Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Trouble with direct democracy

The populace of Missouri just voted to ban gay marriage. This illustrates one of the disadvantages of direct democracy -- it's worse at preserving minority rights.

Suppose a minority is seriously harmed by some proposal, while the majority is unaffected and supports it. If you're a representative, it's often smart to vote against the proposal. Sure, you go against what most of the people think, but most of the people will forgive you. You can still win their votes on other grounds. The minority, however, will get mobilized and organized against you. No matter what stances you take on other things, you've lost their vote.

Direct democracy is different. A bunch of people with vague feelings of unease about gay people getting married -- people like my dad, for whom this would never be a make-or-break issue -- can swing the vote dramatically.

Now, my guess is that the amendment would have easily passed a representative body as well. But I'd be surprised if it got 72% of the vote there.


Dennis said...

I'm not sure you've got the right angle on that one. Say that minority is 15%; then direct democracy gets you 85% for oppression, passing. If the minority is spread among the representative body optimally, it can make up at most a majority of constituents for 30% of the representatives, which seems good until you consider that if said minority is distributed evenly, no representative has a strong motivation to vote against it; everyone can offend 15% of their constituents. Since the latter is more likely than the former (DOMA etc.), I'd say direct democracy probably wins this fight.

Either way, the better question is about what kinds of protections for minority rights are you going to put into your democratic system, i.e. what things can the government not do even if most people want to do them (or, more typically, what kinds of things are legally hard for majorities to do)? Sensible protections for minority rights have to come from this source, precisely because no system based on self-interest can truly protect them.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, Neil's point was that, if the issue is important enough to the disadvantaged minority, then they will be single-issue voters while the majority will not be. So, in a district with a 15% minority, a legislator who opposed the oppression who was running against someone who favored it would have a guaranteed 15% of the vote on his side, and he'd have a good shot at winning over a decent portion of the 85% on other issues.

Alexander said...

The situation in Missouri is a problem for direct democracy but a point for federalism. Federalism is so closely identified as a reactionary tool against progressive values, that progressives fail to use it to their advantage in situations like this.

States like Missouri will place themselves in opposition to states like California and Massachusetts. The result will be a net gain for the progressive states as homosexual couples tend to make excellent taxpayers (high revenue generation/low service demands).

Dennis said...

Anonymous: So while it is correct that losing 15% of the voters is a hit, I don't think that invalidates my point. The thing is that while it's sometimes true that oppressing the minority will screw you as a representative with those voters, that will hurt precisely in proportion to the distribution of voters in your district. 15% for everyone in a legislature probably doesn't hurt enough legislators (who presumably actually care strongly about this issue or wouldn't be proposing it, 'cause why be randomly oppressive?) to swing the vote. If the population isn't evenly distributed it certainly makes the issue a bigger deal for the more affected representatives, but that means that it's smart to vote for it for a larger percentage of the legislators.

At any rate, your critique has pointed out an interesting problem with the model, which I'll probably think a bit more about before saying anything.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Many smart commenters! I am proud of my blog. Dan correctly interprets me, Alexander makes a cool point about how gay people improve the tax base, and Dennis' comment about distribution of the minority population is an important real-world constraint on my claim. I feel like posting more...