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Over There (in the UK)

January 29, 2003 at 5 PM

Initiative 831

Let nobody say that democracy doesn't have a sense of humour, even if it's a bit crude.

In Seattle, a concerned citizen has successfully added an initiative to the next ballot to declare, "Now, therefore, be it resolved, that the citizens of the State of Washington do hereby proclaim that Tim Eyman is a Horse's Ass."

For our unlearned Canadians and fellow foreigners in the audience, it helps to know that throughout the United States, voters not only select candidates for their legislature, but also approve initiatives proposed by private citizens. Tim Eyman is one such private citizen, an "initiative guru" who has used this process of direct democracy to advance an anti-tax agenda. Eyman was also caught siphoning campaign funds from his initiatives for his own personal use.

But while the site has an easy target in Eyman, the real aim is clearly a bit higher: the entire idea of popular ballot-based initiatives. As the creator of the site, one David Goldstein, notes cynically:

"Well, the story broke. It's funny; some horse's ass (me, this time) pays a $5 filing fee for an incredibly stupid initiative, and he suddenly has the credibility to spout his political views all over radio and television. Isn't there something wrong with this?"

Well? Is there? One the one hand, there is a great argument for such initiatives: they are direct democracy in action in a time when elected politicians seem farther away than ever from the little guy. The whole point is, yes, any clown with $5 can advance a viewpoint, and if the majority agrees, so be it. There is a certain razor-blade precision about it.

My opinion tends to fall on the other side, however. While it's true that the little guy is far away from the legislative process, I tend to see that as a good thing. People will often dismiss this as elitist prattle, offering retorts such as, "You just want to control the people for your socialist ideals." But the reality is that the little guy hasn't sat in a committee, doesn't read the reports, has no highly paid bureaucracy, and is often quite uninformed, or worse, mis-informed. We pay our elected officials pretty well because we want them to do the dirty work -- being informed on the issues of the day -- for us. We also want them to listen to us, of course, and often they don't, but that's why we have elections. In the interim, the average citizen is too busy or lazy to determine what the real ramifications of a tax cut are.

It's simply not that difficult to get people behind any old cause, like, say, naming Tim Eyman a horse's ass. When it actually happens, and people realize the folly of what they've done, who's to blame? When seemingly benign tax measures turn out to be costly mishaps, there's no election to wipe the slate clean.

Comments

The more democrats I meet the more I like Plato’s Republic.

(And I mean small-‘d’ democrats…).

Chris | Jan. 31, 2003 — 3 PM

You must have used The Force, Luke, because you have squarely hit upon one of my pet peeves. The initiative process Ė and I am speaking of it as it is done in here in the land of soymilk and free-range honey, California Ė is laughably lame. I should mention that I have two friends who also hate the process, for different reasons; one insists citizens are too stupid to make laws and the other claims that there are too many laws already. While there is some merit in their viewpoints, my primary gripe points to how the process trivializes the law and government. The way it works here is that you need to get a certain number of signatures before an initiative can qualify to be put on the ballot. Usually, these are collected by individuals who are barely employable, and, using whatever tactics are at their disposal, they collect signatures by pestering people at supermarkets and malls. Their targets are often harried unfortunates like myself who are lugging groceries or an unruly child(ren) and are usually in no state of mind to evaluate a reductive, one-sided explanation of a complex issue that is used to gain a signature. (E.g., ďDo you want to end the abuse of the political system by X? Then just sign here.Ē) What many people who sign donít realize is that these autograph collectors are paid per signature, and that they work for companies who do nothing but run signature campaigns for initiatives. Is this the intention of the initiative process? I canít help to think that it isnít, but the result is a lot of poorly written legislation and a process easily open to exploitation. Itís a great idea in theory, though. Kind of like Democracy itself.

Beerzie Boy | Feb. 3, 2003 — 3 PM

Democracy is broken, but the answer isn’t putting the power back in the hands of the common people.

The only place I know where direct democracy might have worked is Athens, and if you look what’s happened since then… well, isn’t modern Greece just the shining example of democratic principle?

We should spend more time improving the systems of government we have before trying to completely bypass them.

— Luke | Feb. 3, 2003 — 9 PM

Previously: Copywrong

Subsequently: Headlines Often Written Poorly: Attaboy

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