The wisdom of cows

Natanael Rother
Insights Newsletter
17 May, 2019

Especially since the Brexit vote, policymakers aiming for political stability might be reluctant to ask citizens about their opinion.

They should not feel that way. As with sports, practice makes perfect when it comes to voting. The Swiss lead by example. They vote on everything, even the silly stuff.

In November last year, for example, the Swiss voted on cows and their horns. Allegedly, owning a full set of horns is about bestowing dignity to the cows. The cows need the horns to feel like their true self and be able to rub horns with their fellow ruminants. Swiss farmers who do not dehorn their cows wanted more state compensation for not interfering with nature – and the resulting cost.

You see, having horns comes with a price – cows with horns need more space to live peacefully and move around as they wish than those without horns. Naturally, farmers face a trade-off between happy cows and making money.

This was a tough choice for the Swiss. In the end, a close majority of 54.7 percent of voters said no to subsidising intact horns. This left the poor cows at the mercy of their farmers having to decide on dehorning without further public support.

Nationwide ballots on horns are exactly why referenda are not worth the effort, you might think. And referenda are sometimes about meaningless issues initiated by whoever has the biggest horns. So why bother asking citizens for their opinion – or worse, letting them propose referenda?

It is not about the horns.

It is about letting people mooooo out. There is no better way to deal with a malcontent bull in a china shop than to give him a voice.

Referenda are nothing new to New Zealand. For example, we had one on the flag four years ago and one on cannabis is in the works.

Such sporadic referenda are not a useful way to exercise people’s will. 

So let us take the bull by the horns and have more referenda. For the most part, asking people about their thoughts is worthwhile. Look at the rest as training. Just as the one about cows and their horns in Switzerland.

When fenced wisely, more referenda could hit the bulls’ eye for making New Zealand an even happier place. It is better to trust the wisdom of the cows than to follow one angry bull.

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