For the Many or the Few


[original] Ballot initiatives, though sometimes perceived as the tool of special interests, actually reflect the wishes of the majority, says a new book by John Matsusaka, professor of finance and business economics in the USC Marshall School of Business.

“For the Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy and American Democracy” (University of Chicago Press) analyzes the initiative, a process in which citizens propose new laws by gathering the signatures of peers.

To write the book, Matsusaka examined more than a century of data from 50 states and 4,700 cities – including tax and spending data, and opinion data – to gauge the majority’s preference.

In comparing the policies created by the initiative to the expressed preference of the voters, he found that in each instance, the initiative reflected the majority’s preference.

“The idea that the initiative process empowers special interests doesn’t fit with the facts,” Matsusaka said. “You can still dislike the initiative process after seeing my results, but not because you think it allows special interests to subvert the majority.”

“For the Many or the Few” also tackles the preconception that the initiative process is a recent expression of democracy, when in fact it was first incorporated into a state constitution – South Dakota’s – in 1898.

“People have the idea that this is something new,” said Matsusaka, also president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based at USC. “It’s been around a long time, and it’s clear the sky hasn’t fallen because of it.”

That said, Matsusaka cites “unprecedented growth” in the popularity of initiatives in the last 10 to 15 years. “People are much more educated and have access to much more information,” he said. “Therefore, people see less and less need to turn over authority on broad policy decisions. The government is left to implement them.”

Other key findings in “For the Many or the Few”:

Generally, the initiative seems to have pushed policy in a fiscally conservative direction since about 1970, reducing the spending and taxes of state and local governments. However, “there is no evidence that voters irrationally use the initiative to cut their taxes while at the same time increasing spending,” Matsusaka said.

By contrast, voters in the early 20th century used an initiative to increase spending on public schools and welfare, progressive acts in the face of legislatures dominated by conservative interests. “The initiative is best seen as a device to push policy back toward the middle of the political spectrum when the elected government strays too far in the conservative or liberal direction,” Matsusaka said.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have the initiative procedure. According to the 2000 census, that represents a total population of 136 million, or roughly half the nation’s total.

About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in either a state or city with the initiative. It’s most widespread in the West, but can be found in all regions of the country, from the Northeast (Maine, Massachusetts) to the Midwest (Michigan, Ohio) to the South (Arkansas, Florida).

Direct democracy flourishes outside the United States as well. Ten European countries allow initiatives, as do six of the post-Soviet states and the proposed constitution for the European Union. Most European countries use referendums – a measure passed on for a popular vote by a legislative body – for important public decisions; 29 elections were held on European integration alone.

Matsusaka’s book is careful to avoid any opinion on the effects of initiatives. “What’s a ‘good’ policy is a really subjective question,” Matsusaka said, adding, “Our constitution is designed to stifle majority rule if minority rights are threatened.”

In his findings, 70 to 80 percent of voters are glad to have the initiative process. “On balance, people think it’s better to have initiatives than not,” Matsusaka said. “It’s not perfect, but government never is.”

Matsusaka, J. G. (2004). For the many or the few: The initiative, public policy, and American democracy. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226510816