The Irish referendum on same-sex marriage has brought a common trope back into the public discourse: rights should not be subject to voting. There are actually a number of distinct claims that can be advanced under this heading, although they are often run together, as for instance in this piece by Saeed Kamal Dehghan in the Guardian. These claims range from plausible (although far from certain) to outright silly.
The plausible version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the claim that rights should not be subject to voting in a referendum. (Perhaps this is the view that Mr. Dehghan really wants to say in his article, although, as I will explain, this is very clear.) A referendum campaign may indeed be a poor way of debating about rights. The ignorance of much of the electorate ― which of course goes hand in hand with the prevalence of stereotypes, usually unflattering ones, about minorities ― may make it unfit to decide important, even assuming that it is fit to choose representatives who eventually decide such issues. I have some sympathy for this view; I certainly have no desire to live in a direct, rather than a representative, democracy.
That said, even the claim that issues of rights should not settled by popular vote is both under- and over-inclusive. It is under-inclusive because all sorts of other issues should not be settled by popular vote either, for very similar reasons. I would not want income tax rates set in a referendum, for instance. If anything, rights issues may be simpler, and thus more amenable to resolution by way of referendum, than some policy matters. On the other hand, there seems to be something like an international consensus that secession of political communities is a matter that must be settled by referendum, and secession, as the Supreme Court of Canada has rightly pointed out, necessarily has an impact on minority rights. In short, the issue of whether a given topic can be resolved by referendum, and why, is not an easy one, and we must be wary of rushing to conclusions based on nothing more than hunches.
A stronger version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position holds that rights should not be subject to any sort of democratic vote, including that of a legislature. Thus Mr. Dehghan quotes Ayn Rand’s assertion that “individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority.” This claim, in my view, is quite clearly wrong. Legislation enacted in the normal course of governance will often affect rights. Must every bill that could conceivably affect someone’s rights be stopped in its tracks so that a court can rule ― in the abstract, without knowing how the bill would be applied in real life ― on the rights issues it raises? France actually has something like that system, but of course even there, it takes a group of (democratically elected) politicians to refer a bill to the Conseil constitutionnel. (A few years, France has authorized the Conseil constitutionnel to also rule on the constitutionality of a statute after its enactment, on reference by a court.)
Now it is certainly possible to argue that courts, rather than legislatures, should have the last word on issues of rights. But the last word isn’t the same thing as exclusive competence. Legislatures can debate and vote on rights ― as they have long done ― and the courts should be available as a last resort, to respond to legislative abuse or inaction. We should not forget that legislatures have done much for rights. In much of the world, including in Canada, it was legislatures that, for instance, created (almost) universal suffrage, decriminalized homosexuality, or abolished the death penalty. All of this involved individual rights being subject to public votes. Were those votes somehow wrong?
And then, there is the paradox that ought really to be embarrassing to the defenders of the claim that rights should not be subject to democratic votes. Judicial review, which they presumably think the proper mechanism for settling issues of rights, is normally itself a creature of a democratic constitution-making process. The rights which it enforces may (or may not) be natural rights, but they are still recognized, expressly or by implication, in constitutional texts enacted through some sort of democratic process.
The strongest version of the rights-should-not-be-subject-to-voting position is the contention that rights should not be subject to any sort of vote at all. I’m not sure whether anybody seriously thinks that, although Mr. Dehghan concludes his article by endorsing Rachel Maddow’s insistence that “[h]ere’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on.” There is no qualification here about who isn’t supposed to vote on rights. On its face, this statement applies to judges as well as to voters and legislators. Yet if it really means what it says, this claim is not just wrong, but actually silly. If people are to live together, issues of rights need to be settled somehow. Negotiation is unlikely to be of much assistance, because there are too many individuals affected. Realistically, there are only two options: legislation, or adjudication. And, as Jeremy Waldron points out in a recent essay which I discussed earlier this week, the latter mechanism, no less than the former, ultimately relies on voting.
The dirty little secret of judicial review ― not much of a secret, really, but something that we try not to think about unless prof. Waldron forces us to ― is that it sometimes leaves issues of rights to be settled by a single person’s vote. That person wears an impressive-looking robe to work, but he or she is still only a human being, and not necessarily a human being of superior wisdom or virtue. The idea of the right of Irish gays and lesbians to marry being dependent on the vote of a popular majority may be unsettling. But is the idea of that right of their American fellows being dependent on the vote of a single 78 year-old man of no discernible towering intellectual abilities ought to be unsettling too.
Here’s the thing about rights ― we disagree about them, as about everything else, more or less. It may be that rights are the inalienable endowments bestowed on us by our Creator. But even if that is so, He has not left us a very clear description of just what it is that He gave us. We have to figure it out for ourselves ― and not just individually, but collectively too. Unfortunately, our ability to figure things out is pretty limited. We set up procedures that are supposed to help us do it, but none of these is fail-safe or fool-proof. As unsettling as they may be, they may also be the best we can do, at least at this point in our history.