Democracy for a new millennium

What's new
Who will govern
Essays & articles
Archive The Story so far
What you can Do
About us
Reading list



"Sand in the gears" by Dennis Myers (with commentary) (Ref: e1001)

This is the text of an article in the Pahrump Valley Times, 7th April 2004, the original of which is here

For commentary see below.

"Direct democracy," the name often given to the various Progressive era "reforms" like initiative, recall, and referenda, is very revealing. Pure democracy is usually portrayed, in the classroom and the newsroom, as an unalloyed good. That it is not what this nation is basically about is seldom mentioned. And republican government 1 - which IS what this country is about - goes similarly unmentioned in both of those locales. One of the consequences of this is that direct democracy has become a significant threat to the nation. In a book on its dangers, David Broder wrote, "At the start of a new century ... a new form of government is spreading in the United States. It is alien to the spirit of the Constitution and its careful system of checks and balances ... [T]his method of lawmaking has become the favored tool of millionaires and interest groups that use their wealth to achieve their own policy goals2 ... Exploiting the public's disdain for politics and distrust of politicians, it is now the most uncontrolled and unexamined area of power politics.3 It has given the United States something that seems unthinkable - not a government of laws but laws without government." Broder's book underestimates the role of public disdain in fueling direct democracy, but otherwise he's dead on.

Thus we've seen California voters using ballot measures to mandate costly public improvements - and to slash the government revenues needed to pay for those improvements. Here in Nevada the "Education First" group is circulating an initiative petition, which would cut education funding by forcing state legislators to fund schools before knowing state revenue projections.4 The state teachers association, instead of simply opposing and trying to defeat the measure, has instead proposed its own initiative petition requiring that state schools be funded at the national average.

But even those measures do not compare to a referendum petition now being circulated. (An initiative petition proposes new law. A referendum puts an existing law on the ballot for voter approval or disapproval.) This measure would put Senate Bill 8 of the 2003 Nevada Legislature on the ballot for a public vote. S.B. 8 is the basic tax and school funding bill approved by the Legislature. Because it contains the tax reforms and increases, its opponents hope to put it on the ballot so those tax changes will be repealed.

But they seem not to realize that this is not all it would do, or perhaps they are assuming they can't lose in the election. But suppose they do lose. In Nevada, once the voters approve a statute, that statute can never again be changed without another public vote. The statute is locked in.5

For instance, Nevada's abortion law was approved in a 1990 referendum. As a result, it can never again be changed without voter approval. It's locked in, beyond the reach of state legislators.

And S.B. 8 is full of statute changes. I went through it as carefully as I could and found 71 changes in statutes. That does not include various other changes that are too complicated to mention here, nor does it include the dozens of statutes that would be repealed if S.B. 8 were approved. Seventy-one changes, approved in a referendum, would put Nevadans deep into micromanaging6 their government every two years. Every time one of those 71 statutes needs to be changed in the future, the public would have to vote on it.7

And these are not statutes dealing with beekeeping, either.8 They are statutes that are regularly re-examined and frequently changed by the Legislature to keep up with changing times. They deal with banking, education, insurance, business trusts, and other frequently revisited topics. If the referendum were approved, the likelihood is that, because the state's economy cannot always wait for the next election, Nevada would have to start having regular special elections after every legislative session for votes on changes in Nevada law. Imagine biennial elections on Nevada Revised Statutes 694c.450, 353.2754, and the other 69 laws involved in this exercise. There would be primary and general elections in even numbered years and permanent special elections in odd numbered years. Imagine the sample ballots that would arrive in state mailboxes, since each of these changes in mortgage broker law or whatever law was at issue would have to be explained and accompanied by arguments for and against their passage.

And since the Distributive School Fund is in the bill, Nevadans would also become a big state school board, voting on every supplemental appropriation to Esmeralda County for kindergarten costs.

Oh, by all means, let's put S.B. 8 up for a public vote. Since we seem not to trust our legislators, it could give us a real taste of direct democracy, of running the government for ourselves. That'll show them.

(Ref: e1002)

One contributor writes :

There are a number of important observations here and they are all presumably accurate. However, the view that they are inherently dangerous is based on the structures within this so-called direct democracy is operating in parts of the US today. The checks and balances which are in place to make today's government safer are not appropriate to direct democracy of this kind. But that is not to say the system cannot be designed with the right checks and balances in place. To address the issues one at a time with just one possible approach :

  1. Republican government is what the country (US) is about. But this itself must grow with society. If it is fossilised, cast in stone, it will eventually fail to perform, regardless of what attempts are made to keep it functioning as originally intended by by constantly tweaking it.
  2. The process of getting initiatives considered by obtaining written signatures is obviously flawed by being open to manipulation by those able to put up money for their own agendas. This site's project envisages an entirely electronic process for both proposing initiatives and voting on them. All this would be entirely by secret voting. Could canvassers outside malls influence that unduly?
  3. Our project is very much dedicated to the removal of 'power politics' from the scene altogether as its foundation is wholly immoral, socially destructive and soul-destroying.
  4. The main check on undesirable, or unforeseen, consequences like this is to separate the voting for a proposition, which is stating the People's view on the issue, from the process of making statutes. For more see Ref: p1604 and here.
  5. The permanent nature of laws by default is a problem throughout government. The proposed rules here include an automatic time limit, the opposite of automatic permanence.
  6. Three things lessen the micromanagement problem. One, the rules limit the scope of a statute to a particular and closely defined subject. Two, the separation of the agreement to a statute from its enactment make the voting non-binding. Three, the non-binding nature of the voting enable the degree of participation in the process to be used as a judgement factor in whether the vote is valid. This allows for both micromanagement by the People and also for individuals, or even the People as a whole, to entirely ignore a statute if they wish, without stopping the government process in its tracks or affecting the validity of the process as a whole.
  7. This is the fault of today's legislators, especially those who try to sneak through unrelated measures which are nevertheless part of their power games. The answer to this objection is to make sure that every statute has a precisely and narrowly defined purpose. Any statute without such a clear purpose should never get to a vote in the first place. The rules here are intended to cover this.
  8. All the foregoing also mitigates the problem of public ignorance of a subject, one of the reasons in theory why we elect experts to do things on our behalf. As long as the principle of total freedom of information in government is adhered to then we can have trust in our representatives again because at least the possibility of the details of what they are up to exists. Whether anyone or everyone takes the trouble to investigate an issue in great depth is up to them; it is the possibility of doing so which is our safeguard. On any issue of importance (and our rules mandate that only such issues should be a matter for government at all) there will always be sufficient people interested enough to keep tabs on what is being done in our name. Built-in to our new structure is a whole section devoted specifically to this task.

All the problems noted in this article are valid, but only because we have not taken the trouble thus far to prevent them arising. I see no fundamental reason why they cannot all be overcome. Given the will to do so. Therein lies the rub?

QUESTIONS (Ref: e1099) (Contact us)

  1. What do you dislike about this page?
  2. How can it be improved?
  3. After looking at this page do you think you understand what the page is for?
Valid XHTML 1.0! Make it happen. Make it happen. Make it happen. Make it happen. Make it happen.