Beyond Voting for People

Reader Ben submitted a website that provides another perspective into the will of the people rather than the will of legislators. It is the referendum or public initiative. A referendum is a petition signed by enough citizens that it qualifies to be on a ballot along with the vote for elected officials. It is true that state legislatures may submit a referendum as well. The importance of referenda is that they are driven by pure populism; it is the mood of the people at the street corner. There is no better source about the American attitude than to track ballot initiatives based on signatures of individual voters proposing legislation. Ben recommended a very rich source for learning about the world of public initiatives. See:

Referenda are proclamations that rise out of discontent by the common masses. Typically, they are confrontational declarations reflecting a dissatisfied and often constrained public. While referenda allow the lowest personal emotional attitude to be expressed, the referendum process also demonstrates the fallacy of populist resistance.

For example, in California, a tax referendum was proposed that would change the state’s well being through to today (source: Wikipedia):

Proposition 13 (officially named the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation) was an amendment of the Constitution of California enacted during 1978, by means of the initiative power. It was approved by California voters on June 6, 1978. It was declared constitutional under federal law by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1 (1992). Proposition 13 is embodied in Article XIII A of the California Constitution. Proposition 13 has been part of the California Constitution for 38 years, 2 months, and 25 days.

The most significant portion of the act is the first paragraph, which limited the tax rate for real estate:

Section 1. (a) The maximum amount of any ad valorem tax on real property shall not exceed one percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property. The one percent (1%) tax to be collected by the counties and apportioned according to law to the districts within the counties.

The proposition decreased property taxes by assessing property values at their 1975 value and restricted annual increases of assessed value of real property to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2% per year. It also prohibited reassessment of a new base year value except for in cases of (a) change in ownership, or (b) completion of new construction.

In addition to decreasing property taxes, the initiative also contained language requiring a two-thirds (2/3) majority in both legislative houses for future increases of any state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates and sales tax rates. It also requires a two-thirds (2/3) vote majority in local elections for most local governments proposing to increase special taxes.

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The impact of this initiative brought the California government to its knees. Every category dependent on property taxes essentially went bankrupt – especially education. It remains this way today because the initiative requires a two-thirds vote to change it.

Alternatively, in many states, ballot initiatives have moved the role of marijuana toward legitimacy – in spite of Federal resistance.

There are two ideas in play that often are lumped together but in fact are clearly different. One is populism, which is an action in resistance or rebellion; the other is egalitarianism, which is a philosophy of government often in conflict with capitalist attitudes. The following is from a Stanford University tract:

Egalitarianism is a trend of thought in political philosophy. An egalitarian favors equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. An alternative view expands on this last-mentioned option: People should be treated as equals, should treat one another as equals, should relate as equals, or enjoy an equality of social status of some sort. Egalitarian doctrines tend to rest on a background idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. So far as the Western European and Anglo-American philosophical tradition is concerned, one significant source of this thought is the Christian notion that God loves all human souls equally. Egalitarianism is a protean doctrine, because there are several different types of equality, or ways in which people might be treated the same, or might relate as equals, that might be thought desirable. In modern democratic societies, the term “egalitarian” is often used to refer to a position that favors, for any of a wide array of reasons, a greater degree of equality of income and wealth across persons than currently exists. End quote.

The philosophy of egalitarianism and the emotional act of populism have the same objective but require different processes for implementation. Egalitarianism requires a government which governs a culture of equality while populism does not require a pairing of government oversight with public attitude.

However, expediency is a tool of change. Bookmark Ben’s link.

Ancient Mariner

2 thoughts on “Beyond Voting for People

  1. An honor to have a passing comment become a Skipper post!

    The level of direct democracy allowed varies quite a bit between the states. Plebiscite as policy instrument is definitely more prominent in Western states – reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with the governance of the established United States in the mid-19th Century when those territories were achieving statehood. The major concern was the poor accountability of elected officials to the electorate: party politics preventing effective legislation (without hindering deference to large banks and elite families in the least, of course), set against a backdrop of decades-long government-supported monetary deflation (the “Cross of Gold”) that burdened miners, farmers, and laborers throughout the American interior while the benefits accrued mainly to large banks and wealthy investors on both coasts.

    A majority of Colorado’s electorate felt strongly enough about limiting taxes or allowing marijuana to vote in favor of such amendments to our state Constitution. (Many others too, but not as recent nor as notorious.) In neither of those two cases had our state legislature passed, or even proposed, remotely similar legislation. In both cases there was vocal bipartisan opposition from governor and lawmakers. I’m sure they all felt their stance was “mandated” by the electorate – the very same electorate that had to take matters into our own hands to demonstrate just how much our representatives WEREN’T representing us.

    I don’t think you can lay all the blame at the feet of direct democracy! I’m not saying a country should be run entirely by plebiscite, but it DOES keep the burghermeisters honest. And gives one a feeling of real participation in the Republic that cannot be replicated by picking this jerk over that jerk on a ballot.

    However, to the credit of our system – whether they liked it or not, our state government apparatus has always respected and incorporated the outcome of these ballot measures. Imagine if the People squawked as much when the lawmakers pushed new laws on them, as the lawmakers do when the tables are turned!

  2. … however, please note that I do not speak for California. Their politics are baffling. The place is ungovernable.

    I’m also not a huge fan of Colorado’s TABOR amendment, for what it’s worth. However, it does seem to have resulted in a much more efficient, somewhat less corrupt state government than was the case in other states I have lived in. And in a nation that supposedly governs by consent of the governed, what’s wrong with the local authorities having to ask for the money they claim to spend on their citizens’ behalf? Sometimes they even get it …

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