A world of dictators

Posted: Feb 15, 2004 12:00 AM

The world is full of dictators. Fidel Castro comes to mind. After more than four decades of iron-fisted rule, he is still tossing pro-democracy activists into prison for the awful crime of being, well, pro-democracy. (Still, some in the Hollywood crowd sing his praises.)

On the other side of the world, 75 percent of Iranians voted in their last election for candidates favoring democratic reforms. As new elections approach, the ruling clerics have thrown most of these pro-democracy candidates off the ballot.

One-man rule in North Korea not only threatens nuclear attack against its neighbors, but starves its own people through an ugly combination of incompetence and evil.

Of course, who could forget our allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and?the list of both allied and enemy dictatorships goes on and on. Thank goodness, there aren?t any dictators in our country.

Except that there are.

Tyranny, American Style

Oh sure, we overthrew the King of England a long time ago. But, we still sometimes suffer from the dictatorship of the elected. True, our dictators don?t cut off the fingers of dissidents or take over stadiums to stage mass executions. Compared to tyrannies abroad, we?ve got it pretty good.

Still, when those in power steal the public?s right to decide the public issues of the day, when they use their power not to do the people?s will, but rather, to ride roughshod over the people they are supposed to help, then we are served a slice of dictatorship. Sometimes it is merely a taste; too often we get much more than our fill.

Under what kind of system--democracy or dictatorship--would government functionaries force you from your home simply so that they could give your land to someone else who would provide them with more tax revenue?

They?re trying to do just that in Lakewood, Ohio, and in cities throughout our country. Using eminent domain, local governments are taking homes and businesses away from those who own them, only to hand the land over to private developers to build new homes and businesses that will generate higher tax revenue. Elected dictators have stood Robin Hood on his head, shaking down the poor to give to the rich.

Granted, when using eminent domain, the owners of the property seized must be compensated by government according to the market value of the property. But after living in a home for decades, rearing your kids there, who can place a "fair" value on those memories?

On the Make to Break You

Arguably even more unfair--because uncompensated--are the governments that tax your business in order to subsidize your competition and drive you out of business.

Welcome to Knoxville, Tennessee. Last year, the city council and outgoing Mayor Victor Ashe decided the city?s convention center might no longer lose millions each year if they constructed an expensive new luxury downtown hotel with tax dollars.

This did not please the hotel owners already struggling to make a profit. Nor did it please the taxpayers of Knoxville, 80 percent of whom (according to a University of Tennessee poll) were against this plan.

In these two cities and countless others--and throughout all levels of government--special interests seek to have it their way at our expense and against our will by circumventing the democratic process. They don?t use force like brutal thugs; instead, they cheat us out of what?s ours by getting elected officials to act like dictators.

I?m not suggesting that politicians in Lakewood or Knoxville are carbon copies of Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. They aren?t. It is merely that they are ignoring the very same principles that the world?s greatest tyrants ignore: first, that all people have a right to live their lives without powerful forces dictating their every move, and, second, that public decisions should be made democratically.

Clever Machinations

The government actions in question are wrong, even if democratically supported. But it is instructive to note that there was nothing at all democratic about these efforts. Dictators, like everyone else, easily embrace democracy when they win. But they trample upon it when they lose.

In Lakewood, citizens petitioned to put the city?s development plan to a public referendum and voters repealed the plan at the ballot box. Simple as that. The referendum and an initiative coming up next month were tough to put on the ballot, but they provide a critical check on the local politicians, and a check that did not exist anywhere else. The courts have provided no help, having ruled previously that taking land for so-called economic development, through eminent domain, is justified.

Lakewood?s politicians prophesied that society would descend into chaos if the people could trump the superior wisdom of the politicians. For some reason, they offered no warnings about the dangers of dictatorial rule by the few.

In Knoxville, the story of an initiative to block the hotel plan provides an even closer glimpse into the homegrown impulse toward dictatorship. Years ago, after the passage of term limits for local politicians in Knoxville, Nashville and Shelby County (Memphis), state legislators ever so quietly passed a law nearly tripling the petition requirements for local initiatives.

But Knoxville hotel owners pursued an initiative anyway and, though much more expensive than it would have been, they collected the 25,000 signatures they needed to put the measure on the ballot. During the course of the petition drive, the council harassed the effort by enacting new, retroactive and facially unconstitutional campaign finance requirements.

Still, once the proponents jumped through all the hoops to get the initiative certified for the ballot, the council knew the people would triumph. So, they preempted a public vote by passing the initiative, which scuttled their beloved hotel scheme.

Unfortunately, the machinations of the dictators never cease. The law is clear: once a measure is adopted by the voters, it cannot be repealed except through another vote of the people. But some council members now suggest that the council can merely adopt any initiative petition, thus escaping a vote of the people, and then--ten seconds later--the city council can turn around and repeal the very same measure voters sought to enact.

The effect of this would be an absurd fraud upon the voters, a mockery of democracy. But if you?re a dictator, it apparently makes good sense.

In a dictatorship, those in power can overrule the people. In a free society, the people can overrule those in power. This isn?t just a question for troubled countries in far off parts of the world; it remains a question for you and me at every level of our own government.

Democracy or dictatorship: which do you prefer?