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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Initiative 1033's backers exhibit their disdain for representative democracy

Recently, in response to one of Tim Eyman's emails hyping his latest scheme to paralyze Washington State, I authored a post which explained why Initiative 1033 represents Tim Eyman's boldest attack to date on representative democracy.

This annoyed Virgina conservative Paul Jacob so much that he decided to reply this weekend at Salem Communications' Townhall.com, one of the Republican Noise Machine's more prominent Internet destinations. (Townhall, for those who don't know, was originally operated by the Heritage Foundation; it is now run by Salem Communications, which owns quite a few radio stations and other Internet portals).

Jacob's biography suggests that, like Tim Eyman and other Grover Norquist clones across the country, he is an infallible believer in the initiative and referendum process, and doesn't care much for our cherished tradition of representative democracy. His biography also helps explain why his reply to my post is based on a series of misrepresentations.

What misrepresentations? Well, take Jacobs' title, The loving grip of the wise elite, which is a snide reference to what he evidently thinks we believe.
Smart people should rule the world.

That, anyway, is what certain folks who consider themselves far smarter than you or me tend to think. These clever souls hang out with other brainy people, all of whom are very impressed with the intelligence they find around themselves — at places, say, like the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Yes, for the good of everyone, they must rule.
Lovely, a weak attempt at sarcasm wrapped in an old forlorn stereotype about supposed liberal elitism. I have to confess I was surprised that I didn't see the words "latte drinking" or "Birkenstock" in there somewhere, but maybe Jacob just didn't get the memo about using choice words to bolster the frame he was invoking.

Jacob doesn't bother to develop a serious argument against idea factories, where, as he put it, "clever souls" can "hang out with other brainy people." Perhaps that's because conservatives are the ones who have invested billions of dollars in think tanks, leadership training to develop political talent, and policy networks to funnel ideas between states or to our nation's capitol.

The whole point of such infrastructure is to harness and refine political thought, and it's a well-oiled machine. Progressives are playing catch up, as we and others have pointed out on many occasions.

Jacob's insinuation that we consider ourselves elite is even more amusing considering how unconventional NPI is. Most think tanks start out with plenty of seed money, wealthy patrons, and connections.

NPI is the opposite of that; it's been built block by block by activists who believe our movement needs infrastructure if we're to make headway towards restoring and strengthening the American promise.

Jacob goes on to provide a predictable distortion of progressive thought.
Without such leadership, after all, how would the little people — those of us less brilliant, less progressive — know precisely how much revenue, how much of "our common wealth," should be obtained by state government through taxes and then spent on various programs?

You ask: What programs? Programs these really smart people think up, of course.
Pooling our resources together into a common wealth to do for ourselves what we cannot do in our separate and individual capacities is an American tradition which dates back to colonial times and beyond, before Europeans even arrived on this continent. How much we invest in our common wealth, and what we invest in, has ultimately been decided by popular demand throughout our history.

For instance, during the Depression several decades ago, Americans wanted President Herbert Hoover to intervene and take action to save the economy from further collapse. But Hoover would only offer a very limited, measured response, because he figured that individual initiative would rescue the nation from its economic woes.

Frustrated by this, the American people turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed into law the creation of many services that have endured to the present day, most notably Social Security. These services were not created because "really smart people" wanted to legislate what was best for everyone; they were created because the American people wanted and demanded them.

If that were not the case, Social Security would have been dismantled after the Depression. But it hasn't been, even though staunch conservatives have tried to do away with Social Security or privatize it many times.

In an attempt to convince their fellow Americans that less government is good, conservatives often use the blandest, most generic language they can think of, hence Jacob's repeated use of the word programs.

The assumption is that government does lots of unnecessary things, and we are mocked for wanting government to do more of them.

This assumption makes sense inside of a conservative worldview, but not in reality. In reality, government offers essential services that people want and need, like schools, libraries, roads, parks, or police and fire protection.

After introducing his readers to Tim Eyman, Jacob goes on to briefly outline Initiative 1033 using conservative framing, mentioning the provision I critiqued in my post, which allows I-1033's draconian services freeze to be circumvented only if voters explicitly approve doing so on a case by case basis.
[T]his democracy idea doesn’t sit so well with Andrew Villeneuve, who tells us on the Northwest Progressive Institute’s blog that “I-1033 is the boldest assault yet in Tim Eyman’s war on representative democracy.”

Villeneuve believes permitting mere citizens to occasionally vote directly on taxes and spending, on economic policies, is somehow illegitimate — and destructive of the delicate brain surgery done by legislatures.

Oh, he freely admits that the first Americans to raise the banner of Progressivism brought us initiative, referendum and recall. But many of today’s self-described progressives now say “thanks, but no thanks” to the idea of empowering the actual people on the receiving and funding ends of government.
Jacob either did not read my post very thoroughly (and is thus misrepresenting my position by accident), or he did and is deliberately being duplicitous. I suspect it's the latter. There are a few progressives who want to abolish the instruments of direct democracy; we at NPI (like most progressives) are not among them.

I did not argue - and we at NPI do not believe - that occasionally putting questions to the people is unwise. The people of Washington have enacted a number of good ideas over the years, including Washington's public disclosure law several decades ago, and more recently, our tough anti-smoking law.

What I did argue was that the initiative and referendum weren't intended to subvert our republican form of government (note the small r).

Tim Eyman's measures are deliberately engineered to mess with representative democracy, particularly local representative democracy, or home rule.

Eyman's "one size fits all" schemes prevent neighbors across the state from making their own decisions about how and when to deliver the services they want and need, besides tying the hands of the Legislature and the Governor. Initiative 1033 is the latest and worst of these schemes.

Jacob goes on:
The little guy has apparently outworn his welcome.

Everyman (or -woman) might not vote the right way — that is, the “left” way. Thus, all decisions must be made by special-interest barnacled politicians. Otherwise, disaster lurks.
Apparently the audience for Jacob's reply is not conservatives who are capable of reasoning well, because even reasonable conservatives can see that this train of thought, attributed to me, doesn't make sense.

Just for fun, here are the principal problems with it.

First, the same forces that corrupt representative democracy can also corrupt direct democracy... and do. Special interests need only spend a certain sum of money to force a public vote on something. They can then spend even more trying to influence the outcome of the vote. Just as "special-interest barnacled politicians" can be bought, so can the electorate. It is deceitful to argue that direct democracy is purer than representative democracy.

Second, and more importantly, a person who has no faith at all in majority rule would not support any kind of democracy, either direct or representative. A person with so little regard for his or her fellow citizens would not believe them capable of voting either the "right" way or selecting the "right"leaders. There are people out there who advocate autocracy, oligarchy, and anarchy because they view democracy as flawed, but they are not progressives.
"If all public services were dependent on voter approval to exist year to year, Washington would not even be a State,” claims the hyperbolic Villeneuve. “Our beautiful corner of America would be known as The Evergreen Chaos."

Such Chicken Little statements have little to do with the reality of Eyman’s proposal. I-1033 will not require any program to be re-upped by voters yearly.
First it was little people, then the little guy, now it's Chicken Little.

Jacob's vocabulary sure is... little.

Eyman's proposal would in fact, force voters who do not want their essential services gutted to regularly approve revenue increases, because that would be the only way to deice its draconian limits once it has frozen into place.
More troubling, though, is Mr. Villeneuve [sic] complete lack of faith in the voters.

Villeneuve is mistaken on the merits of I-1033, but he is dangerously unbalanced in arguing against the right of the people to check the actions of their government through initiative and referendum.

"The initiative and referendum were not intended to replace the Legislature," he says. But of course, legislators aren’t being replaced, merely overruled. By their bosses.
Maybe Jacob does have a comprehension problem. He's quoted me enough that even his own readers (at least those who are intelligent enough to parse what I wrote) should be able to tell that he's misstating my position.

If I had no faith in the voters, as Jacob presupposes, then I would not believe in democracy at all, as I explained a few paragraphs ago.

As for I-1033, there are no merits to argue about. It is a scheme so malicious that it cannot be improved or mitigated. It's not possible to turn it into good policy because it's rotten, though and through.

Incredulously, Jacob then goes on to cite, of all people, James Madison, lifting a very brief passage out of Federalist No. 49 about the people being the only legitimate fountain of power. He doesn't even bother to link to the whole essay for context.

As anyone who has studied the debate over ratification of the Constitution knows, James Madison was one of the biggest proponents of representative democracy of his day (he called it republicanism). In Federalist No. 10, Madison goes out of his way to argue that direct democracy is unworkable because such a system of government can be unraveled by mischievous factions:
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, 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. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies 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. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
So much for Jacob's lofty appeal to our fifth President for wisdom. Jacob then takes issue with my quoting Winston Churchill:
Funny how Villeneuve edited Churchill. Britain’s prime minister did not use the term "representative democracy" at all. He actually said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Yet another disingenuous paragraph.

Churchill didn't throw in the word representative because he didn't need to... the United Kingdom doesn't have an initiative and referendum process. Representative democracy is all they've got. Since the 1970s the government has referred a few questions to the people of the United Kingdom to weigh in on, but it did not even do that in Churchill's time. And again, there is no such thing as a citizen-initiated initiative or referendum in the U.K.

(The same is true in the United States, at the federal level).

Since Jacob is such a big fan of context, here is a longer excerpt of what Churchill said, encompassing both the brief snippet I quoted and the longer version of the quote that Jacob used, which can be commonly found on the Internet.
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.
Emphasis is mine. It's pretty obvious that Churchill was talking about representative democracy, not direct democracy.

I didn't get into the context (PDF) in my original post, because I merely wished to offer a very brief aphorism that readers would recognize. Churchill did not originate the remark about democracy being "the worst form of Government", but since he did not attribute a source, history has given him the credit for it.

Finally:
Villeneuve’s last refuge is to denounce the entire concept of voter initiatives for one additional reason. “Every time we the people of Washington State are forced to vote on Tim Eyman’s measures, it costs each of us a pretty penny,” he writes. “Eyman seems to have forgotten that holding elections — like every other public service the government provides — carry a price tag.”

Oh, sure, democracy is nice and all, but it costs too much. Perhaps a king would be cheaper?
Jacob's final misrepresentation is perhaps his richest. Since he's totally dispensed with the context of what I wrote, I'll take an opportunity to reestablish it.

Tim Eyman, like other zealous Grover Norquist clones, has spent nearly his entire political career trying to get the people of Washington State to believe in a free lunch. A free lunch is, quite simply, the idea that we can have it all and not pay for it... that we can get to some end result without doing the math.

Eyman tells people that government is wasteful and inefficient, implying that the same levels of service could be provided with less revenue; he never bothers, however, to identify what he considers wasteful.

That also explains why he has demurred from seeking office. Just as his initiatives are not concerned with responsible governance, neither is he.

He would like to enjoy all the benefits our common wealth provides without having to pay anything. This "me-first" worldview is not only selfish, but dangerous, for when it is cynically harnessed to drum up support for Eyman's schemes, it negatively affects our quality of life.

One of the benefits our common wealth provides is, obviously, elections.

It costs money to print up ballots, mail them out or distribute them to poll sites (in Pierce County's case), employ personnel to operate the machinery to tally them (or manually tally them) and record the contents. It also costs money to print up the voter's pamphlet and mail that out.

The objective of Tim Eyman's Initiative 1033 is to slowly drown government in a bathtub by freezing the resources currently available to fund public services, thus ensuring death by a thousand cuts. The only way to ease the chokehold of Initiative 1033 is to refer a proposition to the people of a particular jurisdiction so they can explicitly approve a one time increase in revenue.

But since elections cost money, under Initiative 1033, a community would have to pay, repeatedly, to exempt itself even if its residents aren't selfish and want to protect their quality of life by sustaining service levels.

The aim of my original post was to make plainly clear that budgeting by referendum is not only inconsistent with our republican tradition and impractical (especially when taken to an extreme), but also expensive.

By equating our opposition to budgeting by referendum and abuse of the initiative process as synonymous with opposition to direct democracy altogether, Jacob has managed to set up and knock down an fine straw man. His reply does not even attempt to refute our arguments about Initiative 1033; instead, as noted earlier, it justs declares at one point that I'm wrong.

So a conservative enthralled with direct democracy doesn't agree with our criticism of Tim Eyman's latest initiative. What else is new?

Comments:

Blogger Steve Zemke said...

Quite a treatise here Andrew. Much too thought out for the "free lunchers" who enjoy the fruits of representative government while expressing disdain.

Eyman and his ilk support reducing government and taxes. I-1033 freezes public spending by the state and all 39 counties and 281 cities in the state. There is no logic or rationale behind it. We are not an overtaxed state - the conservative Tax Foundation ranks us as 35th (with 1 being the highest) in terms of state and local tax burden.

We have no income tax yet are the 8th highest ranked state in terms of income per capita. We could do better in educating our kids and providing other state services and still not be inducing hardships on most citizens.

But rather than just reducing property taxes as I-1033 purposes, the goal of society should be a fair tax system and one that does impose undue hardship on those less well off. That is why we have a Senior and Disabled Citizen Property Tax Exemption - to help those most in need of help.

But I-1033 doesn't help those that need help most - in fact it imposes additional hardships on seniors and working class families that don't own property and who will see no tax rebate but will still be taxed the same as before under I-1033.

I-1033 transfers taxes paid by seniors and working families with no property to help pay property taxes for property owners. Not everyone owns property. One of the flaws in I-1033 is that it provides no benefit to renters who represent 35% of the households in the state.

This of course is just one of its problems but in and of itself is a sufficient reason to reject I-1033.

September 21, 2009 12:29 PM  

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