October 30, 2005


Democracy's evil twin: You want to bring California government back to its senses? Get rid of the initiatives. (Jules Tygiel, October 30, 2005, LA Times)

IF GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger really wants to "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento, he should sponsor one two-line initiative:

"There shall be no further initiatives.

"All previous initiatives may be modified by a majority vote of the Legislature."

When asked after the Constitutional Convention in 1787 what kind of government the new American nation had adopted, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." In a republic, there is no monarch. More important, representatives elected by the people enact laws on their behalf. [...]

Frustrated by the railroads' and corporations' control of legislative bodies and political parties, agrarian reformers proposed a variation on the republican form of government in the late 19th century — direct democracy. When elected officials ignored the will of the people, they contended, the people should be able to propose their own laws, reject or revise existing ones and remove public officials. The initiative, referendum and recall would be the instruments of the popular will.

The agrarians failed to achieve their goals, but the Progressives picked up their cause in the early 20th century.

Democracy is too much with us.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2005 12:42 PM

Is this an argument against Initiatives. I'd die to get them into IL. As we get more informed, empowered & active, initiative ASSIST classical liberalism.

Good golly, absent initiatives, Arnie wouldn't even be there.

Classical liberals need to get their feelings straight here. You either trust the people or you don't.

I'll take the people of CA - whacky as they are - over the corrupt & gerrymandered district politicians any day.

Who wouldn't?

Posted by: Bruno at October 30, 2005 1:03 PM

i second the motion

Posted by: gray davis at October 30, 2005 4:17 PM

Reagan was a strong supporter of California's initiatives, even tho' he was a recall target.

Voters can be demagogued, but politicians ARE demogogues. On balance, I prefer the voters.

By the way, I'm expecting the Court to outlaw them all someday based on Art.IV, sect. 4.

Posted by: Noel at October 30, 2005 4:20 PM

As I wrote here, I think direct democracy should be extended to the national level in a form I call "proxy direct democracy". An excerpt follows:


The simplest version of Direct Democracy that I can think of, and the one that requires the least change to the structure of the government and leaves most of the checks and balances which seem to work so well in place, is to leave the Executive and Judicial branches and the Senate as they are now, and to make two minor changes to the House of Representatives. The first change is that the populace can introduce legislation to the House of Representatives. The second change is that the vote of the House of Representatives is advisory only and requires a subsequent national vote to pass the legislation.

There are many ways that a system could be designed for the voters to introduce legislation to the House of Representatives. Most methods have some person or entity write proposed legislation and collect some number of millions of signatures, and if enough signatures are collected, the legislation is added to the House or Representative's agenda (in time order). We'll need to assume that those signatures can be collected electronically and that the electronic collection is verifiable and incorruptible. This may be an enormous or even insurmountable assumption and the required technology will be the topic of future essays, but for now, let's assume it can be done inexpensively and effectively. I'm also going to ignore numerous other interesting details for now.

With this approach, the House of Representatives would have an agenda of pending legislation, part of which was added to the agenda by the Representatives themselves just as it's done now, and part of which was added to the agenda by the above procedure. The Representatives debate and vote on the legislation just like they do now. However, the vote doesn't have any direct effect on whether or not the legislation passes. For each piece of legislation there is a national vote and the whether or not the legislation passes is solely dependent on the national vote.

I would suggest that the national votes be based on something similar to a typical proxy based corporate vote. At voter registration, each voter would specify their default proxy directive as having his or her vote be the same as the advisory vote of the House of Representatives, the same as the advisory vote of a given party or subparty within the House, the same as the advisory vote of one of the representatives, or an abstention. Just like a corporate proxy, the voters can rescind their proxies for a particular piece of legislation and vote directly on that legislation. Legislation that passes would continue on to the Senate just as it does now.

Clearly, if the voters never bothered to introduce legislation and everybody set their proxy default to follow the advisory vote of the entire House of Representatives, the legislative process would proceed exactly as it does now. If voters want to be more specific about their allegiance, they can pick a particular group or subgroup within the House to be their "voting advisors". And if they care about a particular issue, they can cause legislation to be produced and vote directly on that legislation.

I'm proposing this approach because it gives the voters tremendous flexibility with minimal burden and requires little change to the existing government structure. There are numerous other approaches, but I think this one is good enough to begin discussing the benefits and impacts of a national direct democracy.


Posted by: Bret at October 30, 2005 4:28 PM

I agree that politicians are bad, but you guys might be missing the essential American point that the voters are bad, too.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 30, 2005 4:32 PM

Initiatives make some forms of organized theft easier, since they eliminate the checks and balances of a republican system that impose a kind of super-majority requirement on legislation. However, law-making and theft by judiciary have even fewer checks and balances, so now that we've abandoned republicanism for judicial oligarchy, initiative democracy might be a structural improvement.

Posted by: pj at October 30, 2005 4:59 PM

Initiatives might make some "forms of organized theft easier," but I'm convinced that they make most forms harder.

That's because it's much less expensive to lobby/bribe relatively few representatives as opposed to the entire voting population.

Posted by: Bret at October 30, 2005 5:33 PM



Posted by: oj at October 30, 2005 6:13 PM

No, if either were worse, the solution would be easy. They're equally bad, which is what makes it difficult.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 30, 2005 6:37 PM

If every Californian were a Reagan, every Sacramentoan assembly would still be a mob, eh?

btw, your proposed initiative would of course fail.

Posted by: Noel at October 30, 2005 7:04 PM

Bret - Especially if the initiatives are in off-elections, you don't have to persuade very much of the electorate. Teachers' unions have done pretty well out of the California initiative process.

Posted by: pj at October 30, 2005 8:07 PM

Intiatives are bad. Ever try to figure out what the law in California is.

Democracy is not a virtue, it is not even a good system of government.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 30, 2005 9:05 PM

so it works in the marketplace (capitalism) but not in the voting booth (democracy); uh huh.

Posted by: sigfried freud at October 30, 2005 11:21 PM

sigfried -- democracy is the opposite of capitalism, where we each make our own choices... democracy in the market would be like communism, where the majority (or the politburo) decides what we all get.

Initiatives would only work if they had to be renewed by the electorate every four years, just like the bums in office.

An interesting thing happened here in B.C. The Liberals (who are actually conservatives, unlike the federal Liberals) campaigned on privatizing our automobile insurance corporation. I asked my friend (who is now the minister of the environment) what happened to that promise?

Barry said that they tried to get a private system going but could not get anyone to do it for less than the government was doing. Competition simply did not work in an area so diverse and huge.

So they dropped the promise (and fortunately haven't paid a political price).

An initiative would have tied the government's hands and they would have been unable to do the right thing given changing circumstances.

Posted by: Randall Voth at October 31, 2005 12:42 AM

so you are saying we have two brains, one for voting and one for economics ? interesting; now tell me about your...

Posted by: sigfried freud at October 31, 2005 10:11 AM

Sigrfried - The market is an example of freedom: everyone has power, and power is more or less equally distributed. Democracy is an example of the tyranny of the majority: the majority gets to impose its will and the minority is powerless. Democracy can easily become unjust, a corrupt mechanism by which the politically powerful exploit the politically powerless.

Posted by: pj at October 31, 2005 11:33 AM


No one proposes that an economy actually be run along pure capitalist lines--it would be a disaster. The more direct democracy the worse for the same reasons.

Posted by: oj at October 31, 2005 12:53 PM

Funny how this issue makes OJ an uber-Hamiltonian.

I would be compelled to agree with OJ & Mr. Cohen if we were only debating this academically and had no real world experience.

I haven't done an exhaustive study, but by my reading, initives seem to cut 60% pretty conservative (TBOR/Gay Marriage) and 40% pretty darn liberal (Education Spending-capping Ins rates, socialized Medicine).

BTW - The fact that they usually aren't "middle of the road" speaks well for them. I've always like bright lines and good contrasts. Legislation is far to obscure and compromising.

Though OJ & Dave are professorial in their theorizing, 3rd way George wouldn't be president absent OH gay marriage initiative and 3rd way Ahhhnold wouldn't be Governator.

Though I buy some of their theorizing, I believe they ignore, miss, or disagree with the following points.

1. People are getting more politically savvy, and are making better initiative decisions (most right pass and most left fail)

2. The legislative political class is hopelessly corrupt. They aren't fit to vote on anything but the color of the cells they belong in.

3. Gerrymandering, Media costs, and Incumbent protection legislation (otherwise known as CFR) have combined to make "republican representative democracy" pretty a myth, particularly in a "specialized society" where no one knows anything but their own domain.


Until some of these problems are addressed, Initiatives are good public policy.,/b> I will argue for them vociferously if I can talk IL into a constitutional convention - which it sorely needs.

Posted by: Bruno at October 31, 2005 2:18 PM

I am still hearing this "two brain" theory.

Our commercial markets are constructed, and work, exactly as our gvernmental "market" works. Where did I advocate pure democracy or pure capitalism ?
Initiatives + Representative government is different from Capitalism + socialism in what way ?

Posted by: sigfried freud at October 31, 2005 3:03 PM

Because socialism disciplines capitalism as representation does democracy.

Posted by: oj at October 31, 2005 3:37 PM


So what? Segregation initiatives would pass too.

Posted by: oj at October 31, 2005 3:43 PM

thank you for agreeing. next patient please.

Posted by: sigfried freud at October 31, 2005 4:23 PM


Don't worry, we won't charge you for the cure.

Posted by: oj at October 31, 2005 4:43 PM
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