Greece’s referendum shows you can have too much democracy

“Either you give in to ultimatums or you opt for democracy.” With that, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras encouraged citizens to pass judgment on the country’s latest bailout deal in a referendum this weekend. There’s just one snag: The offer has expired and Greece’s lenders say it is no longer valid.

That makes the prime minister’s high-minded appeal to democracy ring hollow. After all, nobody is quite sure what they’re voting on. In the meantime, the referendum gambit has cut Athens loose from its rescue program, forcing it to default on the IMF and close banks to conserve cash.

Some things are too important to be left to voters. At least, that’s what Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former foreign minister, told a room of eurocrats (and this reporter) earlier this week. Few of the most important decisions in his country’s post-war history would have won a majority if put to a vote, he said. Why should Ireland’s pesky habit of rejecting EU treaty changes to rebuke the local government overturn the will of the entire bloc? And California is hardly the best-run state in the US because it relies so heavily on direct democracy—quite the opposite.

Mix in money, and things get trickier still. Bo Lundgren, the architect of Sweden’s much admired bank bailout program in the early 1990s, says that voters would have never approved of his government’s moves if they asked for it. Former US treasury secretary Tim Geithner offered a similar analysis of his efforts to clean up the country’s subprime mess: “You have to do things that are going to be fundamentally impossible to explain to people.”

In short, those who earn the people’s mandate should know when to lead and when to follow. Tsipras has punted a tough decision to his people, when history suggests that it requires brave, proactive, and potentially unpopular leadership. Too little democracy is a bad thing, of course, but so is too much of it.

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