TCS Daily

Publius vs. Demos

By Christopher C. Hull - September 30, 2003 12:00 AM

"I just want you to know that I have a part for you in 'Terminator 4.'"


California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbed that smiling shell at columnist Arianna Huffington during this week's five-way recall candidate debate. But it is not Ms. Huffington that is looking to terminate whoever emerges as the Golden State's governor after October 7. In fact, both the state's budget woes and the contentious recall actually come from the same steely-eyed automaton: California voters themselves. Direct democracy (coupled with a chronic and complicit lack of leadership by the voters' representatives in Sacramento) has its sights trained not just on Davis but on future governors into the distant, unknowable future.


California's small-"d" democratic political system, heavy with referendum and proposition power for individual voters, violates explicit concerns voiced by political theorists for hundreds if not thousands of years. It has led to a tangled mess of mandated spending and policy that entraps anyone who attempts to lead there.


Granted, a powerful leader can slice through those Gordian cords with enough time and effort. But instead, weak-willed political figures have worsened the whims of the people into the fiscal disaster the state now faces. And both the politicians and the people were whipped in that direction by tax-eating special interest groups, exactly as our Founders would have warned.


As any political science 101 student can tell you, the United States is not in fact a "democracy," at least not as the term is understood technically. In a democracy, power to govern is lodged with the demos, that is, the mass of individual citizens. In America's federal republic, the power is allocated to local, state and national representatives by the vote, delegating decision-making authority to them.


This is not an accident. Our Nation's Founding Fathers were sharply opposed to too much democracy -- too much decision-making ability placed at the disposal of individual citizens. They deliberately turned instead to a system in which those citizens selected statesmen according to their merit and judgment.


The greatest voice of our Constitutional constructors is the tri-partite character "Publius," the pseudonym of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, writing around 1787 in defense of the soon-to-be-approved Federal Constitution. These thinkers, though later to be divided by politics, were united in thinking that the Constitutional Convention had gotten it right, and that rejecting the framework for the United States would prove disastrous.


In these "Federalist Papers," as the collected writings are generally called, Publius argues consistently against direct democracy, and for a representative republic. Hamilton and Madison especially were rebutting the Anti-Federalists who had an eye for California-style distribution of power to the states and the masses. They felt "sensations of horror and disgust" over early stabs at self-government in Greece and Italy, for instance, because of their "perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy." That said, they felt that a republic vitiated these concerns. Unless the country adopted a strong, central representative republic, Publius held,


we shall be driven in the alternative either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity and contempt. (Federalist 9)


More than just calling for a central authority with representatives from the people, Publius directly assaulted direct democracy itself, charging that where citizens had too much direct power, special interests -- or "factions" -- would rule the day entirely. "A pure democracy," he wrote, "by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction."


And Publius warns that direct democracies themselves


have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. (Federalist 10)


Welcome to the Hotel California.


Proving Publius' counterintuitive axiom that too much democracy means too much power for special interests, the proposition power inseminated into the California demos has spawned a creeping host of interest-bred mandates along with teeming taxation limits. The state's great 1978 tax revolt led to Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes by 60% and capped further increases. So far, so good -- activists of all stripes have long looked to '78 as a prime example of a grassroots triumph over politicians.


But other direct-democrats got into the act. In 1998, education unions successfully persuaded the voters to endorse Proposition 98, which insulated educrats by mandating that K-12 expenditures match at least the prior year's spending, plus an inflation and population adjustment. In 1994, anti-crime activists passed the tough "three-strikes and you're out" Proposition 184, mandating long prison terms for repeat felons, which the Rand Corporation costed out at $4.5 to $6.5 billion per year. In March of 2002, road construction interests talked voters into Proposition 42, siphoning gas taxes directly into a $1.4 billion/year transportation fund.


Along with Governor Davis came no less than four more approved propositions, mandating spending on homeless shelters, education capital improvements, clean water projects, and after-school programs, together totaling $40 billion according to an expert cited in the Washington Post. And remember who pushed those after-school programs? Proposition 49 was spearheaded by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, a kind-hearted policy in a muddle-headed system.


The result is that today 60 to 80% of the Golden State budget is mandated spending, according to John Ellwood of the University of California at Berkeley. (Some portion of that figure is mandated not by voters, but by the Federal government, but that is a problem for another column.) Thus the new governor will face a budget deficit of $10-15 billion out of a $98.9 billion budget, already slashed to the bone to meet the $38 billion shortfall this year.


And the democratic spending spree is far from over, no matter whether a Democrat or Republican is in power after the recall. Arnold and Arianna will accompany Proposition 53 on the recall ballot, forcing the state to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a new state infrastructure fund -- backed by the public construction industry's powerful faction that is spending lavishly on gubernatorial contributions as well.


Critics charge that the recall process itself is an example of direct democracy run amok. But that can be excused -- many other California governors, including Ronald Reagan, faced a recall effort without it getting to ballot. That Davis is actually facing a vote is due largely to his bland lack of leadership -- and arguably to the fury over years of increasing spending over and above voters' orders until a crisis ripped through the system. Not only is Davis being torn apart politically by his demos, but that same demos created the very crisis that infuriates it today. 


The answer is not just the pabulum of Blue Ribbon panels, tax increases on the wealthy and closing of corporate "loopholes" put forward by those debating at Cal State. It is for California's leaders to listen attentively to Publius -- by building a system that listens less attentively to the California public.


The public with its recall wills it so.


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