Thursday, November 06, 2003

Bad news from ConfinedSpace - Referendums can seriously damage your health

Our long-standing partner blog, ConfinedSpace - about halfway down on the right, with its RSS headlines - has had a terrible experience. Jordan Barab - the gun what built it, mate - has been campaigning furiously against one of those citizen-initiated referendums I don't like. This particular one (Washington State initiative 841) was intended to repeal the state's ergonomic safety rules, the only comprehensive ergonomics standard anywhere in the US, and was funded hugely by powerful business interests, especially in construction. Despite his efforts and many others, though, all that soft money spent on TV adverts paid off and the people duly voted to scrap the lot - up to a point, that is. 8% of citizens, it seems, thought the vote was to enact an ergonomics standard. 25% thought that their safety at work was protected by Federal legislation - it's not - and the organisers of the whole thing, the Building Industries' Association, said that "We've got to keep fighting - we can't stop now." Great. It's enough to make you feel affectionate for our own beloved Health & Safety Executive, with its quaintly dotty obsessions about office photocopiers and banning village cricket matches (where I live now they tried this one...).

As I keep saying, though, direct democracy at the national or big-state level is democratic poison. All these devices - propositions in California, volksbegehrens in Austria, Swiss referendology - end up being instruments for more or less vicious and demagogical politicos to puff up their images, usually whilst spewing bad and foolish policies as a byproduct. The reason is that it gives the fallacious impression of a one-vote answer to everything, an opportunity for politicians to pretend not to be, and the possibility of getting startlingly radical measures into law on tiny votes. Add the use of giant publicity, and you've got political toxic waste. You've got dear old Jörg Haider's Petition on Foreigners (Ausländervolksbegehren) and the wave of racist attacks that followed, the ruinous Californian land-tax ban, the equally ruinous requirement for the state to replace the cash, assorted French referendums with risible turnouts - you name it, I can think of only three direct-democratic exercises that produced a decent result. Those were the Australian referendum that blocked the passage of a Crimes Act that would have made it illegal to be a member of any party the judge considered "communist", the British one re-confirming EEC membership, and the one accepting the Good Friday Agreement. There may be a use for these on constitutional questions, or perhaps at the very lowest level - but for routine politics, Rousseau's argument that true democracy, as he saw it, could only exist in a state small enough to easily assemble "the people" holds. That is after all why representative democracy exists - to make the business of politics possible over a bigger area.

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