This article appeared in Consent #3 (May 1988)


- Marc Emery

By the end of 1988, it is possible that many Ontario municipalities may hold REFERENDUMS on issues like Sunday shopping or free trade.

Only through "referendums", so the arguments go, can a true CONSENSUS be reached.

Indeed, the case for referendums has been championed by the prominent NATIONAL CITIZEN'S COALITION as a cure-all to what has been described as a unrepresentative, party-line dictatorship claimed to be held over us by politicians.

But I believe that referendums will only make matters worse.

Replacing the rule of politicians with the rule of the "majority" still leaves some people "ruled" by others. Let's not forget that our politicians ARE the result of a "referendum"; we call it an "election".

Referendums won't work because as long as a "majority" of people believe that the electoral system should be a lever to exercise THEIR will over the lives of others, we can expect a great deal more repressive legislation --- and guarantees of even more referendums.

Those pushing for referendums seem to believe that the "common man" or the "average man" has more "common sense" than politicians. Free from the pervasive influence of lobby groups, political patronage, and other evils associated with "professional" politicians, the "common man" is less likely to be influenced by them. Right? --- Wrong!

The "common man" DOES exhibit more common sense --- with HIS OWN life, liberty and property. But give the "common man" a chance to tell his neighbour what to read, what school to send his children to, what religion to practice, what limits to place on his wealth, or whether his neighbour should be permitted to do anything from having an abortion to shopping on Sunday, well, just like politicians, the "common man" in most cases becomes the very tyrant he fears.

Such is the consequence of exercising UNEARNED power over his neighbours in a way only a "democracy" can allow.

Regrettably, well-organized intolerant minorities are usually the ones who have the zeal and drive to get "questions" put on a referendum ballot. And these questions reflect THEIR agenda, and thus impose unjust obligations and restrictions on those who do not share their intolerant attitudes.

To illustrate my point, consider the following "referendum style" questions that a "majority" would quite conceivably vote "yes" to, and that would substantially reduce our individual freedom or have a negative impact on our social well-being.

  • Should Ontario have a Board of Censors?
  • Should the rich (over $75,000 annual income) pay more taxes?
  • Should corporations pay more tax?
  • Should prostitution be outlawed?
  • Should access to abortion services be more restrictive?
  • Should O.H.I.P. premiums be abolished?
  • Should the Ontario government provide universal daycare?
  • Should capital punishment (the death penalty) be reinstated?
  • Should we extend affirmative action and strengthen equal pay for work of equal value to all areas of the private sector?
  • Should drug users and sellers receive harsher penalties?
  • Should strip joints be outlawed?
  • Should police have "more power" to deal with "a rising crime rate"?
  • Should obscenity laws be strengthened to prohibit explicit sexual materials?

In many localities, Sunday shopping would certainly also be banned, and who knows what other ridiculous proposals might be entertained by referendums? During the 1940's, some communities voted in plebiscites (referendums) to ban roller skating, or to approve municipal governments starting expensive tax-financed and government-regulated transit systems, while hundreds of other communities voted to ban the sale, distribution, and consumption of beer and wine in restaurants and bars.

You get the general idea.

If there's one principle I've seen in action time and time again, it's that the "majority" of people on any given issue is almost ALWAYS wrong, driven by forces that have little to do with an understanding of the issue and which have little regard for individual rights, freedoms, or responsibilities.

In times of controversy or turbulence, it takes courageous, dedicated, fearless individuals to stand up to the crowd, mob, or "majority", and advocate REASON. But unfortunately, courage and reason alone are almost always futile under such circumstances. Mobs and majorities are guided by zeal, emotional fervour, and rarely by logic, compassion for individual dignity, or respect for individual freedom.

Consider how the media spends far more time reporting on polls or the antics and protests of vested interest groups than it does on dealing with issues through logic, facts, or objective analysis. Most political headlines simply report on what a given majority "wants" --- and if the majority "wants" it, all moral, legal, and ethical considerations are cast aside.

Such being the history of referendums, giving any majority even more control over others is wrong and cannot be justified on any level. Even though our bureaucrats and politicians may often act like dictators, their power at least is limited when the "majority" does not sanction their actions. Not so when the "majority" becomes both judge and executioner.

Proponents of referendums often point to California's PROPOSITION l3. But Proposition l3 was, by and large, a failure. Yes, taxes were cut on residential property, that is true, but it failed to put a cap on other government spending that simply shifted the burden of financing the state on the same individuals in other ways. Worse, government bureaucracies were kept intact and running while vital programs (like roadwork) were sacked in order to punish voters for daring to make such a rash decision as to cut taxes.

Would Ontario voters ever support a referendum to cut government SPENDING? That would probably be the most substantial and significant referendum question ever to get on a ballot. Cutting SPENDING would accomplish most of the major objectives supported by advocates of individual freedom, including reduced deficits, lower taxes, a smaller state apparatus, and better, more dependable essential services.

Still, I am convinced that the "majority" would vote AGAINST it. A majority might vote for a TAX cut if it can clearly see the benefit. But a majority would never support a SPENDING cut, because they would see themselves as losing a benefit.

The people opposed to spending cuts are not simply the welfare state free-loaders many might expect. You can bet that teachers, civil servants, the unemployed, corporations with loans or grants from governments, artists, single mothers, crown corporations, pensioners, and just about everybody else on the government gravy train would, as a "majority", definitely vote against spending cuts. For them, terms like "fiscal responsibility", "accountability", and "deficits" just get in the way of all that unearned government cash.

Voters and politicians may TALK a great storm when they worry about "future generations", but when push comes to shove, they'll take anything the "system" will give them. Future generations can go fend for themselves as far as they're concerned.

The movement for true individual freedom may be growing, but let's face it, even now it still represents only a tiny minority of citizens. The fact that many citizens (perhaps ironically, even a majority) may agree with Sunday shopping or free trade is not a consequence of PRINCIPLE, but of a perceived benefit or convenience to those in favour. Similarly, the opposition to these two issues is based on a perceived benefit ("protection" from competition) as well.

Deciding an issue by trying to count beneficiaries doesn't address an issue at all! Even lobby groups like the National Citizens' Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business pick issues that offer a specific benefit to their members, under the guise of principled advocacy. Now, there's nothing wrong with good marketing or selecting one's issues carefully, but ask yourself how much of their advocacy is based on principle, and how much of it is simply a reaction to a bureaucratic civil service, a powerful labour movement, or a postal monopoly that continually disrupts an essential service?

These lobby groups may know how to capitalize on public anger, but can, for example, the NCC's "consensus for more freedom through less government" ever educate its members to become broader advocates of individual freedom? Not likely. Because without promoting the INDIVISIBLE NATURE of individual freedom, the NCC has to "re-educate" its membership on each and every campaign, since each campaign has been sold on the "reactionary" principle.

Referendums are a political means to direct people's ANGER at something. If they're not angry, you can't motivate them to vote. This is true enough in elections, where voters traditionally vote AGAINST parties by voting for the "lesser" of a given number of evils; this principle is even more entrenched in referendums.

Sure, most Ontarians are disgusted/fed-up/mad-as-hell --- but about what?

About THEIR pet peeve.

The little old lady down the street rages about the "evil" of Sunday shopping, another about the "filth" in magazines at variety stores, the businessman rages about taxes and regulation, the labour movement rages about "exploitation" in the workplace, housewives want government subsidized pensions; socialists want a minimum annual income, and on and on and on it goes.

Let's pick two unlikely, yet similar, victims of the same type of state control: the medium-sized factory owner and the individual who smokes marijuana.

In addition to the health risk voluntarily accepted by the marijuana smoker (or any smoker, for that matter), the government forces him to suffer even more by making him pay at least ten times the free market price for his habit because the government has outlawed its legal sale. Worse, the pot smoker is now forced to purchase his smoke through channels controlled by organized crime, channels created by the law itself. And he gets no guarantee of quality. His phone may be tapped, his means to his livelihood threatened by a potential criminal record, and his privacy may be invaded at any time through legal search and seizure.

Now let's look at the factory owner. The medium-sized factory owner must face the coercive legislation that grants unions the power to shut down his factory, force him to maintain lazy and unproductive employees, and impose wage and salary conditions far in excess of what a free market would allow. Thus, the cost of his manufactured goods is artificially high, and his ability to compete with others, particularly on an international scale, is severely curtailed. On top of all that, the government may force him to hire certain minorities, pay excessive taxes and tariffs, or even control the market to which he is allowed access.

So what do the factory owner and the marijuana smoker have in common? A lot more than the fact that they are both victims of government control. The great irony is that, while they are both victims, given a chance to vote in a referendum, each would likely vote to oppress the other even further.

To the factory owner, the typical pot smoker is a lazy, left-wing, unemployed drug addict who may well be part of a racial minority he is being forced to hire. To the pot smoker, the factory owner may well be regarded as a "greedy capitalist exploiter" who deserves every screwing his "brothers" in the labour movement can give him. And as far as he's concerned, the factory owner should most definitely pay more taxes; after all, the laws supported by the factory owner are forcing HIM to pay tenfold more for his pot!

What better way for each to GET EVEN with the other than a REFERENDUM?

Though the contrast between the pot smoker and the factory owner may be extreme, such irrational contempt for the lifestyles of others has regrettably become a pervasive reality in today's society.

Politics is divisive; it plays off one vested interest against another, in a vacuum devoid of any consideration for proper moral principles or respect for individual freedom. It might never occur to the businessman or to the pot smoker that the freedom each wishes to benefit from, yet deny to the other, is the same indivisible concept of individual freedom.

And how will referendums be phrased? How detailed will they be worded? The way a question is phrased will automatically guarantee its outcome, so who gets to phrase the question?

Certainly not our politicians. After all, why did we want a referendum in the first place?

Referendums have inherent weaknesses as well. For example, for any referendum to gain "popular" support (50.l%+), it will have to be as vague and undetailed as possible. Details create questions, and questions create resistance and more questions. For a referendum to succeed, its backers must have the question phrased as vaguely as possible.

Yet, how can anyone execute these referendums in "good faith" without details? Are we to leave the details to our politicians? If so, we've come full circle again: why have a referendum?

In framing legislation, details are everything, from what the law actually says, to how it is enforced, to how the courts interpret the legislation. When it comes right down to it, the "spirit" of the legislation means little in these areas.

And if you're about to suggest that the details should also be arrived at through referendums, then it would literally take years and years to arrive at any acceptable consensus and by that time, the politicians whose authority the referendum supporters were trying to circumvent may quite well have already been replaced.

Referendums only serve to further entrench the idea the MAJORITY RULE is the essence of a "free" society, and nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, referendums will only HASTEN the tyranny that politicians make inevitable. Referendums, ironically, will give even MORE power to politicians than they already have.

Even if a referendum should happen to result in reflecting a freer environment (i.e., in Sunday shopping), what would really have been accomplished? If any law is passed simply because a "majority" wants it, is that then the PURPOSE of law? --- To grant the majority any control it wants over the lives of others?

The only way to change laws for the better is NOT by granting the "common man" his latent desire to become a small-time dictator, but to lobby for and demand laws that protect an individual's right to property and individual freedom, including freedom of association and most importantly, freedom of speech. Remember, these are the very things that most referendums are out to destroy.

With proper laws that exist to PREVENT some people from imposing their will on others, we'd never need referendums.

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