Suppose a country’s leaders asked citizens to vote on how to achieve a complex policy goal -- for example, how to make the country’s tax system fairer, or how to reform the immigration system or entitlement programs. And because it is difficult to incorporate nuance into this kind of question, suppose the leaders were able to draft a ballot referendum that posed a binary choice: yes or no, up or down. And then, just for good measure, suppose the leaders told the public that they would honor the results of the referendum.
This all sounds pretty reasonable. But what happens when advocates for one side or the other distort the facts? What happens when well-funded or highly motivated advocates – the same sorts of interests that prompted the U.S. initiative and referendum reforms of the early 20th century – overwhelm the system? What happens when the vaunted marketplace of ideas is hijacked, and citizens have access only to “facts” sponsored by one side or the other? What happens when one group seeks to achieve its goal at the direct expense of another group?
California provides perhaps the best example of a referendum system run amok. The state ballot is annually littered with all sorts of proposals – some well-meaning, others self-serving – which require citizens to make myriad fundamental public policy decisions in the voting booth. Some throw up their hands in frustration and decide not to vote, while others cast their vote aided only by simple slogans, or a skewed universe of facts and analysis.
Sometimes the people make wise decisions, and sometimes they don’t. An example of the latter category is the 2008 ballot initiative Proposition 8, in which a majority of those voting on the issue (but a minority of citizens) voted to take away the right to same-sex marriage, a right recognized by the California Supreme Court just six months earlier.
Earlier this year the United Kingdom had a similar experience with direct democracy, when voters narrowly decided to leave the EU. As in California, citizens were bombarded before the vote with conflicting claims about how Brexit might affect immigration, taxes, trade, the economy, and the right of British subjects to move freely within Europe. They were presented with a binary choice: leave or remain. And elected leaders promised to honor the voters’ decision, costing Prime Minister David Cameron his political career when his remain side lost the referendum.
For all their differences, the United States (including California) and the United Kingdom share the notion that the structure of government includes a higher power, an authority that can nullify voters’ decisions when larger considerations demand it. In both nations, that higher power is the national constitution and the judges who are sworn to interpret and uphold it.
No one should be surprised, therefore, that the London High Court ruled that Parliament, not the British electorate, has the final say about whether the U.K. should leave the EU, particularly when the decision would deprive Britons of rights granted by Parliament.
Thus Parliament, as representatives of all the British people, will ponder, debate, and decide whether to leave the EU. In making its decision, Parliament will consider tax policy issues concerning the EU’s coordinated VAT regime and its proposed adoption of a common consolidated corporate tax base, as well as how a decision to leave or remain in the EU will affect the U.K.’s ability to use tax policy to encourage business investment.
These issues are best left to the legislature – not to the people. As my late Father often said, “truth is not always determined by a show of hands.”