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Thu. June 20, 2024
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Direct Democracy
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Aberdeen doesn’t need London to collect its trash, Milwaukee doesn’t need Washington to run its schools. If that government is best which governs least, then surely that unit of government which has less to govern—usually the local town or community—is likely to be ‘best’ at least in terms of doing little harm, and being more response to the popular will.

Europeans, used to Brussels-directives making all too many decisions for them, may see democratic excess in voting for the garbage man, District Attorney, or Police Chief. But where economies of scale permit, there is much to be said for maximizing local autonomy. Which means voting for most officials as a means of securing public legitimacy and trust. Direct Democracy is precisely the tool with which to restore a sense of trust into politics - something that is sorely lacking in the current system. Not the least because of politicians undeserving, officials unaccountable, and institutions too far removed to convey any sense of influence on the part of the voter.

The principle that ‘politics is local’ is an ideal, not a rigid rule -- and is rather different from the popular check on government abuse represented by referenda, initiatives, and recall petitions. Yet there is a common thread here, in that deference to popular local government and direct-voter-decisionmaking are a healthy corrective to overweaning bureaucracy, centralized and unresponsive power elites, and the growth of a well-connected political and media class that disdains public opinion. The EU Constitution, brought down largely by groups of highly-motivated citizens in France and Denmark who actually read (and publicized) its provisions, is only the most notable victim of that attitude.

Direct Democracy itself isn't the answer to the many problems of government, but it may be the most efficient tool with which to tackle them. No government respects limits without external pressure and such pressure can only be brought to bear by voters who are involved in the issues because they think their vote has a definite effect on their lives. This means that local institutions must be invested with actual power - most importantly raising and spending the people’s tax money - lest they just become another unaccountable layer of bueraucracy.

Just by taking an interest in their candidates (rather than voting 'against' the ruling class of politicians in a fit of general disgust with their ilk), voters can assure quality results. They can be a con-structive, not de-structive force, prodding government to innovate and be accountable, raising issues otherwise neglected, and secure results.

In the US such movements literally created the environmental and tax-limitation movements; this fall, Maine will likely vote (for the second time) to decide whether bear-trapping should continue to be legal; Texas may vote on a Lance Armstrong-promoted plan for a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute; and New Jersey is considering a popular vote on rolling back astronomical property taxes. In Europe referenda have, for now, restrained the tendency of Brussels to get too-big-for-its-britches.

Voting for your school-board invariably brings to the polls Parents: those actually concerned with the outcome. Rather than letting Washington or Westminster judge what is best for junior, Moms and Dads can judge how their schools are performing. A locally elected sheriff will stand little chance of re-election if he promises more police and less crime on the streets without delivering. The same is not so true of national politicians or parties, who make so many promises, few can follow their lack of follow-through. And on the police issue it's not surprising, either, because they are not generally in charge of hiring policemen. Promises are easily made when one lacks direct power to produce the promised legislative (and practical) result.

Divisions of power, clashes of will, and contradictory duties are a perplexing but essential partner to limited government and hence to the advance of freedom itself. There is nothing wrong with professional politicians or expert bureaucrats. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with giving both a kick in the pants now and then. That’s why voter initiatives and respect for the primacy of local governance is a critical element of modern governance; a vital corrective to the tendency of self-perpetuating governmental growth.

Let parents bring complaints to their local school officials, not the Minister of Education. To do otherwise is to foster government for the sake of government—when it’s supposed to be an instrument of the people.

Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations. George A. Pieler is Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.

Learn more about the Direct Democracy movement in the UK at Direct Democracy UK.

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