Friday, July 30, 2004

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patri Mori.

The recent controversy over the ratification process of the new European Union charter, which has many countries facing widespread public demands for referendums, brought to light an interesting issue. While in most countries national authorities have quickly agreed to place the ratification in the hands of a national plebiscite, German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder has been reluctant, citing a provision of the German Basic Law (their Constitution) that prohibits referenda/propositions/plebiscites.

Given that increased direct participation of a population in the decisions of its government is held to be axiomatically good according to "Liberal Democratic" values (the philosophical underpinnings of every Western democracy), how can the United State have written that prohibition into the German constitution, and why did we do it?

Adolf Hitler's rise to power was not a coup d'etat, nor a military conquest. He ended the political hierarchy within the system. He overthrew the Weimar Republic's democratic apparatus by asking the people to vote for propositions that sounded like good ideas, knowing that the average German, like the average America, does not read the newspaper, and has little idea of the issues of the day other than a few quick soundbites. Very little Adolf Hitler did was illegal, even though virtually all of it was immoral, and he did it with the manufactured consent of his people, as expressed by repeated referenda, the issues cloaked by nationalism and patriotism.

Beyond the danger of a charismatic demagogue overthrowing the republic, when considering propositions and referenda there is also a basic question of utility. If 55% of 280 million people vote for a tailor, I will definitely say that must be a very good tailor, and give him my business. If 55% of 280 million people say that no one should get side vents in a jacket, I will ignore them. That they are many does not mean they are educated on the issues. Representative democracies are based on the premise that governing should be left to professionals, and that the public's ability to vote in elections is useful only to the extent that it keeps those professionals responsive and accountable. We hire politicians to do a job on the premise that they are more educated on the issues than we, just as we hire a mechanic to fix our cars; the majority of us have as little an idea of what the economic implications of immigration are, as we do of how to replace a ball bearing in a wheel assembly.

Why then should we interfere with the process of governing any more than we do in the process of automotive repair?

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