Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prop 8, Direct Democracy and the Tyranny of the Majority

See, this is what I'm on about!  Come and see the tyranny inherent in the system!...

Prop 8 is a perfect example of why direct democracy is undemocratic.  Many people like to perpetuate the childish definition of democracy as "majority rule."  But if you read theorist of democracy that have written since we have actually had democracies in the world (since the late 18th century - exact date depends on exact definition and probably whether or not you are English), you'll find that majority rule is not the biggest concern.  Rather it is protection of the rights of the individual that is the biggest priority.  The Federalist Papers are full of references to the "tyranny of the majority."  They feared that shifting coalitions of 50%+1 would be able to oppress one minority after another.  Next to re-conquest by the British Empire, tyranny of the majority was probably the paramount fear of the men who wrote the US Constitution.  

Direct democracy is, by it's nature, based on the principle of the tyranny of the majority.  Prop 8 is a crystal clear example.  An extremely narrow majority of Californians was able to use the direct democracy mechanism to single out a minority group and oppress them.  

Direct democracy mechanisms are a major threat to real democracy and should be abolished.  Their rare good results are more than made up for by their frequent disastrous results.


Dr. Strangelove said...

I would not do away with referenda... I would just amend the California State Constitution so you need a 2/3 vote to amend it. Right now, it is as easy to amend the constitution as it is to pass a law! That has been a disaster... The CA constitution is a total mess. Otherwise I completely agree with what RbR says here about the tyranny of the majority.

Spotted Handfish said...

Is it possible for referenda to be restricted to purely constitutional matters? I'm not sure if I'm even asking a sensible question here, but it seems that many of the propositions passed seem to relate to procedural matters of the operation of the State. A proposition to end frivolous propositions could potentially pass. I am assuming people feel their votes haven't been gerrymandered into insignificance...

Dr. Strangelove said...

As far as I know, every survey shows Californians love to bitch about the propositions, but they like to vote on them just the same. Raising the threshold for a constitutional amendment might be a sensible precaution against idiocy, however. In fact, raising the bar for all propositions would probably cut out most of them.

Raised By Republicans said...

Spotted Handfish,

There are countries where only the government can call a referendum. Or where the government can vote to stop them.

There is a certain variety in the rules around the world. California seems to have set up a system particularly prone to abuse.

monkeyman said...

I believe there is some research indicating that the possibility of referenda reduces the amount of giveaways to special interest. I don't recall the articles anymore, though. Also, it seems to me that representative democracy leads to stupid results as often as direct democracy. I think that it is more important to protect the rights of minorities than pick the best mechanism of participation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

The purpose of the direct democracy is to circumvent the legislature when the legislature is incapable of expressing the popular will. Prop 8 is not an appropriate example. Redistricting reform is a perfect example of something that may require extra-cameral legislation. Earl Warren said that the was proudest of the one-man one-vote rule of Baker v. Carr (I think that's the case), more so than Brown v. Board, because he knew that getting state legislatures to abandon one-cow-one-vote would never happen through the legislative process.

I am in favor of outlawing the practice of paying for signature gathering. This would limit propositions to massive volunteer efforts.

Raised By Republicans said...

"The purpose of the direct democracy is to circumvent the legislature when the legislature is incapable of expressing the popular will."

The problem with this view is two fold. First, you are assuming there is a "popular will" which is obviously and objectively more legitimate than those that oppose it (presumably because it is supported by 50.1% instead of 49.9% of the people). Second, if the legislature is incapable of anything, there is a reason. Usually it is because some non-trivial minority is blocking change. Such minorities have a right to protect themselves from the whims of the popular majority of the time.

Prop 8 is PERFECT example of why direct democracy is a bad idea. I'm sure you can find examples where direct democracy has produced outcomes that we all agree with. But that's not the point. The point is that with direct democracy, there is no check on the whims of the barest possible majority. Sure, sometimes that will be good for you. But we should design political institutions with the rights of electoral losers in mind because chances are, you'll be an electoral loser sooner or later.

Prop 8 oppressed gay families.
Prop 13 robbed public services to benefit homeowners.
Prop 187 targeted immigrants.

As for redistricting, the supposed benefits of this redistricting plan (which will have partisan consequences), are nothing compared to the risk of the tyranny of a shifting majority, easily swayed by populist appeals to the mob.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Thank you, Edmund Burke.

I think you need to listen to the argument, RBR. You have repeated your arguments without addressing whether there direct democracy can be useful where the legislature is institutionally blocked (as in the one-man-one-vote rule I mentinoed).

Of course, the real problem you address is not with *direct* democracy at all. A legislature could have (and in many states it has) enacted things like Prop 8 or Prop 187. The problem is inherent in any majoritarian system that does not sufficiently put individual rights off-limits. The legislature often suffers from the only thing worse than the tyranny of the majority - the tyranny of the minority.

Raised By Republicans said...

Name calling, LTG? At least get the philosophical sources right - I'm making a madisonian argument, not a Burkeian one.

As I said, I'm sure you can find examples of referendum results that the two of us both liked. But I wonder what the losers in those campaigns thought? I be they felt a lot like we do now with Prop 8. Or Hispanics/Latinos felt after Prop 187.

"The problem is inherent in any majoritarian system that does not sufficiently put individual rights off-limits."

This is exactly right. We agree.

That's why the US constitution emphasizes partially overlapping powers among separated institutions.

Multi-party systems in parliamentary systems accomplish much the same goal in a different way.

The Law Talking Guy said...

"populist appeals to the mob."

Sure that's Edmund Burke.

Raised By Republicans said...

It's also a concern in the Federalist papers.

The point is sound either way.

The Law Talking Guy said...

You know, many states approved the constitution by special ratifying convention which was pretty close to a referendum. I don't think the Federalists were overly opposed to public participation of this sort as ipso facto evil.

Anonymous said...

The Federalists were evil elitists. They hate the common man dismiss him as "unintelligent" beacuse of their elitism. The people should ALWAYS be one's running their government. Sure you win some and you lose some but that's life. The Federalists Papers mean nothing to me but some paper to whipe my prosterior with.