Unnecessary ballot boxes.

Photographer: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Greece Is Doing Democracy Wrong

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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The Greeks invented democracy. So it might seem natural and appropriate that they’re having a referendum Sunday to decide whether to take a bailout deal previously offered by the European Union that would require austerity measures.

But in fact, under conditions of crisis, a referendum is a truly terrible idea. There are times when going around elected representatives is democratically valuable -- but in the middle of a life-or-death negotiation isn’t one of them. It’s a fantasy to think that some magical “popular will” can emerge from the vote by a divided Greek public.

QuickTake Greece's Fiscal Odyssey

In a crisis, effective democracy requires an elected leader to do what he or she thinks is right -- and take the consequences later, when elections are called. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s failure to do this isn’t democratic -- it’s irresponsible hedging in the hopes of maintaining popularity even after a change in the policies that elected him. The popular will is in any case a useful fiction, as the Greek public is soon to learn, in case they’ve forgotten.

To start, recall that no government has ever made all its decisions on the basis of referendums. The original Athenian assembly allowed all of the city’s free male citizens who had done two years of military service to speak and vote. But even that body chose magistrates who served for a year and could be held accountable at the end of their terms.

A modern government, with many more functions than an ancient one, has a far greater need to enable elected representatives to do the actual business of governing. This is partly a matter of practicality. The logistics of Sunday's hastily called referendum are going to be difficult to manage.

But a much more serious reason is that mass collective decision-making lacks the capacity for nuance. A referendum must ask a single question: yes or no, up or down. But crucial government decisions very rarely take this binary form. Thus, the Greek vote is over acceptance of a bailout offer that technically speaking has already expired. European leaders can choose to re-extend the offer, either before or after the referendum. Or they can refuse to make the bailout available, again, either before or after the vote. In fact, European leaders can wait until the referendum is over, and then decide to extend new terms altogether.

All this simply shows what’s obvious: Europe and Greece are in a negotiation, and it is impossible for an entire people to negotiate by referendum. Sure, a sophisticated leader can use the threat of a referendum to enhance his or her negotiating position. That happens in big-ticket European negotiations all the time, as leaders warn their opposite numbers that without concessions, they won’t be able to get a treaty past their own public.

Despite appearances, that’s not what Tsipras is doing. If it were, the referendum would be taking place after a deal had been struck.

Instead, this referendum is taking place while a deal is still being negotiated. The political logic on Tspiras’s side is pretty simple. He ran for office promising something unrealistic -- no austerity for Greece. Now that he’s in office, he needs to do what all politicians are supposed to do, namely act responsibly in the light of real-world conditions.

George H.W. Bush is the classic example. Having said “Read my lips, no new taxes,” he asked Congress to raise taxes once the nation’s fiscal health required it. Bush paid a significant price -- he wasn’t re-elected, at least partly because he changed his mind. But the old-fashioned Bush did exactly the right thing: He staked his political future on acting responsibly.

Tsipras doesn’t want to take that risk. Rather than accepting a deal that requires austerity, then waiting for the next election, he wants pre-assurance from the public that he won’t be held responsible for new policies. Even a referendum on a deal already signed would be superior to trying for advance assurances.

Worst of all, it almost certainly won’t work. A referendum depends on the useful myth that there exists some popular will, a voice of the people that can be ascertained at the ballot box. But “the people” don’t really exist -- actual voters do. And actual voters tend to be divided on difficult policy questions.

The Greek referendum is likely to be close. If a handful more voters say yes to the austerity, that won’t really insulate Tsipras from subsequent criticism or from being voted out of office if the plan causes unmanageable pain for the Greek economy.

If a handful more voters say no, that also won’t mean that the Greek “people” have rejected austerity. It’ll just mean that a little more than half the population isn’t willing to take a deal and would prefer to roll the dice and see what happens.

If democracy is going to work, it requires us to recognize that elected leaders must act on behalf of the public by doing what they think is right -- and gambling that they will be re-elected. If they aren’t, that’s democracy in action.

Alongside democracy, the Greeks also invented tragedy. Let’s hope their misuse of the former doesn’t lead to the latter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net