The Case for Direct Democracy
WHY NOT NATIONAL BALLOT INITIATIVES?
Government is dysfunctional, many are saying, meaning that it doesn’t work. Actually, it works quite well---for the rich. They are making a lot of money, often with help from the government, and are paying the lowest taxes in decades, while ordinary Americans who still have jobs work harder than ever at about the same pay, or less. We complain that government is serving the top 1% much better than the other 99%, but we seem to be stymied at finding ways to do something about it. Attempts to improve government have largely failed so far, to wit:
- Campaign finance reform laws---but Congress waters them down and corporations find ways to work around them, now with the support of the Supreme Court.
- Term limits---but cushy lobbying jobs follow anyway for those serving in Congress.
- Ethics reform---big talk (shocked! shocked!), and a slap on the wrist for ethical violators.
- Public financing of Congressional campaigns---always spurned by Congress.
Most Americans want such reforms. They consistently fail, nevertheless, because of the close ties between Congress and big money. It’s not hard to fathom why many Congressmen cater to the rich, when getting re-elected and later lobbying jobs depend on it.
So the 99% want a government that acts more in the public interest. At the core this means making better laws. If Congress cannot do this, maybe the people can. Half the states in the U.S. allow direct popular votes as one way to make state laws. We could make federal laws by this initiative process as well, if the mechanisms were put in place. A project led by former Senator Mike Gravel would do this. (See vote.org for details. Disclosure: I have advised on it.) But the effort to introduce direct democracy at the national level has had little success to date. As it is now, with only representative democracy, citizens can beg Congress to pass the laws they want, and Congress may do so, or may not. Mendicant democracy, some call it.
But would ordinary people make better laws for the 99% than Congress does? Those who think elected leaders are better suited to legislate usually assert that the common people have inadequate motivation, skills or knowledge for the task. Social critic H. L. Mencken famously said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. And commentator Walter Lippmann insisted that we must abandon the notion that the people govern, and accept that their role is only to support or oppose those individuals who actually govern. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams would have agreed.
On the other side, Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “the majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make trying to govern them.” Thomas Jefferson said: “The will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. Perhaps even this may sometimes err; but its errors are honest, solitary and short-lived.” Pollster George Gallup adds, “On the most major issues we’ve dealt with in the past 50 years, the public was more likely to be right…based on the judgment of history…than the legislatures or Congress.”
Social scientists have recently provided some evidence bearing on the question. One of the more intriguing facts coming to light is that in many situations the average judgment of many ordinary people is superior to the judgment of almost any individual, however expert. This was found for estimation tasks, such as judging livestock weights, and for predicting complex events, such as election results, product sales, movie ticket sales, and stock values. Writer James Surowiecki summarized this evidence in The Wisdom of Crowds. A few individuals may do better than the average on one prediction, but the average judgment is better over the course of several predictions.
The conditions of voting on an initiative are much like those found favorable to crowd wisdom. That is, the group is diverse, and each voter makes an independent judgment, usually after reviewing basic facts and arguments pro and con. Voters may ignore these facts and arguments, but that is true of nearly all situations in which the wisdom of crowds has been demonstrated. Ordinary people, as a group, make amazingly accurate judgments in these conditions.
A limitation of the crowd-wisdom findings is that they usually involve near-term predictions. Would people do as well in predicting the long-term benefits of a social policy? How would they compare to elected leaders in this skill? Perhaps elected leaders have more relevant expertise than ordinary citizens in political, economic and social matters, expertise that might make their long term forecasts and policy decisions better.
Social psychologist Philip Tetlock tested this proposition. He compared experts of varying prominence and degrees of expertise to each other. What he examined was how well they could predict future economic and political events over a period of 15 years. He found that experts were on average no better than “dilettantes” (professionals with less expertise on that topic) at predicting the future. And experts did only slightly better than simply guessing that all outcomes were equally likely. Another investigator, K.C. Green, found that college undergraduates playing the role of experts made more accurate forecasts than experts themselves.
If experts can’t predict much better than chance guessing, this does not give us much confidence that leaders will make wise civic choices, whoever they may consult, and whatever their own political and economic expertise. In highly technical fields, such as engineering and biology, there is little doubt that experts play a vital role in creating solutions to civic problems, but in any field involving human behavior, expertise is quite limited, and we should not be surprised if individual experts cannot predict complex events better than the average judgment of a diverse group of lay persons.
Accurate forecasting is only one indicator of decision skill, of course. Another is the soundness of the logic used by the decider. Decision scientists and psychologists have documented at length that most people make thinking errors of several kinds. But experts appear to make such mistakes no less than ordinary citizens. Take the vividness bias. In this error, a “Muslim terrorist strike,” for example, is predicted to be more likely than a “terrorist strike,” because the image is more vivid. Logically this is not possible. “Terrorist strikes” is a larger set of events that includes “Muslim terrorist strikes.” Yet experts make such errors just as lay persons do. No study has emerged of the logic of politicians, but it is hard to imagine they would do better than experts, who usually have more scientific training than politicians.
Thus, there is no clear evidence that elected representatives, or political leaders of any kind, are superior to citizens in their decision skills. So if their skills are no better, do leaders have any advantages over ordinary citizens?
A common assumption is that the politicians spend a good deal more time studying the issue at hand than most citizens do, and so know more about it. This is often true for members of the mark-up committee that creates a bill, although more and more bills are drafted by lobbyists and accepted with little change by such committees. Even when committees study the matter in detail it is rare that their colleagues in the full legislative body give the details much attention, especially in Congress. They rely instead on the advice of their party leaders and friends, or make a deal to swap votes. They usually devote very little time to one bill since there are so many bills, and since they spend half their time trying to get re-elected. So time spent on the task is at best a weak advantage for leaders when only five percent of Congress marks up a bill and the other 95 percent of those voting spend so little time on it.
Yet surely they must know a bit more than ordinary people. Conventional wisdom decries the general lack of information possessed by voters, who often cannot name office-holders and other similar facts about government. The implication is that they are therefore not fit to govern. But many of us doubt the relevance of such knowledge to making good judgments on civic issues. As discussed above, crowds can be wise without much information, and experts in political and economic matters are not so wise even though they possess a great deal of knowledge. So general factual knowledge per se seems to be overrated as a component of civic wisdom.
Still, few doubt that whatever the political wisdom of the people, it would likely be improved by more review of key assumptions and arguments on the specific issue at hand. To this end, some state initiatives present arguments pro and con. And political scientists have recently demonstrated new techniques for enhancing deliberation by citizen groups before they vote on issues, such as letting them question experts on the issue, followed by further discussion.
In trying out direct democracy in San Jose, California in 1973, for the National Science Foundation we at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that citizen participation in deciding policy issues increases their knowledge of those issues, including greater awareness of arguments on both sides of an issue. It appears that participation and knowledge of the issue at hand are mutually reinforcing, so perhaps the more responsibility citizens have for deciding civic matters, the better they will be at it.
In all, ordinary people appear to be approximately as competent as the elite and the experts when it comes to judgment, fairness and the skills a civic decider needs. So let’s look at the results of actual legislation by voters and by state legislatures. Have ordinary citizens up to now done any better than their leaders in deciding important civic issues at the state level? Opponents of direct democracy frequently cite some state initiative passed by the people that they think is disgraceful, such as California’s Proposition 13 that cut property taxes but impoverished state and local government. There is no doubt that occasionally initiatives produce results that are regrettable, as do legislatures. What is rarely noted by opponents, however, is that many good policies we now take for granted began as state initiatives, including women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and the eight-hour work day.
Some object to direct democracy because they fear ordinary people will abuse minorities. In hard times, especially, people are sometimes hostile to foreigners or those of a different race or religion. Aroused mobs have done horrible things to minorities, it is true. But a street mob is quite different from voters privately marking ballots. In the Mideast, for example, Islamic extremists at emotional street rallies can arouse great antipathy toward Westerners or minorities, but polls of a representative sample in Muslim countries do not usually support the view that majorities there are hostile to either minorities or Westerners. And in the U.S. popular acceptance of diverse races, cultures and sexual orientations has increased markedly over the last century. Prejudice remains, obviously, but laws against ethnic or religious minorities have long been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, and the record over a century of initiatives shows that the electorate is no more likely to disadvantage minorities than are legislators.
Elisabeth Gerber and other political scientists have compared states that have popular initiatives with states that make laws only through legislatures. These studies found that states with popular initiatives tend to have policies more aligned with public values and preferences than states that rely entirely on representative government.
Having ordinary people make laws to suit their values is only desirable if one agrees with the values, of course. And we do agree, I submit, on most values related to public policy. For example, in measuring citizenship achievement for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our team at AIR found that a panel of Americans from all walks of life agreed on nearly all behaviors and values (hundreds of them) proposed as criteria of good citizenship. Criteria such as participating in the community, caring for others, obeying the law, and thinking rationally about civic issues. Daily news gives the opposite impression because the media tend to highlight controversy rather than agreement, and clearly there are specific issues such as abortion where we do not agree. But we do seem to agree on most of the fundamental values and behaviors that are important in our civic lives. So perhaps Gerber’s evidence reflects well on ordinary people as lawmakers, at least to the extent of making laws that reflect their common values.
By far the biggest weakness of leaders, compared to citizens, is their corruption by power and money, as discussed earlier. Not that ordinary citizens are less susceptible to temptation. Greed seems to well up in many of us when we imagine we can indulge it secretly. It is doubtful that politicians as a group are inferior to ordinary people in ethics or character. Ordinary citizens are more likely to vote in the public interest, not because they are more upright morally than Congresspersons, but because they are not wooed by lobbyists. The role of leader invites corruption. The role of citizen does not. This difference alone is the most significant advantage citizens have over leaders in setting public policy.
The usual rejoinder from defenders of the status quo is that voters are influenced by big money too, through media campaigns to persuade people to vote for or against an initiative. This argument, true on its face, has some major weaknesses. First, at the national level it would cost corporations about a thousand times as much to influence voters as it does to buy Congressmen. Second, even after spending millions to persuade voters, the effort would often fail. Gerber’s analysis showed that while powerful interests are sometimes successful in defeating state initiatives, they generally do not persuade voters to pass initiatives. Third, their campaign advertising is out in the open where lies and distortions are more easily revealed, compared to the subtle ways in which lobbies manipulate Congress. So the powerful find the initiative process much more expensive and risky as a way to shape laws to their liking.
There is a strong case, then, for having direct democracy work alongside representative democracy in making national laws, as it already does in making laws in many states. In the future, the key decisions of government will be made, for better or worse, either by ordinary citizens acting in concert or by leaders and their wealthy backers. Americans can go on searching for leaders who will make the federal government work for all of us. Or, if they believe that ordinary people will usually make good laws, national initiatives may become a reality. Most politicians will object strenuously to such direct democracy, as they always have, but they can be bypassed, just as they were in 1787 when we created our constitution. Some think the Constitution forbids anyone but Congress from making national laws. It does not, and even if it did, the people could change it. But few people know this. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.”
It’s our choice. Maybe we are the ones we have been waiting for.
Vincent Campbell is a social psychologist. He directed research on citizenship and democracy at the American Institutes for Research. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org