Diversity is desirable in human affairs, as in nature. Most countries strive toward economic and political diversification.
Economic diversification is a way of escaping dependence on a narrow economic base so as to spread risk. Political diversification is another side of the same story. Political diversification is a way of escaping dependence on a narrow political base to spread risk. Fortification of democracy involves political diversification to escape domination by exclusive elites. Too many eggs in one basket is never a good idea.
Dwindling respect for democracy
In 1848, the US was still the world’s sole democracy. Then, after Europe was swept by revolution, democracy gradually began to gain ground. After 1945, structures were put in place to preserve and to spread democracy, with good results.
The number of democracies has remained unchanged, however, since 2002. Moreover, the US was recently downgraded by Freedom House to a democracy grade that is lower than that given most countries in Western Europe. The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently designated the Chancellor of Germany as the new “leader of the free world.”
Within the EU, Hungary and Poland show signs of disrespect for democracy and human rights. This is why now is a particularly unfortunate time for Iceland’s Parliament to show similar disregard for democracy and human rights by failing to ratify a new constitution accepted by 67% of the voters in a national referendum called by Parliament in 2012.
Put differently, now is a particularly good time for Iceland to send the rest of the world an uplifting signal about the beauty and utility of inclusive democracy, a signal that would be welcomed by advocates of democracy and human rights around the world. For four years now, Parliament has neglected to transmit such a signal, inviting the rest of the world to wonder why.
We need to stay awake. In a letter to his friend John Taylor in 1814, John Adams, US President 1797-1801, evoked Aristotle: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Iceland’s constitutional impasse
For four years now Iceland’s Parliament, led since early 2017 by a Prime Minister straight from the Panama Papers, has been trying to trump the will of the people by turning the new crowd-sourced constitution drafted on Parliament’s initiative by 25 directly elected representatives of the people into a constitution for political parties and their paymasters. Too many Icelandic MPs take their cue from the oligarchs in the fishing industry who cannot reconcile themselves to the new constitutional provision that declares that Iceland’s natural resources belong to the people, a polite way of saying that they do not belong to the oligarchs. This provision was accepted by 83% of the voters in a national referendum in 2012. Too many MPs also cannot bear the prospect of equal voting rights, i.e., equal weight of votes in urban and rural constituencies, because equal rights according to the new constitution would render some of them unelectable. That provision was accepted by 67% of the voters in the referendum as was the bill in toto.
Those two key provisions, on the people’s right to the rents from their natural resources and on equal voting rights, involve human rights and, therefore, can be brought before international courts of justice if Parliament persists in refusing to respect the will of the people. In a binding opinion issued in 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Committee instructed Iceland to remove from its fisheries management regime the discriminatory element favoring the oligarchs at others’ expense. The government of Iceland promised to oblige by enacting a new constitution that would address the issue, a promise that remains unfulfilled. Further, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has, correctly, likened the unequal weight of votes in Iceland to a violation of human rights.
In a national referendum political power is at its source, in the hands of the people. To justify their disrespect for the overwhelming victory of the new constitution in the 2012 referendum, some opponents of constitutional reform claim that the referendum was advisory. The Brexit referendum was also advisory. Even so, the British Parliament did not consider trumping the will of the people. After the financial crash of 2008, in fact, the Icelandic Parliament did respect the will of the people by resolving not to make any substantive changes in the bill approved in the 2012 referendum. Parliament then failed to ratify the bill, leaving it on ice in the middle of the night where it has remained ever since, leading the Social Democratic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to declare: “The past few weeks were the saddest period of my 35 years in Parliament.”
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In view of recent developments in the US, some of Iceland’s MPs may feel emboldened by their new distaste for democracy.
“There shall be no one …”
The beauty of democracy is not that it always produces the best results. No, the beauty of democracy is that it produces results that, in a civilized society, we must always respect.
I learned my favorite definition of democracy from Lord George Brown, who served in Harold Wilson’s Labour government during 1964-1968, on his visit to Reykjavík in 1971. He then said: “Democracy means that there shall be no one to stop us from being stupid if stupid we want to be.”
Democracy is inseparable from human rights which are inalienable by our laws as well as by international covenants that we have sworn to uphold. Democracy must prevail, always. There can be no exceptions from this fundamental principle. Those who claim otherwise and act accordingly play with fire.
Based upon a recent presentation at Berkeley University
Thorvaldur Gylfason is professor of economics at the University of Iceland and Research Fellow at CESifo (Center for Economic Studies) at the University of Munich. A Princeton PhD, he has worked at the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC, taught at Princeton and edited the European Economic Review.