On Bridges And Ballot Proposals: Direct Democracy Is Always A Bad Idea

July 30, 2012, 11:32 PM

A goodly amount of ink has been spilled recently because Matty Moroun spent about $4.6 million (and counting) on his campaign to place an anti-international bridge proposal on the ballot. It’s unseemly, critics argue, that a billionaire can purchase ballot access in the manner the rest of us might purchase a weekend stay up north.

But some less noticed and more interesting ballot proposal news was delivered last week about how, according to Public Policy Polling, Michigan voters are thinking about November’s ballot initiatives.

PPP: Several measures which may be on this fall’s ballot are up by modest levels of support right now. By ten points (44-34), Michiganders favor a constitutional amendment to secure collective bargaining rights for both public and private employees, and by 20 points (50-30), voters favor 25% of the state’s energy having to come from renewable sources by 2025. But they also support by seven points (40-33) a measure requiring tax increases to be approved by a statewide vote or by two-thirds of the legislature, and by ten points (41-31), they want to keep the controversial emergency managers law.

One cannot support public sector collective bargaining rights, which strengthen workers’ ability to negotiate higher pay and benefits, and at the same time wish to restrict the government’s ability to raise revenue to pay for that unionized workforce. Nor can an intellectually honest person believe that an EM should be empowered wipe away the now-Constitutionally protected collectively bargained contracts when public sector workforce costs become too high.

The result of this PPP poll is not the consensus of rational actors making informed decisions. It proves we have an unserious, emotionally immature citizenry that wants its cake and to eat it too. This is why James Madison rightly declared direct democracy a terrible idea in The Federalist Papers.

“A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction,” Madison wrote. “A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.”

Let’s be honest, the average person is usually too busy enjoying the fruits of liberty (working a job, raising a family, taking a vacation, getting high on meth in their doublewide, etc.) to dive deeply into the nitty gritty of public policy.

The Framers and the leaders who followed devised and nurtured a system to ensure a self-governed nation where informed men and women to make informed decisions on matters of public policy: In short, the people elect representatives who make it their vocation to study the details and make decision in the public interest. At least in theory. These things never work as planned but as Churchill famously noted this system may be the worst imaginable, but it remains better than all the others.

Unfortunately, representative government is undermined by the entire initiative and referendum process. Ballot measures allows powerful interests to play upon the passions and fears of the electorate. It allows lawmakers to sidestep difficult issues. It takes voters eyes off their main task, electing competent legislators and executives, and distracts them with all manner of arcane policy. It also creates, as The Economist rightly notes about California, ungovernable political entities.

Plenty of politicians and pundits will criticize specific ballot proposals as reckless or the onslaught of ballot proposals as unwieldy, but few will attack the mechanism itself.

Perhaps we treat initiative/referendum as sacrosanct because they were hard-won reforms of the Populist and Progressive eras. While that era did produce great advancements that helped modernize our nation, it’s folly to pretend the Populist/Progressive platform was some holy thing produced by infallible men. They weren’t. William Jennings Bryan was a dullard who believed acknowledging that Earth isn't 6000 years old would lead to the dehumanization of the working class.

Practical application of the initiative/referendum process has shown it to be as equally moronic as Bryan’s view on the planet’s origins.

The idea that anyone with five million bucks burning a hole in his pocket should be able to demand “the people should decide” a complex policy question at the ballot box isn’t responsible governance. It’s tyranny by mob rule.

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