Rarely a clear choice.

Photographer: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Trouble With Referendums

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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Events have lately been mounting an impressive case against referendums. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Colombia rejected a deal to end its decades-long conflict with FARC revolutionaries. Hungary just said no to (modest) European Union quotas for the resettlement of refugees. Poor choices all.

These recent cases aren’t anomalies. They’re consistent with a history of bungled decisions and unintended consequences. California’s years of experience in putting ballot initiatives to a popular vote point the same way: The state is often, with some justice, called ungovernable.

Referendums aren’t conducive to good government and are usually best avoided. Yet it’s important to be clear about why they work badly. The reason isn’t that voters are too stupid to make hard choices, that professional politicians know best, or that democracy is overrated -- views that seem to be gaining currency and a fresh veneer of academic respectability. Such explanations are more dangerous than the botched plebiscites that prompt them.

The real problem is the nature of political choice. Decisions on public policy are highly interconnected. To cast them as clear-cut, once-and-for-all options is to misunderstand the challenge of democratic government.

Take Brexit: on the face of it, a straightforward yes-or-no decision -- remain in the European Union or leave. In reality, the meaning of either course is so elastic as to be hard to grasp.

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Quit the EU

Suppose Britain had voted to stay. Its prospects would have depended on, among other things, myriad policy choices that it and its European partners would have gone on to make. And that’s nothing, of course, beside the range of uncertainty presented by exit -- involving not just future policy choices but also the highly uncertain terms of divorce. (This increase in risk, persisting for the duration of the exit process, may be among the biggest costs of the decision to quit.)

Here’s the point. Politics doesn’t happen at a single point in time; it’s a continuing process. And its choices aren’t ever simple, separate one from another; they are complicated and contingent on other choices. Facing decisions like this, the electorate as a whole, no matter how smart, cannot choose wisely -- least of all if its options are hollowed out and reduced to “yes” or “no.”

Referendums are flawed in other ways, too. The outcome often depends on the exact phrasing of the referendum question, which opens the method to manipulation -- undermining it as a way to confer legitimacy on a clear course of action, which is supposed to be the point. And, as Brexit illustrates, plebiscites are rarely devised exclusively to resolve the issue at hand. Governments may use them for other purposes, such as uniting a divided ruling party, or placing the opposition at a tactical disadvantage.

Democracy of course requires consent, voters ought to be engaged, and they can and should debate the issues thoroughly. But as a practical matter, when it comes to balancing competing ends, striking compromises and accepting trade-offs, they have to appoint representatives they trust and can hold accountable, and delegate the task to them.

Nonetheless representative democracy, correctly understood, is an expression of respect for citizens, not a verdict on their intellectual powers. It’s wrong -- and dangerous -- to see votes like the ones in Britain, Colombia and Hungary as proving the electorate’s unfitness for self-government.

Trust in democratic institutions is fading in many countries. Increasingly, an anti-government, anti-elitist mood is driving events, not least in the U.S. Many voters feel ignored, let down and disrespected by mainstream politicians. More often than not, they have good reason to feel that way.

The remedy for angry electorates and disconnected politicians is not the referendum. That device, attractive as it may sometimes seem, is just too unreliable. The remedy is a political class that remembers its place, listens to voters with respect, and succeeds in the day-to-day task of governing. Representative democracy almost always beats “direct democracy” -- but to work well, it has to, you know, represent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net