Monday, December 19, 2011

Why I Don't Like Ballot Initiatives

It should probably go without saying, but people who know me will tell you: I'm a pretty big fan of democracy. I vote, I encourage others to do the same...heck, I've even suggested in this blog that we make voting mandatory. It's not just a civic right, it's a civic duty, and it should be treated as such. And because I'm such a big proponent of democracy, it usually comes as a pretty big surprise to people that generally speaking, I think ballot initiatives are a terrible idea.

When someone said as much to me ("Are you against democracy?"), I replied with the simple statement, "No, but there's a big difference between democracy and mob rule." A ballot initiative is a single policy statement, made in a vacuum, usually vaguely worded and not made by experts. Rarely can those experts revise it subject to the realities of the situation. Frequently, the election surrounding it is subject to demagoguery and misinformation. To anchor your entire legal system around such statements generally cripples the creation of actual, sensible policy.

Take California, for example. California has been a big fan of the ballot system for a long time, and it shows in their budgetary crisis. They've had ballot initiatives that have overruled necessary-but-unpopular measures like tax increases with rules that hamstring the ability of the state legislature to raise money, passed by people who then turn around and complain that the legislature is ineffective in providing the services they need to live their daily lives. Initiative follows initiative follows initiative, like tying knots in a cord, until the law no longer stretches to where it needs to go.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that lawmakers are always sensible and wise and all-knowing. I read the papers just like everyone else. But the solution is what it's always been. Elect better lawmakers. Term limits and ballot initiatives and other gimmicks to save our system of democracy from itself only create new loopholes for canny criminals to game; the best solution is what it's always been, to put our best people into office and let them make their best decisions.

And to stop voting Republican. Because by this point, it's pretty obvious that "our best people" excludes them almost by definition.


RichardAK said...

You may be right about ballot initiatives in the abstract, but while your argument may be true, it is not valid. You have misdiagnosed California's problem. California has one of the highest tax burden's in the country (sixth highest, in fact, as of 2009). The California legislature has had no difficulty in levying taxes, unpopular or not, upon the people of California. The simple fact is that California has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. And that is at least mostly the fault of the state legislature, not of ballot initiatives.

And the government has no right to force people to vote. On what grounds can one claim a "duty to vote"?

Entertained Organizer said...

Actually California's budget problems stem from Prop 13 essentially freezing commercial property tax assessments at their 1978 levels, depriving the state of the most stable source of revenue and forcing us to rely on a regressive sales tax and income tax, both of which are heavily impacted by the current economy. This in turn causes dangerous boom and bust cycles that, again due to prop 13, the legislature essentially cannot address because of the 2/3rds requirement to pass any revenue increases.

RichardAK said...

Except that there haven't been "boom and bust cycles"; total revenue has increased pretty steadily since 1978. The problem is that spending has increased faster. And all revenue sources are affected by general economic conditions. What evidence is there that property taxes are more stable? You think property tax revenues aren't down across the country? Have you been paying any attention to what's been going on in the housing market in the last several years?

Again, California already has one of the heaviest tax burdens in the country, and is one of the wealthiest states. The simple fact is that all this nonsense about Prop 13 is nothing more than an excuse for Sacramento pols not to live within their means. Oh, and by the way, businesses are already fleeing California's high tax burden. California is certainly near, if not well past, the peak on the Laffer curve. Higher taxes are not likely to bring in any more revenue at this point.

All this about how California's taxes aren't high enough reminds me of James Ledbetter's Starving to Death on $200 Million, except that California is starving to death on $94 billion a year.