Ideally the decisions of a government are rational but the idea of rationality is abstract. In practice there are competing interests and choices to be made between them as well as unknown outcomes of proposed ideas. Despite rationality should be something to strive for rather than catering interest groups at the expense of good ideas. Sadly no form of government was ever perfectly rational as the rationality of a government tends to reflect the rationality of the people in it. This is also true for democracy.
The quality of decisions in democracies depends on how large groups of people form their opinions. In this respect there are two opposing ideas, the wisdom of crowds and mass delusions. The wisdom of crowds was first discovered in 1906 by Francis Galton. He was visiting a livestock fair where an ox was on display. Villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight. Nearly 800 people participated in the contest. No-one guessed the weight of 1,198 pounds exactly, but the average guess of 1,197 pounds was almost perfectly right.
At least in specific cases groups of individuals on aggregate assess a situation quite good and better than nearly every individual on his or her own including experts. The average guess included the extremes on both sides. Galton was impressed. He came to believe that this was an argument in favour of democracy. One can argue from this discovery that if all views are reflected in parliament, it can result in good decisions.
The wisdom of crowds depends on individuals having different backgrounds and making their assessments independently so that they look at the issue in different ways. The more people are alike or the more they influence each other, the more they can become prone to group think so that the wisdom of the crowd disappears.1 In extreme cases this can lead to mass delusions like stock market bubbles.2
Diversity of opinions is a reasons why decision-making in democracies can be better than other forms of decision-making. Ideally, in a democracy all information is freely available to everyone. Mass delusions are a reason why democracy can fail. The greatest mass delusion humanity is suffering from currently is not dealing adequately with the limits of our planet. It is a fact that our planet can’t support our life styles for much longer. Democracies have difficulty dealing with this brutal fact.
The reason is that the required measures affect us all directly and significantly. They require considerable sacrifice, while we won’t feel the consequences of our inaction right now. Most people have a short-term bias and value the present more than the future, most notably a distant and uncertain future. And no country can take action alone as that wouldn’t make a difference. That is why people do not make the necessary changes and either ignore the facts, prepare for the worst or hope for a miracle.
1. The Wisdom of Crowds. James Surowiecki (2004). Doubleday, Anchor.
2. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Charles Mackay (1841). Richard Bentley, London.
For a society to function, it needs a kind of order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap as traditionally governments were a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.
Even today many governments more or less resemble crime syndicates. They are oligarchies working in the interest of those in power. Government officials often take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Switzerland, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to very corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, citizens often feel that it doesn’t work in their interest.
The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of the corruption in each country. Poverty is seen as a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a country suffers from corruption, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.
The Swiss have the most trust in their government1 and interest rates in Switzerland are the lowest in the world. That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy and Swiss financial responsibility. It should be noted however that Swiss banks have been a safe haven for tax evaders and corrupt leaders around the world so a part of Switzerland’s wealth has been at the expense of the global economy. Only in recent years Switzerland began to take steps towards resolving this issue.
The Swiss model for democracy is unique. The Swiss combine representative democracy with direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hand, this is always possible. The Swiss do not use their power to vote for low taxes and lavish entitlements.
Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding, which means that the government must respect the outcome.2 The following types of referendums exist in Switzerland:
mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged
Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence.
The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.
The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.
The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.
Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members.
It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.
Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.
Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.
Combining representative democracy with direct democracy means that the citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue when they feel that is needed.
Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.
Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this is important.
Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.
Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.
All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. Citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.
The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.
Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation between political parties as individual political parties mostly don’t have a majority so that they need to work with other parties to achieve their goals.
Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited.
Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have these restrictions. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.
Direct democracy undermines the effects of lobbying for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians in order to achieve their objectives.
In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. Hence, a decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.
Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but many are unitary states and not federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.
Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but better safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.
The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.
Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.
To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.
The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.
The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.
Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]
1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/ [link]