Like the Founding Fathers, I have never been extremely enamored of democracy. Usually, when I tell people this, they jump to the assumption that I must prefer autocracy or one of its variants. But you see it’s not the “demos” (people) part of democracy to which I object. Rather, it is the “kratia” (rule) part.
I think the happiest places on earth are those where individual rights reign supreme, and no one–not king, council or even a popular majority–is permitted to invade certain inalienable rights of the individual. To ensure these rights, strong (explicit or implicit) constraints on those in possession of political power are necessary.
In the US, an important aspect of that constraint is, of course, the Constitution. Expressing a common belief of the founders, the chief architect of that document, James Madison, noted that, “…democracies have ever been incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” He went on to argue, “A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (See Federalist 10)
In other words, representative government is one way to keep the majority from running roughshod over the minority. That is why Madison and company gave us, in Franklin’s words, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
In many ways we haven’t. Over the last 100 years, the United States has seen an explosion in direct democracy. In 1897, South Dakota became the first state to adopt the popular initiative and referendum. The former allowed citizens to introduce their own legislation and the latter allowed them to vote on issues originating in the legislature. Over the next 20 years, half of the other states in the union adopted similar measures.
As a (small ‘r’!) republican, I have tended to regard this change as unfortunate. By empowering the majority to make whichever laws it sees fit, I worry that the states have slowly eroded the rights and freedoms individuals.
Despite, these misgivings, I must admit that the empirical evidence appears to be against me. The economist, John Matsusaka, of the University of Southern California, for example has found that while initiatives do “not have a consistent effect on the overall size of state and local government” they do “systematically lead to more decentralized government,” which is generally considered by public choice economists to be more efficient than centralized government. Matsusaka has a forthcoming article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives which declares “Direct Democracy Works.” He has also begun an Institute dedicated to promoting direct democracy.
Other scholars have found similar results. The European economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer studied direct democracy in Switzerland where citizens in some cantons have greater access to instruments of direct democracy than citizens in other cantons. They found that it “systematically and sizably raise[d] self-reported individual well-being.” As an aside, they also found that local autonomy appears to increase happiness.
As an unabashed fan of limited government, I also can’t help but be impressed with initiatives like California’s Prop 13 or Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill or Rights. Perhaps New Mexican’s should consider direct democracy as well?