It was love at first sight. The drama, the excitement, the promise of something new and wonderful.
In 1978, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 13, an initiative placed on the ballot in response to runaway property taxes.
America’s right swooned. Here, at last, was the answer to liberalism run amok: “Citizen legislators” would roll back Big Government.
Three decades later, it’s difficult to find a conservative or libertarian who disparages ballot initiatives. The late John Berthoud, who headed the National Taxpayers Union, called them “a critical tool for taxpayers in the fight against unaccountable government.” The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund claims, “Without initiatives and referendums, elites would barely bother at all to take note of public opinion on issues they disdained.”
Conservatives even have an advocacy organization “dedicated to the belief that citizens should be in charge of their government.” Citizens in Charge (naturally) “works … to protect the initiative [and] referendum process in the … states where it exists, and to expand the process to states currently lacking the initiative.”
But as voters start to ponder this year’s questions — Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee will decide if hunting and fishing are constitutional rights; Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, and Georgia will rule on taxes — it’s time to reconsider the wisdom of direct democracy.
The right’s activists and media figures haven’t been paying attention. Enraptured by memories of Proposition 13, and hopped up on the false notion that elected officials respond not to voters but the dictates of liberal elites, they’ve failed to notice that the enemy now plays the ballot-initiative game quite well.
Since 1996, 10 minimum-wage hikes have been on the ballot, from Montana to Florida. All passed. “Public” financing of elections (i.e., taxpayer subsidies to political campaigns) in Arizona and Maine weren’t enacted by legislators, but voters. “The people” have consistently backed tobacco-tax hikes and bans on smoking in privately owned facilities. Boosting spending on government schools is wildly popular. Get ready for a flood of “green” measures in years to come, most of which are sure to pass. In 2008, Missouri approved a “renewable portfolio standard” (i.e., costly, mandatory purchases of politically correct power) by a 2-to-1 margin.
Pro-taxpayer ballot initiatives get plenty of exposure — and it’s delightful to watch the political class gripe over supermajority requirements to raise taxes and limits on property levies. But fiscally conservative proposals frequently fail. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, approved in 1992, limited the Centennial State’s spending to inflation-adjusted population growth. When the cap became too tight for voters in 2005, they scrapped it for five years. Maine, Oregon, and Nebraska rejected Colorado-style spending limits in 2006. Massachusetts thunderously defeated income-tax repeals in 2002 and 2008.
It’s clear that since the modern era of ballot initiatives began in 1978, the measures have a mixed record. For every taxpayer victory, expenditure explosions have prevailed. (As for traditionalists, they have dominated skirmishes over the definition of marriage, but often lose on embryonic stem-cell research and decriminalizing pot.) Teacher unions, anti-technology eco-loons, Nanny Staters, and other leftists didn’t see the revival of initiatives coming. But they’ve caught up, and probably achieved parity in the ballot-initiative battle.
More disturbing than right-wingers’ unwillingness to accept the reality of ballot initiatives is the rhetoric employed in their reflexive defense of the fourth branch of government.
Libertarian scholar Hans-Hermann Hoppe offers a sharp rebuke to the nonsense peddled by “power to the people” propagandists: “Almost all major thinkers had nothing but contempt for democracy. Even the Founding Fathers of the U.S., nowadays considered the model of a democracy, were strictly opposed to it. Without a single exception, they thought of democracy as nothing but mob-rule.” John Adams poured scorn on democracy, writing that “men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition. We must not then depend alone upon the love of liberty in the soul of man for its preservation.”
It’s little wonder that two of the nation’s most notorious public-sector expansionists — Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt — supported direct democracy, a creation of the “progressive” period a century ago. (More recently, Ralph Nader’s a big fan.)
The record shows — and common sense should lead one to conclude — that ballot initiatives have little value in stopping the ceaseless march of government power. Like term limits, they’re an electoral gimmick, and a wasteful distraction from the arduous, often thankless task of converting hearts and minds to the blessings of liberty.