Tue, May 23, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Referendums and political culture

The choice between going forward with a controversial public project, such as the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, or halting it should not be left up to referenda or polls because such exercises and their results are so easily manipulated

By Lin Yih-ren

Many people probably believe that polls and public referendums reflect impartial and objective collective opinions, and, therefore, are the best guiding principles for drafting public policy. These people couldn't be more wrong. The popularity of polls and referendums reflect nothing more than an fad enjoyed by a political culture built on popularism.

These polls and referendums are essentially tools to legitimize policies. They are built on an obsession for numbers. Worse yet, they are not without problematic power interference and pre-set values. Recent social ecological reports point out that such polls and referendums on the environment typically presupposed that interviewees have fixed environmental values and possess a full and rational understanding of their surrounding environment and social backgrounds.

Furthermore, all the interviewees do is choose, individually and in isolation, between the answers provided for questions that are completely unrelated to their daily lives, although they are capable of quantification.

These choices, no different from the choices that consumers make when they go grocery shopping, reflect nothing more than the interviewees' personal preferences, rather than individual values. A person buys what they want to eat, whereas it is a completely different thing to evaluate the social and environmental clashes brought on by nuclear power.

Our environment is not the personal property of any one person. It is a public asset. The decision one person makes will impact others. We should never completely rely on our own personal preferences in considering whether to keep nuclear power. It is even more inappropriate to consider the issue from a market-based logic.

Decisions relating to public assets should not be made by individuals in an isolated and quantifiable environment. A public referendum has a strong market-oriented nature. It is in any event the collection of many individual preferences, rather than a consensus reached pursuant to social interaction. Many environmentalists have also long expressed strong skepticism about whether the public's attitude and value toward the environment remains fixed.

For example, the British scholars C. Harrison and J. Burgess conducted an environmental analysis on the development of a major theme park in a London suburb. Conglomerates, environmentalist groups and the government had all attempted to prove their respective stances through media publicity and by releasing poll information.

However, the report noted, the general public, especially residents near the project site, remained skeptical about the statements of these groups. The environmental values of the public gradually adjusted in accordance with their interaction with the social situations.

This phenomenon is something that polls and referendums cannot reveal. Even more importantly, the local residents' understanding of the local environment far exceeds those of the experts. Their understanding entails a deep sense of emotional ties and expectation for development.

Two points are especially worthy of noting from this analysis:

1. The popular sentiment or will reflected by a poll or referendum is a number obtained by compressing the the public's active and diversified environmental values, as well as a political game based on a pre-set agenda. Even more importantly, the role of voicing and interpreting poll and referendum results has been shifted from the people to professional groups, such as government bureaucrats, conglomerates, experts, scholars and environmental groups. These groups have apparently crowned themselves as the spokesperson for mother nature and the general public. Are statements made by these groups truly representative of the public view?

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top