27 November 2014

Who is more Fiscally Responsible – Citizens or Elected Politicians?

In the blog-series ‘Democratization – Put your Money where your Mouth is with LIG’ I briefly discussed an argument against direct democracy (placing authority directly in the hands of citizens rather than elected politicians) that dates from the time of Plato – the argument being that citizens would make ‘bad decisions’ and don’t possess the necessary intelligence, knowledge and skills required in political decision-making.

I came across the following information when browsing through the comments on a blog regarding the implementation of a Basic Income in Switzerland:

"Switzerland is an interesting laboratory for direct democracy.

I dimly recall a very interesting study by (I believe) University of Zurich (maybe 20 years old).

They analyzed for each of the 26 Swiss cantons (=states): (1) influence of direct democracy on canton politics (which varies by canton. Some cantons don’t have all that much direct democracy. Others such as Appenzell-Innerrhoden don’t even have a parliament because EVERY single law is passed directly by the people). (2) fiscal situation of the state.

The highly fascinating result was this:

the stronger the people can directly influence public spending and taxes, the healthier the canton’s budgets (!!). The people tended NOT to spend more than they had. Rather, the professional politicians (or the canton’s that gave elected officials greater power) tended to be more fiscally irresponsible."

Naturally, my interest was peaked and I went to search for studies about this topic. And, yes, you guessed it – I found the material supporting these claims. I think we can all agree that when states spend beyond their means – we have a case of bad political decision-making. According to the logic of the argument that it would be dangerous to have citizens directly participate in politics, we would expect citizens’ involvement within budgeting decisions to exacerbate fiscal irresponsibility. And yet – here we have an example that not only shows that citizens wouldn’t make matters worse – but that citizens would do better than elected politicians when it comes to balancing the budget.

If at any point it is relevant to ask the citizens for their direct input on a particular topic to increase democratic practices, it would be: how should we spend public funds? Voting a person into office is one thing – but it is the budget that really determines political policy for the coming year. Mandatory budget referendums should be a minimum requirement for any regime to qualify as a democracy, really. When the extent of your political participation is to vote someone into office – then all you have is ‘hope’ that the people in power will use public funds responsibly and for the purposes that you expect them to. Mandatory budget referendums would create a point of direct accountability towards the citizenry that once politicians are in power, they are indeed acting out their mandate on behalf of the people. It would immediately reduce corruption and prevent budgetary deficiencies down the line, where one is suddenly told that the retirement age has to increase and austerity measures are being implemented because there are insufficient public funds and one only then starts wondering ‘well, where did all the money go?’. 

The fiscal problems most countries are experiencing today could have been prevented. It is now a time of walking through consequence that has already been created and yes, it is worthwhile looking for solutions to address current problems head-on – but it is most important to prevent the same scenario from taking place again. In Dutch there is a saying ‘a donkey doesn’t bump his head on the same rock twice’ – seems like humanity can learn a thing or two from donkeys since we have this tendency of not even looking at what it is we bumped our heads on and why – but simply try to put some ice on the wound. However much we may be upset with governments and politicians – we are the ones who gave them the power to do what they did. The consequence that is here is as much ours as theirs – and rightfully so. If anything – let us at least learn from our mistakes – otherwise all the troubles we’re going through will really be for naught. Let us at least enshrine solutions within the constitution and develop new political practices that we can pass on to the next generations, because surely, part of the consequence we are experiencing is due to continuing traditions from previous generations, but that doesn't prevent us from rising to the occasion and creating new traditions to shape a better future.


Post a Comment