INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM

It is sometimes argued that a democratic system requires the embodiment of the initiative and the referendum in the constitution. A people, it is said, does not really control its own life if its only direct participation in the business of making legal imperatives is confined to choosing the persons responsible for their substance. By the initiative, the popular will can take positive form; and by the referendum, the people can prevent action by its representatives with which it is not in agreement. Direct government, it is claimed, provides a necessary supplement to a representative system; otherwise, as Rousseau said of the English people, it is only free at election time.

But this is, it may be suggested, both to mistake the nature of the problems which have to be decided, and the place at which popular opinion can obtain the most valuable results in action. In all modern states, the size of the electorate is necessarily so large that the people can hardly do more, as a whole people, than give a direct negative or affirmative to the questions direct government would place before them. Legislation, however, is a matter not less of detail than of principle; and no electorate can deal with the details of a measure submitted to it for consideration. Direct government, in fact, is too crude an instrument for the purposes of modern government. It fails to make discussion effective at the point where discussion is required; and it leaves no room for the process of amendment. One might, it is true, leave certain broad questions of principle to popular vote, whether, for instance, the supply of electricity should be a national or a private service. But all other questions are so delicate and complex that the electorate would have neither the interest nor the knowledge, when taken as an undifferentiated electorate, to arrive at adequate decisions.

Nor is this all. Not only can most questions not be framed in a way which can make direct government effective; the secondary results of the system are also unsatisfactory. It is hardly compatible, for instance, with the parliamentary system since it places the essential responsibility for measures outside the legislature. Such a division of responsibility destroys that coherence of effort which enables a people adequately to judge the work of its representatives. It assumes, further, that public opinion exists about the process of legislation, as well as about its results. But the real problem of government is not forcibly to extract from the electorate an undifferentiated and uninterested opinion upon measures about which it is not likely to be informed. It is rather to relate to the law-making process that part of public opinion which is relevant to, and competent about, its substance before that substance is made a legal imperative. 'This involves not direct government, but a method of associating the relevant interest-units of the community with the making of measures that will affect their lives. A referendum, for example, on a national scheme of health insurance would give far less valuable results than a technique of consultation in which the opinions of doctors, trade-unions, and similar associations were given a full opportunity to state their view before the scheme was debated in the legislative assembly. Effective opinion for the purpose of government, in a word, is almost always opinion which is organized and differentiated from that of the multitude by the possession of special knowledge. Popular opinion, as such, will rarely give other than negative results; and it seems to be the lesson of experience, very notably on the record of Switzerland, that it is so firmly encased in traditional habit, as to make social experiment difficult when it is a reserve-power-outside.

(From An Introduction to Politics by H. J. Laski)