Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Lessons From California

In this excellent article The Economist points to the sad state of California as an indictment of direct democracy: "California cannot pass timely budgets even in good years, which is one reason why its credit rating has, in one generation, fallen from one of the best to the absolute worst among the 50 states. How can a place which has so much going for it—from its diversity and natural beauty to its unsurpassed talent clusters in Silicon Valley and Hollywood—be so poorly governed?"
The article goes on to claim that DD initiatives have "limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent... ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications."
The Economist suggests several improvements to the system: "Initiatives should be far harder to introduce. They should be shorter and simpler, so that voters can actually understand them. They should state what they cost, and where that money is to come from. And, if successful, initiatives must be subject to amendment by the legislature."
Interactive Democracy differs in detail, but not in principle, with other forms of direct democracy. A vote of interest ranks initiatives in order of priority in each of the local, regional and national legislatures; there will not be time for many of them. By utilising the Internet administration costs can be kept down but, more importantly, debating points can be expressed by elected politicians on the voting site, explaining the pros and cons, enhancing the debate and providing a separate "channel" from the wider media and well funded lobbyists. The site must include an independent assessment of the costs. Such a system gives elected politicians more traction which they can leverage by involving their party members and activists. These proposals should solve many of the problems highlighted by The Economist while retaining the ideal of government by and for the people.

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