion here.

Fill us in on the differences.

Best wishes,,,,


-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), May 25, 2000.

Hello Z,
Our OZ crazies are called dags and our politicians with big mouths are called wankers.

Dags that go about wanking often talk in hundreds-of-thousands and pretend to be tall poppies. Frequently these tall poppies go splat and here we think well of splatees who bounce back suitably humbled.

In America success is worshipped, while Down Under we reckon the ordinary failure is understandable. You see, poverty in OZ is an artform because we are constantly reminded by our peers that you're a long time dead...; so why bother making filthy lucre even filthier?

As for making waves? Most of us think cracking a tinnie, toss a sallad, call the neighbour over and bitch about the form of the nag at the barbie is close to heaven anyway. You Yanks just are so pressingly bullish as to be thought of as certifiably mad, especially since you don't mind dishing it out to anyone in a third world shebang, yet can't handle a decent thrashing when it's dished out in return. Indeed, we know you haven't resolved any issue to a satisfactory conclusion since WW2.

No Z, we're not the mad dudes in this mad world, but you do need a certain 'lack' of ambition to survive Down Under, an ettiquette both quaint and novel. If you do good at what you do Down Under it's best to pretend otherwise. It's the cultural cringe we nurse and fine-tune so well. Our heroes are anti- 'over'successfullness ad nauseum.

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 25, 2000.


Z1X4Y7@aol.com), May 25, 2000.

Not sure about this one.

-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), May 25, 2000.


OK: Sounds like me. I will be there this winter [our winter]. Will look it over.

Best wishes,,,


-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), May 25, 2000.

G'Day Z,
In our democracy we dress down for the occasion. In American you call a tall person 'tall', we say he's 'not too short'. That's the difference you asked to have explained. Antipodeans are contrary in most ways. We love work and can look at it for days. Some of us even accept that after all these years we understand nothing. We admit to these shortcomings. Who cares when you're a long time dead? Just a passing infatuation thread again....shut-up zaadz...nag nag...duh..

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 25, 2000.


Hope you realize that the trash betwixt meaningful posts was me correcting the mistake in HTML that I made. Will be looking forward to OZ.

Best wishes,,,

-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), May 25, 2000.

Z, Welcome etc. I've been here 33 years & refuse to leave. It's too crowded everwhere else. Here you can be lost in a space that's both inner and outer. I am minutes away from a Southern cliff that faces towards Antartica with ocean swells bringing a breath nobody has exhaled.

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), May 25, 2000.

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