Do you trust the people?

“Do you trust the people?”

We had barely been seated at the restaurant when my guest fired off his query. I had asked him to lunch after a state capitol event, where he was advocating that Minnesota should trade its bicameral legislature for a unicameral, and I had been pitching the idea of establishing statewide initiative and referendum.

He was a little skeptical of initiative and referendum. I was completely certain that without the initiative his idea would never see the light of day.

“No, I don’t trust the people,” I responded. “But I trust the people a whole lot more than I trust the politicians.”

Last week in San Francisco, I told this tale to more than 300 people — academics, political professionals, media folks, initiative activists, legal experts, elected officials and concerned citizens — gathered from six continents and more than 30 countries and 30 U.S. states, who had come together for the U.S. Conference on Initiative and Referendum, part of the 2010 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. The assembled multitude — both speakers and audience — was not merely from across the globe, but also from all across the political spectrum, often a far wider divide than mere geography and language.

I wanted to make the point that people are only being sensible when expressing concern about the power of government. History has shown that law-making, whether by legislatures or by voters, can be dangerous when misused. Democracy should never be two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. Constitutions should safeguard fundamental rights from momentary majorities of any size.

Still, it strikes me that the people are far less apt to play the wolf than are politicians. At least, on purpose. Additionally, the voters are more likely than are politicians to quickly fix their mistakes; too often, politicians’ first (and only?) reaction to problems is to point the finger of blame at their opponents. Moreover, special interests may bribe their way to success in legislatures, but cannot buy off the entire electorate.

Initiative and referendum is best understood not as a process whereby citizens can govern directly (for instance, less than one percent of initiative-happy California’s laws come via citizens), but as a means for citizens to check their elected officials, to force action when needed, to block unpopular measures, and to make reforms that self-interested legislators would nary consider.

Today, California’s robust process of initiative and referendum has been blamed for everything from the state’s financial difficulties to wild fires. It is especially intriguing that opponents of initiative and referendum claim that citizen-initiated measures have spent wildly and bankrupted the state.

Facts are stubborn things, however, and a recent look by the Center for Governmental Studies at ballot measures that spent money found that 83 percent of spending via the ballot came from measures placed before voters by the legislature, not through citizen initiatives. CGS President Bob Stern was forced to inform a joint legislative committee, “Most of the ballot-box budgeting has come from you.”

Most of the spending mandated by initiative comes via one measure, 1988’s Proposition 98, which requires a minimum level of K-12 education spending. Yet, not only is the California Legislature and electorate unlikely to want to slash education spending, Prop 98 specifically grants the legislature the power to suspend its spending requirement should that be necessary. So much for legislators’ hands being tied.

Often, those complaining most loudly about spendthrift voters are really upset about Prop 13. The epoch-making measure mandated that tax increases must garner a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the legislature. Seems Prop 13’s modern-day enemies’ real goal is to shovel in more tax dollars for legislators to overspend, not fewer.

Opponents of the initiative also argue that special interests have hijacked California’s ballot measure process. Certainly, they have tried. Just as certainly, they hold great sway in the state’s legislature (as they do in every other state’s so-called representative institutions and in the Congress). But special interests with their bankrolls and lobbyists don’t fare so well at the ballot box as they do in the corridors of the capitol.

Back in June, Prop 16 went down to defeat even after PG&E, the California utility, spent over $46 million for passage against less than a $100,000 opposing the measure. In 2008, another proposition lost after the Yes side outspent the No side by a margin of 161 to 1. Seems one cannot buy love, nor enough votes to win.

Much of the opposition to initiative and referendum is really displeasure with losing elections, and a belief that one’s agenda may fare better with legislators than with voters. The intellectual way to express this is a support for “representative government” as opposed to “direct democracy.” Hidden behind such high-minded talk is usually a simple agenda: Push the people away from decision-making so as to pull something over on them, against their interests and against their common sense.

If one truly supports representative government, how can one oppose each person representing themselves?