Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Californian Union

The Economist magazine reports that the European Union, long under criticism for its democracy deficit, has without publicizing it given to citizens in Europe significantly enhanced power to pass laws through referenda:

Thanks to a barely debated clause in the Lisbon treaty, the EU is about to embark on an experiment in direct democracy. Within a year, the European Citizens’ Initiative will come into effect. One million EU citizens from a “significant number” of countries will be able to ask the European Commission to put forward new draft laws.

As with so many bits of the Lisbon treaty, which came into force in December, it is not clear how the citizens’ initiative will work in practice, or even if it is a good idea. Euro-cheerleaders spent years banging on about the need for Lisbon, saying its new rules would make Europe simpler, more efficient and more democratic. Now they have the treaty, many of the same people are muttering and wailing about unresolved problems hidden in its leaden prose. Interview senior Brussels types about Lisbon, and the same phrases come up again and again: “we have no idea how this bit will work” and “of course, national leaders had no real idea what they were signing.”

Well, leave that last bit aside; this we have come to expect. What is likely to happen in an environment of empowered democracy like this? I suspect that the wall that the Eurocrats have built against the rampaging democratic mob will not hold. Anything that Europeans vote in a referendum to ask the European commission to do, the European commission will ultimately have to do.

At first blush this seems like a substantial improvement over the standard European practice of rerunning referenda until they get the results they like, of European leaders expressing contempt over the stupidity of the people they rule, etc. In fact though, the European referendum process is likely to be a problem. The most informative example is probably California. There, democracy is direct; people vote, and they make law immediately. In Europe, that is not the case, but again this is unlikely to be much of a meaningful barrier.

And results in California have been none too reassuring. Californians have repeatedly voted to reserve certain portions of the budget for specific purposes, imposing major constraints on future legislatures trying to balance budgets. They have repeatedly enacted measures driven primarily by special-interest advertising, and have shown a marked propensity to heavily discount the future in pursuit of the interests of the selfish present. The referendum process in California, which my high school-history teachers assured me was designed to break special-interest control of the California legislature, has in fact enhanced the ability of pressure groups to rent-seek. Few serious observers contend that the current California referendum pattern – where a small group of people hire signature gatherers, and then blitz the airwaves with 30-second advertisements designed to roil the emotions, has led to better governance.

Added to this effect is the fact that a prime target of European referenda is likely to be the thing that European officials don’t let Europeans talk about – immigration and cultural assimilation in particular. None of this will be good for European social cohesion. But at least it’s democratic.



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