Friday, December 21, 2012

An Odd Type of Democracy

Pure democracy is very rare, and usually unsuccessful; for this reason, history admits more often of republics. But the democratic principle takes many forms. One of the strangest is when a nation votes to give its monarch the right to veto its vote. This is a political paradox: voting to ensure that the voting does not ensure anything. The English newspaper The Independent reports:

Citizens of the Alpine tax haven Liechtenstein gave their reigning prince a resounding vote of confidence yesterday in a referendum which flatly rejected attempts to curb royal power in one of Europe's most undemocratic countries.

Although The Independent editorializes that the Liechtenstein is "undemocratic," it seems that it was a thoroughly democratic process by which the citizens of that nation chose to give their monarch near-absolute powers.

Proposals to strip Liechtenstein's Prince Hans-Adam II, 67, of his power of parliamentary veto were opposed by 65 per cent of the country's 36,000 subjects in a referendum organised by pro-democracy campaigners.

The results of this election appear unambiguous. One might well wonder why the citizens would vote to render their votes powerless. Perhaps, while each voter trusts his own judgment, most of the voters do not trust the judgment of most of the other voters.

Only 15 per cent voted in favour of the proposal. Sigvard Wohlwend, one of the organisers of the referendum, said he was disappointed by the outcome. He described the prince and his son, Crown Prince Alois, 43, who has been acting in his father's stead since 2004, as "the most powerful monarchs in Europe."

Although living under nearly unrestrained royal power, the citizens of Liechtenstein enjoy a great degree of freedom - understood as the usual mix of civil rights and human rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the market, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to assemble, property rights, and low taxes. Many countries with elected governments have, at least according to international "watchdog" organizations, less freedom.

Again quoting Mr. Wohlwend, The Independent continues:

He said the prince of Liechtenstein held the absolute right to veto any decision taken by the parliament and people. "No judges can be appointed without the approval of the prince," he added.

If, with John Locke, we say that a government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, then the monarch of Liechtenstein is legitimate in his claim to be able to veto the results of a popular vote by his subjects, or able to veto a decision made by their elected representatives.