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At the core of democracy is the principle that every human being able to speak up for himself, is allowed to participate in the democratic process. That’s a healthy and modern principle: we all want to influence the laws and regulations that apply to us.


When we take this principle seriously, it means something else too: namely that we cannot decide on issues we don’t know anything about.


The limits of democracy


Which are those issues? Generally speaking, they are issues for which you have to have specialized knowledge, skills or experience if you want to discuss and co-decide them. Such issues have their place in two other areas of society, namely, cultural life and the economy.


Cultural life is the area that encompasses, among others, education, culture, science and health care. In this area, it’s appropriate for the people who work there or are involved in some other way (for example: students, teachers and parents who belong to a school; artists and scientists, doctors and patients) to be autonomous on the basis of their experience, expertise and commitment: they themselves decide what they do, when they do it, and how to do it the best way.


A teacher should let himself be led by his expertise and by the needs of the children in his class. An artist follows his inspiration. A scientist follows his research questions and sees where they bring him. A doctor treats patients on the basis of his expertise and on the person sitting in front of him… Democratic laws or rules do not add anything useful here.

Something similar can be seen if we look at the economy. There, the needs of the consumer should play center stage and all who work in the economy should combine their knowledge and skills to answer those needs as efficiently and completely as possible. The question as to how that can best be done, cannot be democratically decided.


The task of democracy


Regarding these two areas, cultural life and the economy, the task of democracy is to set limits.


Those limits should ensure that freedom reigns in cultural life (freedom of the press; freedom of speech; freedom to choose a therapy; religious freedom; scientific freedom; and so on) and that no ‘foreign influences’ enter the arena. Those foreign influences could lead to a type of state religion, official art or censorship, or to forms of education, art or science that have to serve economic interests.


Regarding the economy, democracy’s task is to ensure that the needs of consumers take center stage and that man or the environment won’t be damaged by economic interests.


Direct democracy


In the area where democracy does belong, it should be considerably deepened. Democracy literally means ‘government by the people’. In a democracy, there’s no authority above the citizens that can impose laws on them. Laws are a free (social) contract between the members of a politico-legal community, the citizens. Laws have authority because the citizens have been able to approve them in some way.


In parliamentary systems, that’s not the case. A handful of elected politicians take the decisions, and they can ignore the majority of citizens or their own election promises. It’s true that citizens can decide not to re-elect politicians, but they have no means to prevent the adoption of laws that aren’t supported by the majority.


Direct democracy would make a good addition to our current parliamentary system. Through the direct-democratic channel, citizens should be able to take back the mandate they’ve given the politicians at their election. Binding referendums and popular initiatives seem to be the most suitable ways of achieving this at national level. Normally, the parliament has the right to decide. But when enough people (say three per cent of the voters) want it, the mandate returns to the citizens who then decide by means of a referendum.


The principle of equality means that citizens should have the same right to decide as parliamentarians do. That means that referendums should be binding, that citizens can also put their own proposals to a vote (the popular initiative), and that there are no arbitrary turnout quorums.


In Switzerland and half of the American states, among others, there’s over a century of experience with radical direct democracy. Research shows that there’s a connection between direct democracy and higher economic growth, somewhat lower taxes, lower tax evasion and lower national debt. (See John G. Matsusaka’s book “ For the many or the few?”  or chapter 5 of “Direct democracy”, a book by Jos Verhulst and Arjen Nijeboer, mentioned at the bottom of this page.)


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