Paul Jacob

“Do you trust the people?”

We had barely been seated at the restaurant when my guest fired off his query. I had asked him to lunch after a state capitol event, where he was advocating that Minnesota should trade its bicameral legislature for a unicameral, and I had been pitching the idea of establishing statewide initiative and referendum.

He was a little skeptical of initiative and referendum. I was completely certain that without the initiative his idea would never see the light of day.

“No, I don’t trust the people,” I responded. “But I trust the people a whole lot more than I trust the politicians.”

Last week in San Francisco, I told this tale to more than 300 people — academics, political professionals, media folks, initiative activists, legal experts, elected officials and concerned citizens — gathered from six continents and more than 30 countries and 30 U.S. states, who had come together for the U.S. Conference on Initiative and Referendum, part of the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. The assembled multitude — both speakers and audience — was not merely from across the globe, but also from all across the political spectrum, often a far wider divide than mere geography and language.

I wanted to make the point that people are only being sensible when expressing concern about the power of government. History has shown that law-making, whether by legislatures or by voters, can be dangerous when misused. Democracy should never be two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. Constitutions should safeguard fundamental rights from momentary majorities of any size.

Still, it strikes me that the people are far less apt to play the wolf than are politicians. At least, on purpose. Additionally, the voters are more likely than are politicians to quickly fix their mistakes; too often, politicians’ first (and only?) reaction to problems is to point the finger of blame at their opponents. Moreover, special interests may bribe their way to success in legislatures, but cannot buy off the entire electorate.

Initiative and referendum is best understood not as a process whereby citizens can govern directly (for instance, less than one percent of initiative-happy California’s laws come via citizens), but as a means for citizens to check their elected officials, to force action when needed, to block unpopular measures, and to make reforms that self-interested legislators would nary consider.

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.