Monday, August 01, 2005


I am certainly willing to entertain arguments that "disengagement" is unwise and will lead to bad outcomes. But it irks me when it is labeled "illegimate" as in Gerald Steinberg's piece in the Jerusalem Post, "Without Benefit of Legitimacy":

The disengagement process is likely to go through without benefit of legitimacy, both with respect to the government and its opponents.
I don't mean to condemn his entire article. Indeed, I actually agree with most of his points. He asks very worthwhile questions about why both sides are not debating the merits of the plan itself rather than shouting at each other. My irritation is with his complaint that the government lacks legitimacy in its action. (I also disagree with respect to his parallel charge against the opposition: I think that the vast majority of those who oppose the plan have behaved quite democratically and legitimately, despite the temptations only a few have succumbed to. That, however, is not his serious challenge.)

He seems to feel that it would take something on the order of a "referendum or national elections" to grant legitimacy to the proceedings. While I was certainly in favor of such a thing, the lack of it does not make the outcome illegitimate.

I worry there is a bigger issue here when people assert that a "big decision" can't be taken without reconsultation of the voting public. We are forgetting that modern "democracies" are not really pure democracies, where straw votes and town hall meetings are called for every issue. What we have instead are numerous variations on the idea of representative democracy.

While representative democracy moves direct decision making out of the immediate hands of the people, it nevertheless has certain compensatory benefits which explain why it is today's prefered model.

1. Insulation From Influence: If every decision and course change forces elections, we become all the more vulnerable to outside influence, with terrorist attacks more easily triggering elections and opportunistically affecting their outcomes, all at times of critical imporance. Think Madrid.

2. Crises and Opportunities: 9/11, Cuban Missile Crisis. Leaders are elected and put in place to lead. Sometimes decisions must be made when the world won't wait for a vote. This leaves some people upset. "Hey, I never meant he could do that when I voted for him." But for now, we don't have a more perfect form of government (Technorati leadership anyone?).

One could argue that in this case enough time existed that elections could have been called for such an important decision.

But Israel faces numerous critical and important decisions. Which need elections? And it would be foolish to assume that terrorists wouldn't attempt to affect their outcome. Would not the losing side, if so inclined, still claim it was illegitimate if it felt the majority of voters were intimidated into their vote?

However, the biggest problem, the practical one, is that elections were never called.

The Knesset has had many opportunities to dissolve itself and bring down the government. That is how unscheduled elections are triggered in this democracy. The PM could call them, but he believes, right or wrong, that he is leading in the correct direction. So the responsibility to force elections falls to the Knesset which, to-date, has chosen not to. We can claim that the MKs are a bunch of opportunistic careerists, who care more for their seats than their people, and that the institutions and procedures which put those corrupt fannies in their plush seats are broken and ineffective. Mr. Steinberg does call for improvements to our democratic institutions and processes, and I would agree to a large extent. But if we reach a point where half the population can declare outcomes it disagrees with illegitimate because a constitutional convention hasn't yet been called to fix our democracy's innate structural problems, then we will discover a new form of government: representative anarchy.

Legitimacy does not mean government by plebiscite.

I'll probably get flamed to a crisp, barbecuey doneness for this, and be forced to return to my usual amusing realm of top ten lists, picture captions, editorial nitpicking and personal stories. But if I can contribute to the healing catharsis even a little bit, if only by letting people vent in outrage in my comments section, it will have been worth it.

If you really, really liked this -- or even really, really hated it -- there's lots more: