Why politics must not be simple
Politics is too complicated. Complex problems must be explained to the people in simple terms. People have a right to understand what politicians decide in their name. The political establishment is arrogant, the people need politicians that speak their language and have an ear for what the people claim. The slogans are: „Get back control“ for the people, „give the country back“ to the people“.
One paragraph and six times used the word „people“ – that must be populism pure ! However democracy is about the people. But who is „the people“ ?
The Arrow paradox – well known in decision theory – shows that a list of preferences is not transitive, meaning that there is no optimal way of transforming individual preferences into a collective decision. All collective decisions inevitably violate the preferences of some individuals.
Democracy is linked to majority rule. Rousseau would claim that decisions stemming from a majority decision do express the „volonté général“, the general will. Even if it is not the will of all, the „volonté de tous“, it is an obligation of everybody to obey to the general will. This leads to what is called the „Winner takes all“ approach of democracy.
But where does that leave the minority of the people ? Are the loosers less „people“ than the winners ? If politics would be that simple it would be easy to follow Rousseau and declare the final decision to be a kind of general will of „the people“ including the loosers, who by living in a democracy accept that the will of the majority must be transformed into their own will after a vote has been casted.
This is the rationale why a majority of pro-EU Labour MPs and all but one of the pro-EU Tories thought they must respect the result of the Brexit referendum even against their own conscience.
It was a great vicory for democracy, when the British Supreme Court gave control back to Parliament on such an important question as Brexit. So Parliament got back its responsibility for the future of the country and the people.
But what did the MPs make of it ? They ratified an opinion poll, since a non-obligatory referendum is just an opinion poll with a strong political signal, but not more. It is certainly not founding legality – that is still a privilege of the parliament.
But is this the way a parliament must represent „the people“ ? Sure, this is the easy way, plainly understandable, avoiding all allegations of being arrogant and believing one could know better than the „general will“. But why have a parliament then ? One could have a „direct democracy“ like in Switzerland an decide all important national questions by referenda.
The reason is simple: democracy must not be too simple ! Direct democracy and referenda are simple democracy without safeguards. Parliamentary democracy is complicated democracy with safeguards. But why have safeguards ? Why prevent the „general will“ to prevail and have endless debates and hearings of elected representatives ? Aren’t that safeguards against „the people“ – in fact against ourselves ?
There are several reasons why „We, the people“ need safeguards against ourselves. One is that any rational decision needs time to study the consequences – the wanted and especially the unwanted consequences. Human beings tend to make mistakes – even worse they love to persist in error and to avoid admitting failures.
Parliamentary democracy has built-in procedures that make errors less probable – although procedures cannot avoid all mistakes. More important: parliaments can correct errors either in the same legislature or after new elections bringing in different politicians.
To have hearings on all main topics, to put any legislation through three readings, debating the pro and contra, looking thoroughly into possible damaging side effects, putting it to a second chamber, in most countries an elected house, in Britain to the unelected but very expert House of Lords, all that makes legislation a slow and complex procedure but much safer for „Us, the people“ than any shortcut-decision with possibly long term consequences.
The referendum ideology is today widespread and has become a real danger for democracy. It is high time to fight for paliamentary democracy which is the best way to represent the people.
A second reason why we need safeguards against „ourselves“ ist that the „volonté général“ is a fiction. And it is a dangerous fiction because it violates basic minority rights. Imagine a country where the division of political parties and opinions reflects the ethnic or religious composition ot the population. Then there is „We“ and „Them“ – not „Ourselves“! There are many examples for such a situation: the divide in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans or in (former British) Guyana.
Guyana has two main populations both imported by British slave traders or work contractors, one from British India the other from Africa. For some times elections were always won by the Indian population, the people of African origin were only a little less in numbers but still minoritarian and therefore virtually and permanently excluded from power until the demographic change led to the actual opposite situation where the Indian part will in the future have difficulties to get any majority any more. Such „Winner-takes-all“-democracy cannot be stable because the „Looser-takes-nothing“ approach will disrupt the society, when the looser has no chance to become a winner one day.
The war in Kosovo broke out when the Serbian/Yougoslavian president Miloszevic abandoned minority rights of the Albanian speaking community in this autonomous province of Serbia. Now independent Kosovo is closely watched how it handles the new minority of Serbs in Northern Kosovo – up to now not satisfactory.
Any peace in the Balkans or in Northern Ireland will depend on the protection of minorities. In fact when Eire became independent the secession of the northern counties reflected the fear that the staunch catholic majority would impose their views on the loyalist protestants. But then – as happens quite often after secessions – the former minority became a majority and imposed their will against the new minority of catholics in Northern Ireland. This was a recipee for troubles – and Northern Ireland had enough of it.
A mature parliamentary democracy is not just about the majority overwhelming the minority. It is also about compromise, about respecting the rights and the soul of the minorities. That is the real safeguard against ourselves splitting into „we“ and „them“. Without a basic consensus about living together no democracy will survive.
If a member of parliament is representing „the people“, it means he or she has to represent the whole people and take the will of all different views into account. So only then after weighing all arguments and after trying to include as much of the minority views as is compatible with a general approach – the majority may prevail. Breaking the will of the minority may break the society, and (against Thatcher) there is such thing as society !
One must take care of the Arrow paradox. On each aspect of a decision the preferences of the voters in each constituency may be different. So no simple opinion poll can save the MP from the duty to weigh all arguments himself and make the best possible decision. That is complex, it must be explained even if it is not that simple to explain, but it should not be too simplified.
So please do not make politics simple – that would do harm to democracy, let it be as complex and complicated as the real world is – and keep the safeguards of parliamentary democracy.