What kind of government do we have? Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether Americans had a monarchy or republic. "A republic," responded the grand old revolutionary, "if you can keep it."
Democracy was not even on the table. And yet quite quickly democracy increased, as more men obtained land, and then as other extensions of the franchise were put into law, decade by decade. But this progress of voting rights notwithstanding, it is quite clear that democracy strictly defined was not what the founders were up to.
So I have not been surprised to receive quite a few lectures from readers of these columns ? and of my free Common Sense e-letter ? on the nature of our republican government. My advocacy of further democracy, of initiative and referenda for both statutory and constitutional reform in every state of the union, couldn't help but spark controversy. "America is not now and never was a democracy," I'm repeatedly told.
I wish that were true, in a sense. I wish that we lived in a republic as imagined by the best of our founders. But Ben Franklin's great aphorism was a warning as well as a statement. And it is apparent that Americans have not heeded the warning. We have not kept our republic.
Not that keeping a republic is easy. Franklin's co-conspirator, Thomas Jefferson, explained: "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
As it is
So what do we have?
Not a democracy, for the betrayal of campaign promises goes on year after year and district after district without much comment.
And not quite a republic, either. The old idea of checks on government growth, and balances of power, have fallen by the wayside.
Both houses of Congress have ceded leadership to the executive, not only in matters of peace ? it has been over sixty years since Congress did its duty and actually declared war, though dozens of wars have been fought ? but in matters of domestic policy, too: regularly they blame every legislative tangle on a lack of leadership from the White House.
And in collusion with the executive branch ? which has grown with an ever-increasing bureaucracy ? Congress manages to increase spending year after year, on projects both noble and idiotic, with no discrimination. Rarely does it review a program and abolish it. Layers of government and bureaucracy just add on, ad infinitum.
The failure of republicanism in general can be seen best by the failure of the party named after the idea. Despite the best efforts of a few men and women who went to Washington and didn't catch the fever, government has continued to grow. Today's united (that is, Republican-controlled) government is increasing both federal spending and debt at an alarmingly advanced rate, making the divided government of the '90s look almost like utopia.
I often define the problem in class or caste terms: through the power of their incumbency, our representatives set themselves apart, nurturing their own interests at the expense of the public, all the while, of course, mouthing the pieties of limited government and the public interest.
But one could also define the problem as Ben Franklin himself did, in terms of corruption:
[T]here is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
Are you tempted to agree? Don't we live in corrupt times? Our government is increasingly burdensome and despotic. The people, we're told, yearn for more.
But the evidence doesn't quite bear this out. The people, when voting in initiative and referenda in those states and communities blessed with the institution, tend to be far more frugal and freedom-minded than their politicians. It is the political class that is corrupt, not the people themselves. At least by comparison.
This is one reason why I place some hope in greater democracy. We cannot trust politicians or the dominant political parties. So the people themselves remain our only hope to restore limits to government, a return to common sense.
"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone," wrote Mr. Jefferson. "The people themselves are its only safe depositories."
Three first steps
Three democratic reforms provide the first steps to returning our government to its Constitutional, republican roots:
- Term limits at local, state, and federal levels, for all elected executives and representatives.
- The right to initiative and referendum by citizens in every state and locality, for Constitutional as well as statutory enactment and repeal.
- Require a vote of the people for tax increases and borrowing money.
Each of these proposals strengthen the fabric of the republic, while also embracing "democracy" ? or perhaps, more correctly, greater democratic control over government.
Term limits enact into law the example of George Washington, who resisted monarchy and then its atavistic continuation in the presidency by limiting himself to two terms. The 22nd Amendment put Washington's limit into law.
Opponents of legislative term limits, on the other hand, often say that such limits are "un-democratic," abridging the right of citizens to vote for whomever they want. And yet it is citizens who tend to be for term limits, and politicians against. After all, when given the chance, citizens have voted for term limits, usually quite overwhelmingly.
Why would citizens wish to limit themselves? Because they, better than politicians, understand that limits can provide the right incentives not only to politicians, but to themselves. While term limits limit their choices by one, they also increase their choices by many, as term limits create open seats, bringing out many more candidates and increasing real competition.
This has been demonstrated in state after state in which term limits are now taking effect. Further, the bottlenecks inside legislatures ? such as the seniority system, where power gets allocated not by competence but by the crude criterion of time served in office ? are broken.
Initiative and referendum, on the other hand, are never mistaken for anything but democracy. And yet their chief virtue does not lie in giving voters anything and everything they ask for. It is in providing a check on the political class.
It is no surprise, then, that the political classes oppose this form of democracy. Many states that have it, for instance, have it for only constitutional reforms, or only for statutory ones, not both. This leads to all sorts of problems and inefficiencies, such as treating big ideas as little (where only statutory measures are permitted) and small ideas as big (where only constitutional amendments are allowed). In Florida, recently, politicians responded to a minor muddle caused by this imbalance not by extending the initiative, but by trying to hobble it. Fortunately, they were stopped.
A few states now have the third proposal on my list, requiring a vote of the people for tax increases. And many localities require voter approval for borrowing. Taxpayers have been saved millions, perhaps billions, because of such requirements. It's a known fact of political economy that politicians like to spend their citizens' money. That's why the citizens themselves must have some direct control over at least the extraction of that money as well as the indebtedness that's sure to lead to future extraction.
But the successes in a few states have not led to a groundswell in all states. In initiative states (at least in those states that have the initiative for constitutional amendments), voters can enact this change directly. In other states, making change at the constitutional level requires the cooperation of politicians. How to gain this cooperation? Well, to start, every voter who supports citizen control should write to every prospective representative:
The right of citizens to propose and change simple statutes and their state's constitution, by a popular vote, strikes me as more American than apple pie. Can I count on you to support initiative and referendum?
Then don't vote for any candidate who doesn't agree.
What is democracy, really?
These are all democratic reforms. And they are republican. They strengthen the ability of the people to veto particular designs by their representatives, thus limiting their representatives' power. Term limits, the initiative, and referenda on increases in taxes and borrowing ? all provide necessary checks on government growth.
There is a reason that today's dictionaries define "democracy" and "republic" almost identically. When Americans ? and people around the world ? think of democracy, we are not thinking just of majority-rule voting. We are thinking of our ability to govern our own lives, and of our rights to travel, make contracts, own property, raise our children, speak, worship, and criticize ourselves and others. In other words, we are thinking both of a free society and the state that allows it. And this can only rest "on the people."
Call it a republic, call it a democracy. What we want is freedom and responsibility. In other words, the Republic is ours, if we can revive it.