The Limits of Democracy

Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show.

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons – or provinces – voted in favour of the ban.

Democracy; it’s a funny old thing. The democracy which we endure is somewhat different to the democracy which the one the Swiss enjoy. [1]

Referenda are rare in British democracy whereas they are common in Switzerland. The proposed and withdrawn referenda on the EU constitution and Lisbon Treaty reflects the fact that constitutional change is one of those issues deemed serious enough to demand a democratic mandate only a referenda can deliver.

However, in Switzerland a referendum on any new piece of legislation can be held if the sponsor collects 100,000 signatures from the citizenship in the 18 months following its introduction.

So long as a plurality of voters in more than half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons then vote yes, the new bill will be signed into law. The opposition Swiss People’s Party have earned the ire of the Government by introducing the Bill to ban Minarets this way.

There democratic credentials of this referendum seem clear, after all this was no close run thing, more than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted “yes.”

Yet despite all this, banning one particular sort of building seems spectacularly undemocratic. When it is accompanied by a rise in Islamophobic violence, it seems down right authoritarian.

Guthrum over at Old Holborn is managing to do a great disservice to Libertarians everywhere by holding up this as an example of democracy in process.

Bizarrely he concludes with “The people told the Government, not the other way round” when in fact what has happened is the “the people told some other people to stop doing “that”.” Moreover, the told them to do it by co-opting the massive repressive potential of the state.

Paul Sagar has an interesting post on democracy and argues that while democracy is a process and a system of Government, it is also a value. It is assumed that democratic is always better than undemocratic.

However, a democratic outcome is not always better or more legitimate. I once saw Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty speak and she compared democracy to an engine. There are moving parts driving the vehicle forward but there are also parts that must remain stationary for the engine to function.

Our judiciary is not democratic in the majoritarian sense and trials will not and should not be decided by referenda. Even if public outcry demand one outcome it is still right if the opposite decision is delivered.

While it is entirely possible to decry the banning of the building of Minarets but accept that it is democratically sound, I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum.

There as some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda. There are preconditions, without which voting would become a meaningless adjunct to a repressive system of Government.

For example, equality before the law is essential, as is freedom from arbitrary detention. Freedom of conscience is necessary for the plurality of opinion a democracy needs and freedom of association is essential for organising that plurality of opinions.

Before a democracy can function certain preconditions must be met. To be a follower of a legally censured religion is damaging to these basic freedoms that form the foundations of democracy. No majority vote can rewrite the preconditions necessary for a democratic and free society.

As Benjamin Franklin didn’t say: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”

[1] Enjoy, that is, so long as you are not a Muslim architect who’s just been put out of work.

Much, much more discussion over at Liberal Conspiracy.

And all this extra reading too.

15 thoughts on “The Limits of Democracy

  1. Quite right; democracy means a lot more than voting every so many years.

    Besides, more often than not referenda are won or lost based on an issue that is very little to do with what the people are supposed to be voting for.

    France is another country keen on referenda. In 1968 Charles de Gaulle lost a referendum on a tiny constitutional issue, and took it to mean he should resign. Then in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty was more about President Mitterrand than it was about Europe. Then on the EU Constitution, lost because of fears of “the Polish Plumber”.

    Come to think of it, since it’s on-topic, I wrote a bit about referenda and democracy in Europe here, if you’re interested.

    1. That’s an interesting post. Cheers for the link.

      Any referendum in this country on the EU is always going to be about in-out, the constitution would have made the EU a lot easier to manage and like you said, tidy things up a lot.

      Even if you want to withdraw from the Union it would be fairly sensible to support the constitution so that while we are still in it, it is run more efficiently.

      Hey ho. I suppose that’s democracy for you. Irrational and rational preferences carry an equal weight.

  2. Devil’s Advocate Thought: what about the democratic right of a largely ethnic and religiously homogenous group to vote collectively to preserve their shared values and heritage from the threat of perceived erosion and undermining by outsiders?

    In other words: why would it be democratic for a minority of muslims to Switzerland to build minarets that the vast majority of Swiss didn’t want?

    I think you’re conflating “democracy” with “liberalism” (and possibly “multiculturalism”). It’s trickier than that, I fear.

  3. That’s a thoroughly despressing article you’ve linked at Old Holborn.

    The comments on it make me want to bang my head against the wall

  4. As a half-Swiss Briton who voted in favour of the ban I can tell you that we don’t care what you think. Switzerland is wealthier, its people better educated, its system of government more democratic than the tired little island of Great Britain (or is it soon to be England and Wales with a separate Scotland)?
    Enjoy your poverty and jealousy (and being told by the USA what to do).
    PS We all own guns too – something that your totalitarian government would never allow!

    1. Wow, what a perfect little nugget of fuck wittery.

      “As a half-Swiss Briton”

      Wow, so you can be British and Swiss, but I guess not Muslim and Swiss… funny that.

      “I can tell you that we don’t care what you think.”

      Which is why your commenting on a stranger’s blog of course.

      “Switzerland is wealthier, its people better educated, its system of government more democratic than the tired little island of Great Britain”

      You are wealthy, and as the example of Bernie Madoff so eloquently depicts, wealthier equals better.

      If everyone is so smart, how come you voted for such a stupid proposal. (although the programme to licence and distribute heroin is a great step forward, so well done there)

      If you’re so democratic how come you voted for such an undemocratic law? (for reasons why it is undemocratic, see above)

      And don’t think you can get away with saying “duuuhh, but we’re better than da UK!” Because I don’t give a shit, prove you you can stand up to your own standards. I don’t think you’ll be able to.

      “PS We all own guns too – something that your totalitarian government would never allow!”

      And I’m sure your penis is miles bigger than mine. So much bigger, I’m sure I could see it from space!

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