In Defense of Democracy

Posted: May 03, 2004 12:00 AM

"They had a gun to our head. They took hostages, and they promised to start shooting." This is not the complaint of a victim of a horrible crime -- unless democracy is a horrible crime.

This is, instead, the protest of California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. She was describing the trauma she faced from a citizen initiative to reform her state's workers' compensation system. California's new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had used the initiative drive as leverage against legislators, who quickly realized that if they didn't reach an agreement with Governor Terminator something worse would happen: voters would go even further.

Not long before, similar foreboding about democracy could be heard from California politicians. To some, the Rodney King-inspired Los Angeles riots of a decade ago were political expression. Yet, the voter recall of former Governor Gray Davis was some kind of "mayhem" and the voters' ability to place an issue on the ballot a form of terrorism.

Something strange has happened, something has happened to democracy.

Popular Government

It has often been observed that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Neither direct nor indirect democracy provides a good way to come up with a stable economic program, for example. Economists have shown that voting is too ungainly a tool to make consistent policy. Democracy can't help but be a bit messy.

But it does serve one important function, as Karl Popper insisted: it allows for the peaceful removal of rulers.

In a famous letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote of refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. But democratic "revolution" is better than bloodshed, as I'm pretty sure he also believed. The framers of the Constitution sought to create popular government, a peaceful means for citizens to regularly check and reconstitute their servants running their government.

Unfortunately, though democracy increased with the extension of the franchise, it also mutated. It has been twisted by our elected officials and by the permanent government that is the vast bureaucracy of the modern state. A counter-revolution has occurred:

  1. The idea of a limit to government is honored now mainly in the breach . . . at least within the halls of government.
  2. Constitutional "checks and balances" have mostly been chucked.
  3. By rewriting the laws regarding elections and by carefully capitalizing on certain peculiarities of mass voting, elected officials have insulated themselves from voters' wrath, cultivating a culture of special privilege instead of public service.

What Jefferson called the "natural tendency" of "government to grow" and "liberty to yield" has left us with a permanently growing burden on the populace, a mockery of democracy.

Losing Control

Popular government is failing. Citizens are losing control.

  • We see it in politicians all across the country suing the voters -- successfully and unsuccessfully -- to overturn term-limit laws.
  • We see it in politicians who promise to bring government under control when seeking office, only to join the big government party once safely ensconced in office with all the advantages of incumbency.
  • We see it in reforms supposed to help stop corruption of public officials or the appearance of corruption which only regulate and silence criticism of those same public officials.

In all these cases, what we are witnessing is a constant erosion of democracy's most important feature: the peaceful removal of office-holders.

If you think the answer is simply to vote them out of office, you've missed how the game has changed. (You must not be reading my free Common Sense e-letter.) The voters' choices are usually between two fellows both saying what they think you want to hear, but committed only to their own ride on the gravy train.

Then the one who wins is handed the keys to the office . . . and power.

Dan Walter, the dean of California's legislative observers, recently wrote that incumbent "legislators are in absolutely no danger of losing their seats . . . due to a bipartisan gerrymander of the Legislature's districts two years ago." The goal of redistricting has long been to protect the incumbents of both parties from the type of competition that might enable citizen control. That goal has been achieved.

Should we hold our breath waiting for politicians to reform the system and return power to the voters at the risk of their political careers? Don't. Legislators will not lay down their weapons. All hope for reform of the redistricting process is limited to those states that through the citizen initiative allow voters to overrule their legislators and set new limits on power.

The People Strike Back

More and more Americans complain they have no voice in government. So it's no surprise that by huge majorities Americans support greater use of the citizen initiative process, whereby voters can petition to place issues to a vote of the people. This desire is not for mob rule. It's for some mechanism to check the out-of-control political monster we see before us.

A representative of the Chinese Communist authorities recently explained why the people of Hong Kong should not be able to directly elect those ruling over them. Qiao Xiaoyang said, "Governments who are led by the nose by public opinion are irresponsible."

His words sound remarkably similar to those of Fred Leonhardt, chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who, in defending the Florida Legislature's assaults on the state's initiative process, said, "If we become a state that is run by the electorate, we will become a significantly dysfunctional state."

Of course, the dysfunctional states are those run by career politicians. The key to increasing the functionality of governments at all levels is to limit the role of those institutions.

And right now, the only group of people seeking to limit governments are the American citizens themselves, not their "representatives" and elected executives.

It is easy to parody democracy as "two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for supper." But that's not what most people want when they praise democracy. Virtually everyone around the world -- except for a few wolves -- desires democracy within the framework of basic law protecting individual liberties. They want limits on government. For most of us, that's the point.

But that's not how politicians look at it.

That's why it is the voters themselves -- ourselves -- who are our only hope for restoring a popular government under law, rather than rule by the ravenous pack of incumbent politicians. Citizens have a vested interest in freedom. We need democracy -- both direct and indirect -- and lots more of it, if we are to peel back dysfunctional government, restore freedom, and save our republic.