When designing a democratic governance model you need to decide how/when/if decisions should be exposed to a popular vote.

Deciding automotive crash test standards (edit: poor example) some standards without reference to a popular vote might be uncontroversial. I suppose such decisions would technocratic: “best left to the experts.”

Other governance decisions - for example migration policy - seem to have more of a political element. There is not one “right” answer, so this would seem better to expose this to a popular vote to develop consensus and policy legitimacy.

Is there a philosophical or academic approach we can use to decide when to go to the people?

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    Who decides which 'experts' get to decide the standards? Even on your uncontroversial example I could see getting different results depending on where you draw your experts from.
    – doneal24
    Feb 4, 2019 at 14:51
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    Interesting that you should use crash test standards as an example, when that was controversial in the United States (much less so elsewhere). See Ralph Nader en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsafe_at_Any_Speed. Why was it controversial? Car manufacturers were unwilling to spend the money on increasing safety.
    – pjc50
    Feb 4, 2019 at 15:11
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    You have merely shown that there is a “wrong” answer (in your opinion): the existing US policy. You need to show that there is one and only one “right” migration policy. Good luck!
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 4, 2019 at 15:56
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    Talking in absolutes doesn’t really advance the argument much. Is it easier for a group of technocrats to develop an an automotive crash test policy that is seen as legitimate by most people, than it is for a group of technocrats to develop a migration policy seen as legitimate by most people? Yes, I think it is.
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 4, 2019 at 16:16
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    Additional problem with your example: let's say expert 1 recommends a standard that would raise every car's cost by $10,000. Expert 2 recomments a slightly less safe standard that keeps it at par. How do you decide which standard to go with? (Hint: if you autocratically pick expert #1, you aren't letting the people the democratic option of owning a slightly less safe car they can afford, vs. not having any car as the extra expense makes it not affordable). Additionally, some expert opinions are inherently subjective and political too, even in car safety - i can offer an example if you wish
    – user4012
    Feb 4, 2019 at 18:36

2 Answers 2


In a parliamentary democracy, every legislative decision is made democratically by the parliament, unless they made the decision to delegate it.

For the topic of immigration policy, there are the following options:

  • The parliament votes on a case-by-case basis for every single immigrant. This might work for a small city-state, but it would be impractical for any larger nation which admits more than a few migrants per year.
  • The parliament votes to delegate the decision in the individual cases to the executive branch, but also makes a law which provides a very objective and stringent ruleset which tells them how to decide.

    Expert opinions are considered while the law gets written. It is general practice in many parliaments to write laws by forming a committe which consist of both elected representatives and unelected experts appointed by the elected representatives. The purpose of such a committee is to have the representatives provide political goals ("improve our workforce", "respect our commitment to human rights", "protect our culture and national identity", etc.) and have the experts suggest what measures would achieve those objectives. But the final vote on the law is left to the representatives only.

  • The parliament votes to delegate the decision in the individual cases to the executive branch, but only gives them very lose guidelines how to decide or even none at all. So the executive branch has permission to set their own rules as they see fit or even leave the the individual decision to the personal judgement of low-level officials.

    In this case, the executive branch is expected to hire experts to come up with their rules and/or make case-by-case decisions.

When it comes to immigration, most parliaments decide on an option which is somewhere between 2 and 3. On the one hand, they do not want to lose control over immigration policy. But on the other hand, delegating the details to the bureau of immigration can be more efficient than arguing about them between politicians. Delegating details to the executive branch can also absolve the representatives from responsibility ("no, WE didn't make the decision to reject those political refugees who then got executed by their government. The Bureau of Immigration did that. And those they did accept who turned out to be criminals? Also the bureaus fault, not ours.").

  • Good answer. But this doesn’t really answer the thrust of my question: is there a framework/heuristic/philosophical approach that can be used to determine when the the public should be consulted?
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 4, 2019 at 15:59
  • This is a good answer, but it ignores game theoretical solutions to some of those problems (I'm nowhere near enough of an expert on the topic to make a separate answer, unfortunately, but i'm aware there is research in this area)
    – user4012
    Feb 4, 2019 at 18:41
  • Oh OK. So this is a branch of game theory?
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 4, 2019 at 19:48

Generally, in a proper democratic technocracy, the people can be asked to set the broad stroke goals of policy and the experts can set about how to best accomplish those goals. The upshot is that counter intuitive policies can be set to accomplish goals better, like for example, if lower or the same crime rates and recidivism may occur with less harsh sentencing.

What can happen is that in an effort to gain political power, a group might argue that a particular set of goals is not being met well enough. This answers the question of when things can get punted to the people: When a politically motivated group is able to argue sufficiently to the demos that the existing rules are inadequate, as to be able to gain sufficient political power to change those rules.

  • Thank you. So ultimately: defining when decisions become political instead of technocratic is... political. If someone can argue successfully that the migration policy should be put to the demos, then it should be. I suppose this has a bearing on the design of a democracy: it should have the flexibility to ensure that in this scenario the policy can be put to the people.
    – 52d6c6af
    Feb 4, 2019 at 17:15

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