Juliane Kästner: Everything is subject to the life cycle of upward trend, peak and downward trend: humans, institutions, companies, empires and even democracy, says philosopher Charles Handy in „The Second Curve – Thoughts on Reinventing Society“.

Life Cycle of Technologies, Companies, Empires or Democracy

To escape the downward trend, a second curve ought to start, before the life cycle of the first curve is on its peak. Only in this way, resources such as money, time, and energy are available to invest in the necessary reinventing. How do you assess the actual stage of development of democracy? Is democracy at the peak or already on a downward trend? 

Prof. Dr. Bruno S. Frey: Lets concentrate on the democracies in the countries of the European Union as well as in countries such as Norway or Switzerland.

Then I would state, that it is enormously important to further develop democracy. And that is particular the case for the European Union, who should give a future-oriented orientation also in the 21st century. Its organization contains only few democratic elements. The government, the commission is practically independent of its voters. The parliament has an enormous size and can be manipulated so easily. The European Union, standing in the centre of Europe, is by no means an ideal of democracy in todays time.

We must start to further develop the existing democracies also on a national level into the direction of a greater involvement of the respective population.

Thereby I would like to underscore, that it is significant not only to put referendums or initiatives to the vote but also to facilitate the opportunity to discuss the specific problems to be treated in detail. In this way, the voters can have a precise understanding of the advantages and disadvantages (of the solution to be voted on).

If the population in a representative democracy will now be asked, – and lets shortly leave out, if the specific problem has been discussed in detail beforehand – is there not a risk of protest vote? The population will be asked for the first time for their opinion and … 

… Yes, because the political establishment did not listen to the concerns of its normal citizens before.

A few years ago I was watching a political broadcast in German television, in which young politicians discussed, if Germany might be ready for a semi-direct democracy at all.  If their own citizens might be able to understand “complex subjects” and to vote on them.

Have opponents of direct democracies the idea, that people are stupid?

I reject such an idea decidedly. If someone is stupid, it is the parliamentarians. It is them being responsible for the actual problems.

To the idea, that parliamentarians are omnisciently… There is empirical evidence that they have very little knowledge. Unless, they work in a specific commission, in which specialist topics are treaded.

In the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany it is written, that each parliamentarian shall decide in all conscience. But everybody knows, that hardly anyone is acting according to this maxim. The party leadership prescribes how the parliamentarians have to decide.

The people know their own problems better, than a parliamentarian, who enters a party right at the beginning of his/her studies and who subsequently spends his/her time mostly in meetings and – I am sorry to have to say this – who has little knowledge of what is going on in this world. Parliamentarians , particularly talk to each other in their meetings and less with the people themselves.

But they have one excellent skill: talking. The normal people in contrast still have other needs and are not so good trained in only talking away.

And unfortunately, this is leading to the circumstance that parliamentarians are not taken seriously. The people might not express themselves as good as them, but this is also not their task.

Bruno S. Frey belongs to the three most influential economists of Switzerland according to the NZZ ranking and is permanent visiting professor for political economy at the University of Basel. He acted as professor at the universities of Zurich, Chicago and Konstanz, at the Warwick Business Schools and as visiting professor at the Zeppelin University. Bruno Frey deals with topics of political economy such as terrorism or democracy, with behavioral economics, happiness research or art and cultural economy. In 2014, he took the lead of the Center for Research in Economics and Well-Being (CREW) at the University of Basel as one of three directors, as well as the Center for Research in Economics, Management, and the Arts (CREMA) in Zurich.

Lets shortly take France as an example. Which path would you suggest for the implementation of a semi-direct democracy? 

First, I would start with the communities. On this level I would take votes and enable referendums.

At the same time, I would decentralize vigorously. A decentralization in a serious sense always means, that the regions or decentralized units can raise their own taxes and decide on their own expenses. That are the most decisive factors.

As a third level, I would suggest referendums also on the national level of the nation state France.

If we have a look at Switzerland, one speaks of too many votes in the recent past, of people getting tired. Do you see any potential for development of the semi-direct democracy in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, we can decide upon some over 40 to 50 affairs within four years. A German citizen is allowed to vote one single time within four years. And then it is obvious, that the turnout in Germany is higher then the average turnout in Switzerland.

We have votes and referendums that are important, and others that are less important. And there we see something rather interesting.  At very important votes, for example if Switzerland shall join the European Union or if the Swiss Armee shall be abolished, the turnout goes up. And at votes, that are less important, the turnout is rather low. And for me, this is a sign of a lively democracy.

And yes, the democratic system of Switzerland should be refined urgently. I suggest in particular to grant foreign residents the right to vote – stepwise. Stepwise means, that the vote of a person, who is living more than two years in Switzerland, gets a weighting of 20 percent, after five years maybe 50 percent, and after ten years 100 percent. This may sound complicated for a moment. But in the digital age it should not cause a problem.

Foreign residents will thereby also be more interested in the political topics of Switzerland.

I have already expressed this suggestion in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but it met not great approval. Perhaps it appears to be too revolutionary.

Would the SVP then not peddle with their fear for infiltration, with the fear for foreigners being able to change the political system according to their preferences? 

I do not see, that my suggestion could lead to the extinction of “Swissness”. The Swiss system stands the test on the whole quite well. And our foreign residents also realize that fact.

That the passenger transport works well or the that the public and social safety is quite high is not due to Swiss genes. Foreign residents realize, that the political and social system in Switzerland is working better in some respects then the ones in Spain or Italy, for example.

If those people are able to become politically active, they are are also able to express their assent to our system.

Since a few years there is a debate on alternative economic orders. In this context, do you also see any alternative political systems to democracy? 

I see new kinds of decentralization based on problems. What we find today is a decentralization based on historical borders. The region of the Vorarlberg for example does belong to Austria and not to Switzerland, Schaffhausen does not belong to Baden-Wuerttemberg but to Switzerland.

I would love to model the system conversely based on actual problems. The Alps, for example, have problems with traffic, environment or depopulation. For solving these problems we could create entities, political bodies, which have the appropriate territorial spread. Part of this political body would now be Austria, Switzerland, France, and Italy, but clearly not Estonia or Portugal.

In my opinion, the European Union has not the appropriate decision-making bodies. The Institution as a whole sees meaning to decide on issues of the Alps. The Irish and Latvians then decide on solutions for local environmental problems in the Alps.

My ideal would be the creation of appropriate political bodies. We then would have many different bodies of different sizes. Environmental problems could be solved merely by local bodies, problems with free trade by a large political body. This would represent my radical new order for the politics of the future.

What would then happen with the nation states? 

I would not abolish nation states, because this is hardly possible. But I would put them in competition with political bodies. I name these new federal bodies FOCJ, Functional Overlapping Competing Jurisdictions.

When the new bodies come alive, the nation states will gradually become less important.

Should a political body not disperse itself after having fulfilled its purpose, respective after having sold all of its problems? 

Yes, this is very important. Political bodies can raise their own taxes and decide upon their expenses. Communities as members of these bodies can resign from a body anytime, if the purpose is fulfilled or if they are not satisfied with the progress of the problem solving process.

Dear Mr. Frey, I thank you very much for this interesting interview.