Suppose that you had the opportunity to explain to a seven year old why representative democracy was a good idea; what might you consider as the key reason? Where older and more jaundiced ears might sagely agree with Churchill’s view that ‘Democracy is the worst system in the world, apart from all of the other ones’, a seven year old will cut through that and justly ask “What makes it better than the rest?”
Or let me put the question another way – what makes it better that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is decided by a referendum, and not by officials or elected representatives?
It is a question worth asking, as judging by a link shared on several of my social media feeds there is a considerable body of opinion that would not trust the public with this decision. A survey recently conducted by polling company Ipsos Mori (available at this link) showed a massive disconnect between public perceptions of the EU and reality. To give a few of the examples from the survey:
- On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5%1 (around 3.5m people).
- The majority of us (67%) correctly say the UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back – but we overestimate how much we pay compared with other countries.
These headlines have been doing the rounds in social media posts, with the unspoken rider being ‘should we really be trusting this vote to the uninformed?’ And it is a fair question – there is something quite tempting about only allowing people to vote if they have demonstrated reasonable grasp of the issues involved. Of course, the problem with that suggestion is that you would very quickly disqualify masses of the electorate for failing to be sufficiently informed. The logical conclusion to allowing people to be involved in a decision only if they’re informed enough would be to not have public opinion at all – why not have informed guardians of the people deciding on their behalf? So we come back to the question – what reason would you give a seven year old child for defending representative democracy?
One hint to this can be found in the excellent Sex, Lies, and the Ballot Box. A number of chapters look at questions related specifically to polling, but Chapter 7 in particular examines exactly the kind of issues Ipsos Mori have uncovered – the public being wrong about their understanding of issues. The author observes:
One of the perennial puzzles about the nature of mass opinion is how, despite the public knowing little about politics, and caring even less about the ebb and flow of public affairs, collective public opinion often turns out to be coherent and responsive to events and new information.
Three opinions are advanced as to why this may indeed be the case: (1) the public misjudge specifics, but are good at relative judgements (eg. misjudging the level of unemployment, but knowing if there is relatively too much); (2) there is some reasonable communication through official statistics, which is not always trusted (crime statistics being the prime example); and (3) that the average uniformed citizens cancel each other out, leaving the informed ‘opinion leaders’ to shape the direction of public opinion. Or, put more succinctly, the collective wisdom of the electorate tends to be a reasonably sound barometer of the direction the public wish to take.
Of course, with the opinion polls showing the EU referendum currently neck and neck between Leave and Remain, it is understandable that both sides are concerned that the result could be swung by a small number of uniformed voters. Is that really defensible? Would we feel comfortable waking up knowing that the final result was 49.75% to 50.25%, and that the 0.5% difference might not have been decided by the ‘opinion leaders’, but instead by voters who voted based upon incorrect information or assumptions? How would we defend that to our hypothetical seven year old?
For my own part, I would revisit an argument that I made in my previous post: the important thing is not what is decided, but that a decision was made. Self government is indeed dangerous, as any parent will tell you. While freedom to make your own choices gives you maximum potential to react to opportunities and to use your creativity for good, you also have the freedom to make bad or harmful choices – one need not spend that long at any university to see this principle at work! It is dangerous to grant freedom – but it also is the greatest gift to increase human potential, creativity and community. Yes, in our fallen and imperfect state that freedom has been abused, misused and misjudged – but it has also brought out the very best in mankind, and been a bulwark against tyranny.
I posed a question as the title of this article: name your alternative to trusting public opinion? I believe a key part of self government is not only trusting the public to take the right decision most of the time, I think it is also about trusting that the right decision is usually taken in the long term, even when unwise decisions are taken in the short term. It’s about believing that people can take a decision, and in time take even better decisions as they see how those previous decisions play out. It’s about believing that through debate, discourse, and discovery, we will flourish even more than if we passively let a minority lead the way. That’s why it matters how we talk about the electorate in this referendum – and also why we need to trust them.