James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “Pure democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found 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 and the other Founding Fathers extensively studied historical governments, specifically of ancient Rome and Greece. They learned from these case studies to not only distrust concentration of power at the top, but to fear common people acting unwittingly against the public good in fits of passion or short-sightedness. This is an important lesson that was relevant in their time, but remains equally applicable today.
This past week in a class of mine, my professor used California’s Proposition 13 from 1978 as an example to illustrate the importance of good fiscal policy. This proposition passed with 65 percent of the popular vote and dramatically reshaped tax policy in California. The intended purposes were to ease the tax burden in California and to protect homeownership in the state. The legislation reduced property taxes to levels from 1975-1976, capped the amount they could increase from year-to-year and established a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in Congress to increase taxes.
In this lecture, we learned that the proposition immediately cut $6 billion from local government revenue and gave taxpayers 57 percent tax relief. Unfortunately, school and highway spending is tied to the usually stable property tax revenue source, and soon California’s class sizes skyrocketed, while highway spending plummeted. In order to correct this hasty policy, California increased sales and income taxes so much that it is now the most heavily taxed state in the country, but the issue of property taxes remains the same.
What we can see from this one example is that the hasty and ill-informed actions of the majority of Californians destabilized and mutated the state’s revenue sources, gutted local governments, put more control in the hands of the state over locals and required a patchwork solution to the problem they caused, all without accomplishing their original goal of lowering taxes in the long run.
This is obviously just one example, but speaks to the fears of the Founding Fathers. The U.S. Constitution is a complex document that sought to balance power between every party involved. This includes but is not limited to conflicts between the executive, legislative and judicial branches; the state and federal governments; and government and the people.
Alexander Hamilton once said “The body of people…do not possess the discernment and stability necessary for systematic government. To deny that they are frequently led into the grossest errors by misinformation and passion, would be a flattery which their own good sense must despise.” What I believe he is saying here is that the citizenry of this country is smart enough to know that we are not smart enough to govern. His concern was certainly well-placed, but today many pick and choose when to apply it. Many so passionately espoused this concern of inexperience when President Donald Trump announced his candidacy for presidency, yet these past midterm elections incited many different emotions. This past year has seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of citizen-drawn districts in states, with some states passing legislation or approving propositions to establish these citizen-commissions, taking away the power of elected representatives to draw districts in favor of normal citizens.
This Jekyll and Hyde personality of America regarding who should be trusted with power is something to be monitored and concerned about. What is scariest about this is that people do not even recognize inconsistencies in their own logic. They act with short-term interest in mind, clouded by their passions, at the cost of long-term goals. This past election, most of the failed measures would have increased taxes, far higher than the usual 50 percent rate over the last 15 years.
I am not arguing that Trump is unqualified, that citizen commissions are necessarily bad and certainly not that higher taxes are a good thing. What I do believe is that the common people will, when they are allowed, mortgage the future in favor of short-term interests. This debate over instant versus delayed gratification has been studied psychologically since Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test, in which kids were given the option between one marshmallow now or two later.
The stakes in this country are certainly higher than marshmallows, and delayed gratification in favor of long-term interests should be paramount. The founders believed, as I do, that the mass citizenry is incapable of acting pragmatically consistently and that legislation should take place through the system of checks and balances and separation of powers created by them and copied in many states’ governmental structures.
I understand the impulse to want to effect personal change on the government, but it must be done in the right way. An active citizenry is of paramount importance in this country, but not to draft hasty, short-sighted proposals. We must always have the complete picture in mind and consider the long-term implications of our actions.
David Hayse can be reached at email@example.com.