A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.