Monday, January 23, 2017

When a referendum is the wrong democratic tool, according to Amartya Sen

Here is a lesson about democracy by one of the greatest progressive intellectuals, Amartya Sen (people that consider themselves progressives and that dispute the democratic credentials of those like myself that question the idea of self-determination referenda in XXI century democracies should pay attention), in a dialogue with Will Hutton about the reedition of his book on collective choice:
"How would you have designed the referendum so it did not produce what you believe to be a frivolous outcome?
I don’t think a referendum is the way of dealing with it. Referendums are a bit like public opinion polls – you do them, sometimes they’re very wrong. I think the best person to read on that is John Stuart Mill, namely his book Considerations on Representative Government. Why is representative government rather than decision by one-shot referendum the right way of dealing with issues? These are complex questions and you need a whole lot of engagement. It isn’t that you have elections once in four or five years and then democracy goes away and you already decided everything in the election... there is a continuing need to think and debate.

For example, austerity wasn’t a part of proposed policy when Cameron won the election but it came in. Now, in this case I believe he made a mistake in moving in that direction, but he didn’t make the mistake on grounds that it wasn’t in the party platform. A representative government gives you the freedom to think about taking into account everything. In this case I believe he made a mistake. But on the other hand he didn’t make a mistake in thinking that since austerity was not OK’d by the voters, it could not be allowed to be thought of. You are in a parliament, you have to think about it, these are important issues to consider.
Referenda are a good way of catching the attention of people, but that has to be followed up by really serious engagement in arguments in parliament and newspapers. There’s also the issue of bias of the media; there are certain types of argument that don’t get the kind of attention that they should get. But if we had had a vigorous public debate inside and outside parliament and with each other and then arrived at some kind of a conclusion in parliament, then that would be something which I would regard to be not frivolous. But to do it out of a one-shot sudden decision?"
There is much more in the interview, and there should be much more in the expanded version of the book, which I already bought on-line.

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