Friday, June 22, 2018

Referenda are tricky

A commenter on Daily Kos suggested that direct democracy (i.e., settling things by referendum) is now technologically easier than it used to be, and it would solve the problem of, “Will the person I vote for actually represent my interests?”

But I don’t think it does that.

The major problem with settling lots of things via direct democracy is that law often has to be nuanced, and referenda aren’t great for that.

For instance, how would health-insurance reform go via referendum?

We could put up a simple question, along the lines of, “Do you support a national, single-payer health-insurance system?” But no matter how simple a system you’re trying to create (and it’s technically possible to create one a lot simpler than Obamacare), there are some unavoidable decisions that are difficult.
  1. What is the list of things that the basic package will cover?
  2. How much will providers be paid? And on a fee-for-service basis? A per-patient basis? Etc.
  3. What will the revenue source be? General governmental revenues (the same pot of personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, etc., as most of the budget)? A dedicated payroll tax like Social Security and Medicare?
  4. A related question: if there’s compulsory buy-in rather than simple provision by government, what is the formula for subsidizing purchase of insurance by lower- and middle-income households?
If we keep the referendum itself simple by leaving out these questions, then we have the question of what body will fill in these unavoidable details. Whatever that body is, we’re back to the problem of our representative bodies being potentially unresponsive to our will.

If we put the details into the referendum itself, we have at least three problems.

  1. Will people give careful thought to their vote? In theory, we pay legislators to be our specialists in crafting legislation. If they weren’t spending so much time fundraising (and becoming beholden to narrow interests that can pay them), they would have lots of time to devote to considering the implications of legislation under discussion. The average non-legislator citizen has a full-time job that isn’t the weighing of the pros and cons of a new law—how much time will most of us put toward thinking through our votes?
  2. Will people be well informed? British voters fell for the line about however many million pounds per week that would be redirected to the NHS. They gave a certain amount of time to thinking about the overall issue, but many of them flat-out dismissed the opinions of experts, which meant that all of their thinking didn’t lead anywhere in particular. To this day, plenty of pro-Brexit voters can’t admit that the problem of the Irish border is fairly intractable.
  3. Who will be drafting the referendum question, niggling details and all? The legislature (assuming there still is one)? Some body of interested citizens? This is a crucial issue, because you could draft the question in such a way as to make the proposed law unpalatable, even if a majority support the idea in principle. Or you could draft the law to have some hidden indirect effects, such that it’s still palatable to the voters, but ends up being less effective than it could be, or more expensive, or more to the advantage of moneyed interests. And so we’re back to the same issue of how to ensure that the people drafting our laws are acting in our interests.
If not referenda, then what?

Ranked-choice voting has some useful properties. Proportional representation has some useful properties. Getting big money out of elections would probably help a lot. But none of these is a silver bullet.

I don’t see any alternative to simply having an engaged citizenry.

One thing Trump has done is shake many people out of their complacency, but it’s come at an incredibly high cost, and we’ll see how strong the effect is—and how long it lasts.

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