Swiss minarets and democracy


The Swiss population’s decision in a recent referendum to ban the construction of minarets has led predictably to some ill-considered and hysterical criticism of classical (direct, plebiscitary) democracy. Apparently, when decision-making power is removed from the brightest and the best, our elected parliamentary representatives, and bestowed upon the irresponsible and irrational public, this sort of result – racist, intolerant, disdainful of minorities – is bound to happen.

It’s difficult to see why this should logically be so. The concern with simple majority rule – that, coarsely implemented, it can override minority rights that should properly be protected – applies also to the elected assemblies filled worldwide by male lawyers and technocrats. (This is recognised in supermajoritarian rules like the US congressional filibuster.) Direct or indirect decision-making makes no difference in this regard.

The specific objection to participatory democracy, then, seems to rely on the same criticisms made by the hard right of universal adult suffrage. In various forms, each boils down to a claim that people are stupid. 

  • The theory of rational ignorance suggests that, with the payoff to each individual voter (i.e. the probability that her vote will decide the election) effectively zero, and the marginal cost of making an informed choice (e.g. time spent becoming familiar with issues and policies) comparatively high, the inevitable outcome of modern electorates with broad franchises is dumb voters and, hence, bad policies.
  • Straussians, meanwhile, believe that only the higher reaches of nature’s hierarchy can safely contemplate philosophical truths. The latter, broadly proclaimed to “common people”, may endanger social cohesion. To ensure proper functioning, therefore, convenient fibs such as religion or Sarah Palin may be necessary for a mass audience.
  • A broad set of libertarians, Austrian economists and followers of F.A. Hayek suggests that the aggregation of social preferences and other information can be better performed by the market than by voting. Thus Hayek’s belief that the market’s spontaneous order should be placed beyond the reaches of popular sovereignty (i.e. economic matters should not be subject to legislative control by popularly-elected assemblies) finds latter-day support in Bryan Caplan’s claim that voter errors on economic issues exhibit systematic bias (pdf), and Robin Hanson’s proposal to replace elections with betting markets (pdf).

These views can be swiftly dispatched – Strauss’s as counterfactual and absurd; Hayek’s as transparently begging the question; “rational ignorance” on the grounds that there exists a more parsimonious explanation for voter apathy (due to partisan convergence in crucial policy areas, for many people the marginal benefit of even the decisive vote is close to zero). The point, though, is that a belief in popular stupidity or irrationality is, well, popular. 

A subtly different argument sustains the preference for parliamentary election over direct democracy. The latter is held to be uniquely vulnerable to exploitation by populist demagogy. Either people are inherently credulous and suggestible, or they lack the expertise and time to give proper scrutiny to proposed laws and issues under debate. After all, even professional politicians need full-time assistants, paid research staff and departmental bureaucrats. The point may be provisionally conceded. Yet, out of the small proportion of collective decisions that can plausibly be put to a full popular vote, few require technical or domain-specific expertise (as do, for example, public health issues or military affairs): the recent Swiss vote did not. Where mere political judgement is required (over, say, government spending priorities or broad policy direction), their seems little reason to prefer the opinion of professional, career politicians over society as a whole. Indeed, even in parliamentary systems such as Australia’s, laws are not made on the floor of the elected chambers, after submitting to debate and scrutiny. They are concocted by an executive branch (the party leadership, with occasional participation from Cabinet), then shunted through parliament by party discipline or the whip.

Ultimately, then, the chief stricture against direct democracy is the one we began with: mob rule. Popular decisions must be mediated by representatives in an elected assembly, otherwise unmediated enthusiasms will see a majority swamp the rights of minorities. The locus classicus of the view is article 10 of the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, chief author of the US Constitution. Despite the hallowed context, it’s a pretty shoddy argument. Madison’s stated objective is to prevent a majority faction sacrificing “to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” A “republic”, he argues (and by which he means government by an elite of elected representatives), will accomplish this task better than participatory democracy. Furthermore a republic broad in scope (the federal Union) will do better than a small republic. Why? A democracy is by definition small-scale, few in number and narrow in scope, and this enables its capture by a majority with a common interest. On the other hand, a republic involves “the subsitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice”. With both territory and population larger, an overbearing majority is not readily formed. A step removed from popular passions, representative bodies served to “refine and enlarge the public view, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens” able to “best discern the true interest of the country”. Refine, filter of impurities: the “public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.”

There are several problems with this argument, but the most glaring is that Madison allows himself not to argue for parliamentary republicanism against participatory democracy. Instead, he merely argues that large-scale governments uphold minority rights better than small ones; ex hypothesi this must apply to democracy, which is assumed always to involve few people.  The possibilities presented may be visualised in the 2 x 2 matrix below – note the empty element.

                                   TYPE OF GOVERNMENT
    Representative republic Popular democracy
SIZE Large             Federal Union                     ?
Small                       States     Cabals of a few

It is, however, possible for us to imagine a large-scale democracy, in which Madison’s argument does not apply. First, the progress of information technology and cryptography make society-wide electronic plebiscites feasible. Second, the law of large numbers tells us that a sufficiently large random sample is representative of an underlying population. If we select members from a population at random, we should expect to get a more accurate picture of their society than via some other decision procedure – say, elections. And unsurprisingly that is what we see throughout the world. Whatever the indicator used – gender, race, wealth, education – professional politicians as a group are strikingly unrepresentative of the electorates they purport to represent. Choice of candidates based on merit (or oratorical skills, ambition, ideology, party allegiance, backers) uniformly produces assemblies filled with white, middle-aged, male lawyers. If administrators were instead chosen by lot, diversity would follow. This, rather than Madison’s republic, is the best protection against majority “faction”. 

More instructively, agendas, terms of choice and protocols for plebiscites should be set by randomly selected representative councils, rather than based on petitions. Petitions are self-selecting, and a narrow clique of interested people (in the Swiss case, of Islamophobes; in California, tax-revolt suburbanites) can force the broader public to vote on something about which it may have no strong opinion, which can produce perverse outcomes. The repeated failure of opinion polls to predict the Swiss result suggests that this did, in fact, occur. The problem, then, lies not with majority rule, direct democracy, or the putative “mob rule” it allows. Plebiscites are a perfectly responsible form of decision-making, even compared to the alternatives. Voting paradoxes have long been known to afflict most systems. The difficulty of combining majority rule with minority rights is therefore not unique to participatory democracy. Its origin does not lie in popular stupidity or inexperience, the absence of civilised gentleman to filter the unreason of popular passions, or even some necessary institutional inadequacy. As we have seen, the mechanisms to ensure democracy is fair and representative do exist (for more, see here, here and here). The solution to outcomes like the Swiss referendum is therefore the deepening of democracy and popular power, not its attenuation.


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3 Responses to “Swiss minarets and democracy”

  1. christina Says:

    Could the puzzling result of the Swiss referendum on minarets be due in part to manipulative language on the actual ballot paper? I’m having trouble finding the actual wording of the Swiss referendum question on the internet (probably because I don’t speak French or German), but I know that in 1999 there were a number of issues with what the Australian referendum on forming a republic was actually asking voters to decide. The question wasn’t simply asking Australians if they wanted a republic, but if they were prepared to accept a republic in which voters did not directly elect their head of state. Furthermore, the referendum asked two separate questions, requiring a ‘Yes/Yes,’ ‘Yes/No,’ ‘No/Yes’ or ‘No/No’ response. I think it’s a clever political strategy to make referendum questions so convoluted. Not to support claims that voters are total dupes, but I think the tactic of combining two separate issues into one meta-question that voters have to decipher at the polling booths (in essence, do you want a republic AND/OR do you want to insert a preamble into the constitution) clouds the decision people actually needed to make. There’s a lot more information on wikipedia:,_1999

  2. Nick Says:

    Yep, Australia’s republic referendum was one of the more egregious examples of “framing” being used to influence a result:

    In this case the wording was pretty straightforward: “Der Bau von Minaretten ist verboten” – the building of minarets is forbidden. But sometimes the very fact of raising a topic for discussion – or for constitutional amendment! – introduces bias. A viewpoint is given unwarranted relevance or legitimacy merely because polite society presents it as one option among many of equal worth. There’s an implicit framing effect in making something (e.g. the buiilding of minarets) salient, and asking people either to approve or disapprove.

    As David Foster Wallace said somewhere, it’s like taking out a newspaper spot, advertising yourself as a babysitter, then writing at the end: “Don’t worry – not a p@ed0phile!” You’ve just put the thought in everyone’s head, and you won’t get any work.

  3. Everyone for themselves? « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] and anti-social-media denunciations. Conservatives have long used it to argue against popular democracy. Unfortunately their fantasy of a ‘mob’ of selfish individuals, unbound by social […]

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