Thomas Jefferson was not only the third U.S. president, but also the author of the Declaration of Independence. It is therefore accurate to say that he knew a thing or two about democracy.
This is how he defined it: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 per cent of the people take away the rights of the other 49."
Tell that to the Swiss. Like Jefferson, they are no strangers to democracy--their own unique brand of grassroots political movement, consisting of signature gathering, launching of initiatives to pass new laws, or turning down the government's legislative decisions through referenda, is unique and, some say, exemplary. After all, a system that takes away power from the self serving politicians and puts it in the hands of the people can't be wrong ... or, can it?
However, this article is not about Switzerland's vaunted tradition of direct democracy, per se. Rather, it is about some of the consequences of the system under which 51 per cent of the people take away the rights of the other 49.
Before I dig myself a deep hole, let it be known that, personally, I am in favour of the concept of self-determination, even though Switzerland's referenda and elections are always held on a Sunday.
Still, it may be argued that direct democracy is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the fact that citizens can exercise lawmaking on all political levels--and thus have a direct say in how their country is run--is truly impressive. On the other, assuming that initiatives and referenda reflect the will of the majority of the people, a question that needs to be asked is: what if the majority is wrong? What if the majority is misinformed? In that case, the consequences of direct democracy can be truly catastrophic.
This is best expressed by a quote from yet another famous statesman, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "The best argument against democracy," he once said, "is a five minute conversation with the average voter."
This is a great lead-in to another quote--which, I promise, will be the last one I'll use. As one U.S. politician so eloquently put it upon losing a California legislative race in the 1970s: "The people have spoken ... the bastards!"
Perils of direct democracy
We tend to think of democracy as an extension of human rights and traditions. After all, both concepts are based on the rights of all people to freedom and autonomy. So it's all good, right?
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