PRINCETON – What role should referenda play in a democracy? That question has become more relevant than ever, following the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum, which resulted in a 52% to 48% vote to leave the European Union – and brought an abrupt end to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s political career.
Brexit opponents have since suggested that, because referenda have no constitutional status in Britain, and Parliament must make the final decision, the result should be ignored. Are they right?
Independently of what we think about Britain leaving the EU, we can ask two other questions, one general and one specific to Brexit. First, to what extent should the citizens of a democracy be able to make decisions directly, in a referendum, rather than through their elected representatives? And, more specifically, should British legislators consider themselves bound by the outcome of the June 23 referendum?
On the general question, the strongest argument for direct democracy is that it follows from the idea of democracy itself, subject only to a feasibility constraint. In earlier times, small city-states could be direct democracies; but in larger countries, when communication was slow, it was necessary to elect representatives to decide the many questions that needed to be discussed and voted upon.
Now that debates can be conducted in newspapers, on television, or online, that constraint has been overcome, and direct democracy should, according to this line of thinking, be the default position, or at least be used more frequently. The technology we have now makes it possible to abolish representative democracy entirely and give every citizen a vote on every question that legislatures now decide. Wouldn’t that be the most faithful way of applying the democratic ideal of giving every citizen an equal voice?
There is also another, more practical, argument for direct democracy: it acts as a barrier to the influence of money on outcomes. Money can, of course, still buy advertising, but it cannot buy legislators, as it often does in representative democracies. In the United States, for example, the farm lobby has made it difficult to persuade Congress or state legislatures to pass animal welfare legislation to curb even the most extreme forms of confinement of livestock. Yet when California held a referendum in 2008 on whether all farm animals should have room to turn around and stretch their limbs, 63% of those voting supported the measure.
California’s farm animal legislation is one of the best examples of the use of a referendum to overcome obstacles to achieving a desirable – and desired – outcome. But California also offers one of the best examples of the hazards of allowing voters to decide issues without a full understanding of the economic impact of the outcome.
In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes and limited future increases, and at the same time required a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers for any increase in state taxes or the amount of revenue raised. The outcome, many argue, has been insufficient funds to maintain the quality of the state’s services, including its once-leading education system.
The deeper question, however, is whether we want to be as democratic as direct democracy implies. The most famous proponent of representative democracy would say no.
In 1774 Edmund Burke, who had just been elected to Parliament for Bristol, told his electors that, while their wishes would have great weight with him, and their opinions would have his high respect, he would not sacrifice to them his unbiased opinion, mature judgment, or enlightened conscience. “Your representative owes you,” he said, in an oft-quoted sentence, “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Burke was a conservative whose insistence on elected representatives’ duty to exercise their own judgment was grounded in the belief that they are likely to be better informed and wiser than their constituents, and will restrain their excesses. The Brexit referendum makes that view seem more plausible.
The factor most likely to make a difference in how people voted was their level of education. Only 29% of those with a university degree voted in favor of leaving the EU. It seems desirable that, on questions as complex as Brexit, those with more expertise should have a larger say in the decision, and giving parliamentary representatives an independent choice is one way to do that.
On the specific question of what British Members of Parliament should do given the outcome of the referendum, Burke would argue that they should vote in accordance with their unbiased opinion, mature judgment, and enlightened conscience. If they do that, Britain will remain in the EU.
Burke’s argument is not an option for Cameron, because Burke would never have called a referendum in the first place, and Cameron, who did so to quell a rebellion in his Conservative Party, cannot now credibly say that it was to be advisory only. He campaigned to remain in the EU, but he and those who stood with him on holding the referendum must respect the result.
Other MPs, however, are not similarly bound. Consulting the public is a good thing to do. Perhaps it should be done more often (and it would not require as expensive a procedure as the British referendum). Accepting as binding the verdict of a relatively narrow majority of voters (most of whom were less informed than the average citizen about the question on which they were voting) is an entirely different matter.