Beware of all that direct democracy
The use of state ballot questions is a rapidly spreading practice. On Nov. 4 more than 200 questions appeared on ballots. Including tax-cutting measures, bond issues, nuclear power referendums, and proposals to reform state government.
A broad range of public leaders are in favor of the use of initiatives. When , however, a comparison is made between the presuppositions behind the initiative and the concepts of government embedded in the US Constitution, some differences become apparent.
Initiatives are said to be a democratic safety valve that enables citizens to bypass stubborn representatives and a means to enhance civic participation under conditions of large-scale, pluralistic, industrial society. Proponents of initiatives are able to claim significant accomplishments through their use.
The specific merits of Proposition 13 in California can be debated, but it is common knowledge that it did signal voter dissatisfaction with ever-increasing taxes. In Maine the voters refused to repeal returnable container legislation; Montana backed a measure requiring expanded disclosure of lobbying activities and expenditures; Washington State turned down a proposal to have the state take over lands now under federal control.
But the delegates to the federal convention of 1787 rejected the direct democratic idea behind the voter initiative. To make use of it would represent a return to what had caused previous democratic attempts to fail. Such use would misconstrue human nature. They did not suppose that the cure of democracy would be more democracy. In the interests of liberty, they called upon the people to accept restraints on their freedom.
The Founding Fathers advocated representatives government rather than direct government. They acclaimed a mixed government in which democratic, aristocratic , and monarchical elements were fused. They insisted upon the separation of powers with the division of executive, legislative, and judicial functions, each balanced against the other. Human excesses had to be curbed by deliberation. These checks and balances were the means by which republican government could endure with its imperfections lessened. Hamilton said, "Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many. Both therefore ought to have power, that each may defend itself against the other."
The makers of the Constitution would consider wide use of initiatives as simplistic and drastic. They thought that when the people go wrong they may go wrong terribly.They preferred evolution to revolution. They would say that with the initiative there are too few means for rectifying rash decisions. There are too few protections.
Such matters as taxation or energy frequently are too complex to be decided finally by popular vote. Often the common good requires the making of unpopular decisions. The common welfare can be endangered by reckless actions coming out of irrational impulses or provincialism. Some analysts think that the Nov. 4 tax vote in Massachusetts will bring about a crisis in a state that has no budgetary surplus. Boston stands to lose 60 to 75 percent of current revenues.
Despite the difficulty of electing responsible representatives, legislatures are better equipped to decided complicated issues. Initiatives can serve to divert attention from the imperative of selecting wise men and women to serve in elective offices.
The citizen initiative bears a similarity to the push-button process that enables television viewers instantly to register approval or disapproval of proposals. This process may not be as promising as some advocates think. During periods of hysteria there can be simplistic public responses. If Harry Truman had been required to act in accordance with public opinion, he could not have fired an arrogant Douglas MacArthur who might have brought about a wider war. Hitler used referendums to galvanize his dictatorship. The delegates at the State House in Philadelphia were able to foresee the possible pitfalls of unbridled democracy.
There is a need for more public participation in the processes of government, but expanded use of referendums might not be the most appropriate means for bringing this about. Referendums do have some value, but they should be used with limitations.
With an enthusiastic initiative backer like Ronald Reagan in Washington it becomes more imperative that the initiative process be evaluated. In doing this attention should be given to the warning of James Madison that "it may happen that the popular voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced b y the people themselves."