What a wonderful turn of phrase this morning in the Sacramento Bee. Disraeli made the famous point about statistics, but here in California we have an even more expedient for political dilletantes in rut: the ballot initiative.
Before I understood much about politics or government, I was assailed by the California voter initiative commercials. Even at a very early age, I could never reconcile what I had learned about America with what I saw about California–weren’t we a representative Democracy?
Ballot initiatives are bad on many levels. They are not based on any sound theory of government. They are the root cause of many of the current problems in California on a practical level.
First, on the theoretical level. Since the time of Socrates, learned folks have mistrusted the idea of direct democracy. Aristotle believed pure democracies deteriorated into oligarchy. Our founding fathers were keenly aware of these deficiencies when they built us a representative democracy. They agreed that the ultimate repository of power should be in the people, but after John Locke, agreed that some powers had to be granted to the government in order to provide for a civil society; no less no more. The safest way to do this was to build institutions that encouraged participation in the government (i.e. Breyer’s “active liberty”) and at the same time encouraged the limitation of government. “Limited” government was an indigenous English legal concept. The common law allowed for no law repugnant to liberty, unless derived from a need by civil society. This was the common laws genius as opposed to the centralized Roman law, which always kept power in the elite. Our Constitution is very much an enactment of the theories of the common law. These concepts all took account of the tyrrany possible by the democratic majority. Our Constitution explicitly requires that each state have a “republican” form of government. Which Ben Franklin said they had created “if we could keep it.”
California has not kept it. Ballot initiatives undergo none of the representative sausage making that legislative bills do, and may even go so far as to amend the state constitution.
To read over ballot initiatives, you’d think California was a perilous place for workers and that local parents had no voice in their school boards. You’d think that there were a number of downright emergencies with respect to . In truth, the largest emergency in California is its government. California’s legislature and governors have become rank amateurs by ridiculous term limite and recalls, its legislature is hopelessly gerrymandered to ensure that each term amounts to little more than a war between unions and big business.
All of this is thanks to the fact that even if legislators had to seriosuly run for reelection, they’d never have to touch any third rails or dangerous issues: punt it to the ballot initiative procedure! No recorded vote required. These initiatives are drafted in bedrooms and moved forward by fringe group money and fraudulent inducments to collect the necessary signatures. There is no committee procedure, no legislative give and take, and very little time spent by the average voter doing anything but listening to the commercials about the propositions.
One such proposition is the infamous and draconion inter-generational heist called Proposition 13. Enacted in a time of high inflation and never relaxed even after Volcker-qaida terrorized the Fed, Proposition 13 enacts a cap on property taxes so that my grandparents’ $750,000 house is taxed at about a $20,000 level, while my $500,000 house is taxed as if it was worth, well, $500,000 simply because I was born in 1977 and couldn’t buy a house earlier than 2005. This proposition has caused the housing market to skyrocket, because the property value portion of your mortgage payment goes up, and the tax escrow portion is low compared to other states. Therefore, our property values are even higher because the market can tolerate more. This has led to the disastrous sprawl as young buyers look for cheaper houses, and the ripping apart of families as the next generations are exiled to the exurbs.
Proposition 13 is only the most infamous. Other reckless ideas that would have never generated the monetary waste of a proposition campaign in the legislature include Proposition 187, the teachers-into-gestapo anti-immigrant fascism act; Proposition 215, the We’re Stupid Enough To Believe The Republicans Mean It About States’ Rights weed smoking act; Proposition 54(?), The Put A Sign That Every Object In The State Causes Cancer Act.
None of these addresses what polls have found to be the #1 issue to California voters: traffic. Some of them have caused it (Prop. 13), some have funded massive highway projects (Prop. 46?), but none of them have really done anything to get a the root of the problem (i.e. sprawl!). And if the Propositions don’t even cover it, you can forget about the Legislature doing it. Shucks, we might have to get Don Perata to cancel funding for some of the Italian marble and Picassos going into the new bay bridge and plug some potholes in Bishop or something!
It’s time for one last proposition: a repeal of the voter intiative system, including the recall. At the same time, we need a competitive legislature truly representative of California. Why not have the Assembly be proportional representation according to party vote, and have the senate be based on contiguous geographic areas?
At this point, it’s simply philosophical. Vote no on every proposition. Don’t let law be made by TV-ads and a busy public’s ten seconds spent reading the voter guide.