Burgess Laughlin

Should there be any "ballot measures"?

10 posts in this topic

Oregon's ballot initiative is obviously an invalid way to write laws (it is too detailed a question of law to be put up for a vote), but I would favor it for the same reasons Burgess does.

Anytime Jack and I agree, the subject probably deserves a topic-thread of its own! It appears that, in the quote above, we agree not only about a particular measure, but about a broader issue. In this case, the issue as I see it is this: Should there be any ballot measures -- laws or other decisions about the operation of government -- approved or rejected by a vote of "the people," that is, the voters at large?

My position now is that there should be no ballot measures. Elections should be for one purpose, to select legislators and executives. It is the job of legislators to pass laws and set procedures for the operation of government.

The issue here, I hold, is the choice between democracy and a representative republic. A democracy is direct rule by "the people," that is, the majority of voters. It is a fundamentally flawed system because it is open to emotionalism and unchecked power. A representative republic has the virtue of incorporating a range of interests in its legislature. They need to discuss, debate, and maneuver -- all of which takes time and leaves a paper trail, making the process somewhat more objective and open to scrutiny.

If you disagree, why?

If you agree, then do you see any exceptions to the idea of limiting elections to the choice of personnel in government?

I am asking, not because I am looking for a debate, but because I know there are a lot of smart, thoughtful people here who can offer insights that might take me a decade to come up with.

P. S. -- If I have correctly understood the issues and his position, I would like to give credit for my position to Robert Tracinski. It was he, I recall, who pointed out that legislators aren't doing their job if voters are voting on laws.

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Any state or local measure that raises taxes, provides for issuing of bonds, or changes constitutional procedures or guarantees should be approved by the voters and by a super-majority at that.

That is one of the best ways to keep government from running wild and forcing the voters to pay for it.

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I would agree that elections ballots should be limited at least primarily to selection of legislators, and other government personnel. Some major tax measures also may be reasonable. I do have a concern with the multiplication of constitutional amendments in Florida via their addition to the general election ballots. I do not know the situation in other states.

For example, the voters passed a "pregnant pig" amendment a few years ago(regulating the confinement of pregnant pigs), and currently has 6 additional proposed amendments on the ballot. These amendments are generally confusing in their wording, and I doubt the average voter has any understanding of many of them. The result is a series of many ill-considered but democratically approved laws.

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A democracy is direct rule by "the people" [...]. A representative republic has the virtue of incorporating a range of interests in its legislature [...].

If you disagree, why?

I disagree. A democracy can be representative, as there's nothing necessarily and exclusively direct in its definition. Examples of representative democracy include, among others, the British constitution. Similarly, there's nothing in "republic" that necessitates representation as part of the definition. Would you mind clarifying how you define both "democracy" and "republic"?

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Are we talking here of any ideal government or how things should be given the dominant philosophy of our age and the current constitutional setup?

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Would you mind clarifying how you define both "democracy" and "republic"?

Democracy. I agree with Ayn Rand's characterization: "'Democratic' in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule ...." (words interpolated in square brackets are apparently Harry Binswanger's words, as editor of "Democracy," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 121, citing "How to Read (and Not to Write)," The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. I, Issue 26, p. 4.) I do not know what she means by "original meaning."

Democracy is the name for a form of collectivist government, as Ayn Rand notes (ARL, p. 121).

I would elaborate by saying that in a democracy decisions are made directly by a majority. Of course, democracies, like most institutions may exist in degrees of application, but that measurement is omitted in the formation of the concept of democracy.

Republic. When I say "republic," that is usually short-form for "constitutional republic." (The latter is the phrase that Leonard Peikoff uses in "The Philosophy of Objectivism" (1976), Lecture 9, a series he presented under Ayn Rand's review, cited in "Democracy," ARL, pp. 121-122.)

For greater specificity, I would go further, in long-form, and say a "free, constitutional republic." Such phrasing specifies:

- The form (decision-making mostly through representatives) of the government.

- The limits (a written constitution) of the government.

- The purpose of the government (to secure rights).

There is no concept for "free, constitutional republic," so I resort to the phrase as designating a qualified instance of "republic."

In an evaluative summary, I would say a democracy is bad, and a (free, constitutional) republic is good.

Of course, terms can be used by anyone in any way to name any idea. The term democracy in common use has a wide variety of referents -- usually poorly defined, especially by nonessentials (for example, "everybody gets to vote"). Likewise "republic" is sometimes merely a name for a pretentious dictatorship.

I am not responsible for others' uses of the terms. I will continue to distinguish "democracy" and a (free, constitutional) "republic." That distinction keeps clear for me the distinction between collectivism and individualism in politics. Terminology that fails to maintain that distinction is misleading, intentionally or not.

What are your definitions of the terms "democracy" and "republic"?

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Are we talking here of any ideal government or how things should be given the dominant philosophy of our age and the current constitutional setup?

I don't know about others, but I am talking about the ideal. That remains an ideal no matter how far present government is from the ideal. Is there an implication in your question that one should have two standards: one that is Platonically pure versus one that is pragmatically acceptable in our present corrupt world of sense-perception? Probably not, but perhaps you could explain your distinction.

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Democracy. I agree with Ayn Rand's characterization: "'Democratic' in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule ...." (words interpolated in square brackets are apparently Harry Binswanger's words, as editor of "Democracy," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 121, citing "How to Read (and Not to Write)," The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. I, Issue 26, p. 4.) I do not know what she means by "original meaning."

I would elaborate by saying that in a democracy decisions are made directly by a majority. Of course, democracies, like most institutions may exist in degrees of application, but that measurement is omitted in the formation of the concept of democracy.

I mostly agree with this. I would only change it say that in a democracy, decisions are made simply by a majority. This leaves room for different kinds, e.g. direct democracy and representative democracy, without changing the fact that they're all fundamentally the same. However, all this doesn't alter the fact that there can be a constitutional democracy, which can be either representative or direct. That's what Britain has, a constitutional representative democracy, where there is representation instead of direct rule, and where there is a written set of laws that respect rights -- the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Parliament Acts, etc.

Note: people can disagree on whether Britain has constitutional democracy or a constitutional monarchy; either way it's constitutional. And I'd argue in favor of democracy since the royalty wields only token power.

The point is that in Britain, and in principle, the essential characteristic of democracy is that a free society is accomplished by simple acknowledgment that every citizen has power; this is, in other words, the rule of the majority. A republic, by contrast, is a free society accomplished somehow without majority rule.

The majority vs. non-majority rule forms the essential characteristic distinguishing the two systems. And, in a republic, the non-majoritarian rule by all people (seemingly an impossible oxymoron) is accomplished in a very specific way: a mixed constitution. Society is divided into layers of power, competing against each other and trying to curtail each other's tyrannical impulses (as John Adams describes it).

Thus there is a corollary between the majority vs. non-majority rule, and between multiple chambers of government in a republic vs. usually one in a democracy. The multiple chambers of government in a mixed constitution will usually correspond to the different layers of society, giving an outlet to each. Thus it happened that we have a President, a Congress, and a Supreme Court (all often on tenuous terms with each other); and that there's an important reason why Congress is split into two chambers, the House and the Senate. The House, due to being elected every two years, is supposed to represent the liberal, and the Senate, due to being elected every six years, is supposed to represent the more conservative side (as discussed in the Federalist Papers). The Supreme Court, appointed for life, is intended as the most conservative bulkwark of them all, but it is checked by the fact that popularly elected presidents can appoint new members and alter the Court's political make-up.

Britain has only one seat of government: the Parliament, and after Parliament Acts, only one chamber within it that wields all of national power: the House of Commons. The many competing chambers of government in the US, vs. the one in Great Britain, forms the essential distinguishing characteristic between the two, and between a republic and a democracy. Both are free, both can be constitutional, both can be representative or direct, both could be collectivist, or both could respect individual rights through fundamental laws; it's just that one corrupts less, and slower, and the other corrupts more, and much faster (for instance, due to emotionalism as you said). Democracy's more efficient, the republic less so, but the latter is a lot more stable, while the former not so much. That is the sole of the difference.

I have on hand a bunch of citations from Adams and Polybius in support of these definitions, if you'd like.

A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America of Adams deals directly with this, as does Chapter VI of Polybius (very frequently cited at the Constitutional Convention).

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Democracy. I agree with Ayn Rand's characterization: "'Democratic' in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule ...." (words interpolated in square brackets are apparently Harry Binswanger's words, as editor of "Democracy," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 121, citing "How to Read (and Not to Write)," The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. I, Issue 26, p. 4.) I do not know what she means by "original meaning."

Democracy is the name for a form of collectivist government, as Ayn Rand notes (ARL, p. 121).

I would elaborate by saying that in a democracy decisions are made directly by a majority. Of course, democracies, like most institutions may exist in degrees of application, but that measurement is omitted in the formation of the concept of democracy.

I should mention that when I quoted Burgess' passage above, I forgot to put [...] for the sentence about Ayn Rand. I agree with everything else in the quote, and I took out the Ayn Rand passage because it's difficult to say whether I agree with it or not. Obviously a democracy can very easily become collectivist, but I wouldn't say democracy is always collectivist. I'm more satisfied with the description Polybius provides in Book VI of his Histories, where he explains that every simple form of government has a "dark side", e.g. a monarchy can turn into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and most importantly, a democracy can turn into a mobocracy. That is a crucial distinction. A democracy isn't mobocracy; it only has a danger and a capacity of becoming that. The genius of a republican mixed constitution that Polybius praises lies in the fact that it sidesteps all of the dangers of the simple forms of government; it has no "bad version". As long as a republic exists at all, it will remain good.

If the country does go bad, the republic dissolves into one of the simple forms of government. We, I think, have a danger of dissolving into a democracy, what with people talking about repealing electoral college, grumbling about Supreme Court lifetime appointments, etc. For the time being, however, we're still a mixed constitution, and all is well. But I digress.

As for the ballot measures, I think the point Burgess makes is very reasonable, and that democratic impulses ought to be checked quite abruptly. "Elections should be for one purpose, to select legislators and executives" (from the first post) is an excellent point. Still, all states are allowed to govern themselves as they wish, and some choose to be more democratic than others, altthough the Federal government continues to remain republican, thankfully.

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Are we talking here of any ideal government or how things should be given the dominant philosophy of our age and the current constitutional setup?

I don't know about others, but I am talking about the ideal.

If the context is a proper government, then there are no taxes and the legislative branch will be writing an itty-bitty, teeny-weeny percentage of laws as compared to the current legislature, and that tiny number of laws can be left to the judicial branch for validation if necessary. There are no lobbyists since the government does nothing worth lobbying for, so what's left for a ballot measure? Betsy mentions constitutional changes. That sounds reasonable to a novice like me, but I can't think of anything else that would require a ballot measure.

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