Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Economist On the Failure of California's Democracy

The latest issue of The Economist dedicates a special 14-page report (summarized here) to the state of California's government. While we've criticized the British rag's shallow analysis of state politics, this report is worth reading. They get all the important facts right; unfortunately, blind faith in expert technocrats and the idea of "good government" seems to be a requirement for working at The Economist, so they mostly draw the wrong conclusions.

On the plus side, the report correctly identifies the role of voter-driven ballot proposals in creating California's dysfunctional and spendthrift government. They note the centralization of power and money that resulted from Prop 13, and the disastrous effect this had on local government. But this doesn't lead them to ask some important questions. Like: aren't the local governments somewhat complicit in this, insofar as they've never considered alternatives to the annual bailout they get from Sacramento? And why did none of the great statesmen in "California's School for Politics" in the late 70s and early 80s not move to end that annual bailout, given that it enables so much irresponsible (if not criminal) behavior at the local level? Could our political system, in fact, be venal and incompetent enough to deserve the approval ratings we give it?

Instead of asking these questions, The Economist spends most of the 14 pages blaming the voters for the state's problems. In turning referenda, ballot initiatives, and recalls into a cottage industry, and creating a hopeless mess of spending mandates and contradictory regulations, Californians tied the hands of the good souls in Sacramento, who presumably would've had all these problems well in hand. In this way, The Economist blames the voters for everything from the budget crisis to the partisanship in Sacramento to the destruction of public education to the end of constitional republican government. (Plus, we're yokels who don't understand California politics nearly as well as we think.) The solutions recommended at the end basically amount to empowering Sacramento and disempowering voters: they want to ramp up the number of seats in the Legislature, place new limits on ballot initiatives, and either call a constitutional convention or reform with the guidance of a smorgasboard of political elites calling itself the Think Long Committee for California.

To be clear, we're not fans of voter referenda. In California especially, they're just another avenue by which people try to control your life without your consent; there's certainly nothing libertarian about them. But handing more power to the political establishment is not the answer, and a constitutional convention would almost certainly be a catastrophe. The only real solution to California's problems is one it's never fully embraced: a smaller, less intrusive, less ambitious government, and a freer, more tolerant society. And that's not something that can be imposed by fiat from Sacramento, despite what The Economist might have you believe.

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