The one-in-a-million problem
My week began with a celebration: The centennial of California’s initiative process.
I wrote about it at Common Sense, the daily commentary I’ve penned since 1999 (you can sign up for the email version on the Citizens in Charge website). “The enormous impact of California’s initiative process can hardly be disputed,” scribbled I. “Perhaps the best known and most consequential initiative has been Proposition 13.” I concluded by noting that politicians tend to hate being checked by citizens, and that Californians still support this limited form of direct democracy by the same margin they passed it a century ago.
Drik, one of my regular commenters — and intelligent Townhall blogger — offered a somewhat caustic addendum: “And it still didn’t stop the politicians from bankrupting the state.”
No, Drik, it didn’t. The initiative and referendum process didn’t prevent California’s politicians from spending the state to the brink of insolvency.
I’ve written about this before. Unlike some analysts, I don’t see California citizens as the cause of the state’s bad spending habits, or the initiative as their nefarious instrument. Evidence suggests otherwise: legislators, for example, have dramatically hiked spending over the last decade without help from voters. Additionally, the more than 82 percent of ballot measures in the past 20 years that have required greater spending have been placed before voters by legislators, not through the state’s citizen initiative process.
Of course, if you assume that politicians are always right, that every bit of spending they desire is a good thing, then the initiative has hampered their mission. Without Proposition 13, for example, state taxes would be much higher. And maybe the state government wouldn’t be nearly bankrupt.
But the people would. Many, many people.
There’s a reason Californians have repeatedly demanded tax limitation measures and that Prop 13 remains as popular today as it was when passed by voters in 1978: Their politicians’ insatiability.
This is a national — indeed, universal — problem. It’s built into representative government. Thomas Jefferson recognized it as the force that encourages government always to grow, and liberty to lose ground.
And there are obviously no easy solutions.
In California, though, it’s worse than in many states, and the reason is easy to identify: California has too few elected representatives, thus distancing each representative away from his or her constituents, exacerbating the insularity of political life.
The politician is always tempted to think in terms of “voting blocs,” especially the larger the number of people that politician must “represent.” And a voting bloc is just a special interest — and it is with special interests that we reach the heart of the modern political problem. These interest-group blocs are useful to the politician at election time, in terms of votes, first, and in terms of invested campaign contributions, second. And politicians, in turn, prove useful to the interest groups, paying off political investments with bigger benefits, subsidies, and unfair economic advantages: in short, money.
The solution is ready at hand: Increase the number of representatives.
Increase the size of the Assembly. And the Senate.
Currently a state assemblyman represents (or doesn’t actually represent) roughly half a million people. State senate districts dwarf even the districts of U.S. congressmen, with each senator speaking for a million people.
I know, the idea sounds counter-intuitive. Politicians tend to play the role of skunk. So increase the number of skunks?
Well, in a sense, in a republic we are all politicians. To the extent that we vote, and promote political ideas, each citizen has a political role. There are millions of citizens in California. So the question isn’t the number, but their relative power.
No one citizen has a great deal of power, offset by all the others.
But politicians, perched in the great political machine of state government, have more political leverage, and have far more political power — and thus are constantly tempted by the corrupting forces of that very power.
Short of constitutional limitations on the scope of government — which we need to establish with greater rigor — adding numbers to the political insider group makes each individual member just a tad less powerful.
And more dependent on actual constituents, not blocs of the same, i.e. big labor unions and rent-seeking big business. Making politicians dependent on their constituents provides greater power to each individual Californian.
Californians really must consider adding to the size of their legislature. The current ratio makes no sense, with only 40 senators and 80 assemblymen acting for 38 million folks.
I bet that this reform would be just as anathema to California’s politicians as the initiative process is. Whether it could become popular with the citizenry remains to be seen. Doubtless, though, it would be up to the citizens themselves. After all — like epoch-making reforms such as term limits and tax limitation measures — it is only through direct citizen action that such reform would likely become law.
That’s why I can’t think of a better time to contemplate it than now — the centennial of the state’s initiative.
October 16, 2011
This column was originally published at Townhall.com, at this address: