Paul Jacob
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Recently, a friend of mine stopped short our banter about the initiative process to say something like this:

“Paul, you and I have given a great deal of thought to government, to politics. I think we very much agree across the board, on free markets and constitutionally-limited government. Yet, when we talk about the initiative process, you seem to see it as wholly positive, while I’m constantly afraid of what the Left might do.

“Aren’t you afraid of the Left? And what the Left can do with the ballot initiative?”

“No,” I said, “I’m not.”

I explained that my stand isn’t one of bravery. It’s one of realism.

There are really two issues: (1) fear of the Left, and (2) fear of the voters passing laws through the ballot initiative process available in 24 states and most local jurisdictions.

If the Left is defined as the Democrats in Washington, then, yes, I’m plenty scared. Policies do have consequences.

But Washington’s enormous and much-too-malevolent power has nothing to do with voter initiatives . . . which, after, don’t exist at the federal level. Not surprisingly, neither partisan pack of congressional leaders are pushing a federal voter initiative.

Furthermore, by this major-party definition, I’m afraid of the Right, too. Look what enormities united government under the Republicans accomplished! (Sometimes it seems that half my time doing my Common Sense radio spots is listing the evils committed by Republicans. The other half, of course, falls against the Democrats.)

But the Left, like the Right, is not so easily defined. The real Left exists much further out than Democratic politicians dare go. And they’ve far less in common with the bulk of the American people than us limited government folk have.

It’s also the case that this “real” Left isn’t monolithically Evil. I’ve worked with liberals, socialists, Democrats, Greens, etc., as well as opposed them. I cannot see them as aliens bent on xenocide, who must be opposed in every measure, as being created to one malign purpose.

In the end, it is issues that matter. And on a number of issues, we in favor of free markets and constitutionally limited government can make common cause with folks on the Left (even if not always with the group, Common Cause). Corporate welfare comes to mind. As do term limits and transparency. Protecting the rule of law. There are plenty more, including opposition to government takings.

But what about the issues on which we disagree? Can the Left tempt the people down dangerous paths?

Of course, yes. But keep two things in mind: Constitutional constraints, and history.

From a constitutional standpoint, initiatives are just as limited as statutes passed or amendments proposed by legislatures. In fact, in real-world experience, it seems the courts are much more cognizant of constitutional restraints when considering and sometimes striking down measures passed by voters.

Moreover, the actual history of statewide initiatives shows that the bulk of dangerous government growth comes not from the people, but from the politicians.

The people will make mistakes, of course, and we have to recognize that. But we desperately need a countervailing force to push for freedom. And that will not come from politicians Left or Right. But it can and has come from citizens who care about issues protecting and expanding the critical process of voter initiative, referendum and recall.

To the extent the Left means those who favor ever-growing government, the initiative serves as a natural curb. Politicians are likely to side with idea of government being bigger and more powerful — this can be said even of many so-called conservative Republicans — because as ministers of said government their power is tied to the power of that to which they minster.

There is a long track record of initiatives, and the big mistakes during that history didn’t come from the voters through initiatives. Legislators, Congress first among them, did far more than the lion’s share of damage.

On the other hand, much good came from the initiative. In the 1910s, voters passed some of the first statewide provisions for women’s suffrage through the initiative. In more recent times, Proposition 13 in California touched off a tax revolt and term limits swept the country.

Face it: Surely Prop 13 did more good by saving the homes of many Californians — and by touching off a tax revolt across the country — than all the misguided initiatives in over a century of ballot propositions.

Why? Because it stuck out. The general trend of government is to grow. Politicians rarely embark on a daring plan to limit government.

But the people do. And when they do, their efforts shine as a beacon, and spread.

Indeed, efforts to stem the tide of unlimited government consistently outshine all other efforts, simply by contrast.

The initiative is the one venue that favors freedom.

A different friend (I have at least two), once asked me, “Do you trust the people?”

Loaded question, I thought, and then, just for good measure, I told him the truth. “No, I don’t trust the people — but I trust the people a whole lot more than I trust the politicians.”

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Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.