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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Direct and Representative Democracy: Colorado on the Hot Seat

In ancient Athens as well as Renaissance Florence, direct and representative democracy co-existed. The representatives elected or chosen by lot were viewed (and viewed themselves!) as standing in for the people assembled. From a practical standpoint, it is difficult even to legislate by town hall meeting or by a series of referendums on election-day. Accordingly, power in democracies has been delegated to representatives and even appointees. In February 2012, this principle, and direct democracy itself, were set to be challenged in a federal lawsuit against Colorado. In my view, the principle is valid whereas the suit is not. Direct democracy outranks representative democracy—the latter having been created not to save a people from themselves but out of sheer practicality.

                            Colorado's Capitol (seat of government)                                   Matthew Staver/NYT

The object of the lawsuit is Colorado’s 20-year-old taxpayer-controlled budgeting process known as Tabor, which requires that tax increases (and presumably spending increases) be passed by referendum rather than legislative vote. The 33 plaintiffs argue that Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights “blocks the ability and jurisdiction of the . . . Legislature to properly do its job.” The rationale is that subjecting tax increases and budget figures to popular referendum usurps Colorado’s legislature’s prerogative. In the early U.S., James Madison had “pushed strongly for a barrier between the passions of the popular will and sober governance . . . through a legislative branch.” Representative governance, in other words, has the benefit of acting as a check on popular passions in the best interest of the people. This objection could be obviated by requiring a revote in a year or two to make the referendum’s results final.

I submit, however, that Madison’s concern is trumped by a more basic relationship that undergirds the relationship between direct and representative democracy: that between the popular sovereign and government. Arguing on the basis of a benefit such as checking passions, for example, is not to furnish a rationale for prerogative. In other words, that the popular sovereign may not always be wise or prudent does not mean that its agents therefore trump their principals—the people. Even if an agent has expertise that his or her principal does not have, this does not, as in the business judgment rule, necessarily mean that the agent becomes the principal (and the principal, the agent). In the case of corporations, maximizing profit is merely the default—something the owners should be able to deviate from and their hired hands (e.g., executives) would be obliged to devise strategy in line with the new mission.

If, as the plaintiffs claim, Colorado’s legislature is “unable to raise and appropriate funds” and thus “cannot meet its primary constitutional obligations” under the “guarantee” clause of the U.S. constitution, it is because the principal has taken that constitutional role back, through fully constitutional means, which the popular sovereign, as the principal, has the right to do. Remember, the people as a group have delegated authority to representatives.

In other words, popular and governmental sovereignty are not incompatible. Constitutions are ratified not by the member governments, but, rather, by the people, precisely because the authority of the people goes beyond that of their agents. The popular sovereign does not have to continue even with its constitutions. Indeed, that sovereign could change any American constitution in any way that sovereign desires, as per the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We could even hold a convention proposing a totally new constitution and with its ratification the current one would instantly be dust. Remember that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 tossed out the guidelines set by the Continental Congress limiting the convention to amending the Articles of Confederation. The convention started over and invented modern federalism in the process. I raise this point only to show that a popular sovereign trumps its government—really by definition. Yet it seems that the legislators in Colorado have their arrows crossed concerning this relationship—most likely a case of good old-fashioned arrogance.

Rather than the Colorado legislature being hamstrung, it is the obligation of the dutiful agents to furnish their master, the popular sovereign, with options that do not privilege the agents themselves or their body over the principal. General tax policy and overall budget numbers decided by the popular sovereign are more legitimate than had they been decided by legislative means even if the people are stupid and willful. This difference in legitimacy exists because the popular sovereign is politically superior to its agents. It is not really a question even of getting the best policy—“best” at this level involves judgment rather than the expertise of a legislator, professional or scholar, anyway.

Instead of being usurped by agents who take themselves as principals and thus somehow illegitimate in a democracy, direct citizen lawmaking is an ideal toward which we should strive to the extent that it is practicable. The agents have too often succeeded in limiting the actual sovereign to speaking once every two or four years, and then only on the vague decisions of filling offices, leaving policy decision to themselves. All too often, this means nothing gets decided, which I submit reflects the tenuous authority of the agents to be definitive for the people. One reason why the Congressional vote on health-care did not settle the matter is because the people themselves did not have a direct say on such an important, life or death, matter. Similarly, the ongoing controversy on abortion partially reflects the “limbo” status from how it was decided (i.e., not by us, as in direct democracy).

Policies like declaring war (in a non-emergency), abortion, whether to extend a tax cut, overall deficit spending, overall drug policy (e.g., legalization), and especially constitutional amendments bearing on government should be up to the people, with the judiciary stepping in when needed to protect individual rights against either legislative or popular encroachment via majority rule. Should abortion be decided by the states? Should the Bush tax cuts be extended for all or excluding the rich? Should the U.S. get out of Afghanistan?  (Should the U.S. have invaded Iraq?)  Should pot be legalized?  Should financial regulation be strengthened or is deregulation the general principle we want to follow? Considering health-insurance, should it be by a public single-payer, a public option with private options, or exclusively by existing private insurers? Should everyone be covered or just those who can pay? The questions would have to be very basic and oriented to basic judgment calls, rather than requiring expertise; our legislators could see that it is incorporated under the rubric of the general principles decided by us.

Along this line, constitutional questions bearing on our system of government are particularly legitimate for direct decision—such as on the role of the states and whether we should have more of a federal or consolidated system. Should corporations be considered as persons, politically? Should money be deemed as “speech” politically? A degree in law is not required to make a judgment on such basic governmental questions. Even the Greek slave Meno knew geometry without being taught, according to Socrates. In fact, experts, like legislators, are properly agents of the popular sovereign, rather than being an alternative wiped out by direct democracy but somehow integral to the legislative process. Federal constitutional amendments in the U.S. could be ratified by referendums (as is already the case in some of the E.U. states in ratifying amendments to E.U. basic law). Amendments could even be sourced in referendums. As it stands, the American people have no direct say on changes to the U.S. Constitution—either in proposing or ratifying amendments. Nor do we have the opportunity to have a say on the existing planks—something Jefferson thought every generation has as a right. Would it be so traumatic were sections of the U.S. constitution forced to compete with a few alternatives, taking say one Article every four years? This is just one of many ways the American people could decide on what binds us.

Admittedly, such changes expanding direct democracy would indeed alter the nature of legislative business; it would more closely resemble what one would expect to find from agents (e.g., technical working out of broad policies already decided and working on submissions for further “instructions”). As a people, we have allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked into viewing our agents as our principals, and this is reflected in the power they have with respect to a near-monopoly on decisions. It is no wonder that the Colorado legislators feel threatened by something that is decided by others. Those legislators suffer from a rather basic category mistake: conflating themselves with their principals. Out of this error has come the representatives’ assumed false entitlement to the near-monopoly that they have enjoyed while the rest of us have been asleep. I can’t even add “at the wheel,” for we have ceded that to our driver without even supposing that we have the right—as the owner of the car—to tell him where to go. We are Ms. Daisy sleeping off a hang-over in the back seat while Morgan Freeman decides where we’ll go. We even expect him to decide, as if it were his job. We are indeed quite asleep. Perhaps we don’t deserve direct democracy?

Source:
Kirk Johnson, “Colorado Lawsuit Challenges Wisdom of the Ballot Box,” The New York Times, January 31, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/us/legal-challenge-to-colorados-tabor-amendment.html