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  • California's Plight Confirms the Founders' Fears

    California is teetering on the edge of economic and social collapse. According to an Economist special report, this is largely the result of decisions to implement direct democracy reforms during the Progressive era, such as poplar recall, initiatives, propositions, and referenda — reforms that have “inflamed” the passions of the people — “James Madison’s worst nightmare.”

    The insidious influence of factions (groups united by passions or interests that are contrary to the rights of individuals or the wellbeing of the community as a whole) helped to cause California’s downward spiral of government and economy. California’s plight confirms the American Founders’ aversion to pure democracy and their preference for republican self-government.

    Just after the American Revolution, the famous poet Philip Freneau anticipated a future American polity that resurrected the ancient Greek ideal of democratic rule:

    Even here where Freedom lately sat distrest,

    See, a new Athens rising in the west!”

    The American Founders, however, had a somewhat different idea. James Madison, Freneau’s friend and Princeton classmate, believed that Athens had self-destructed because of its extreme form of democracy. Direct democracy left the passions of the people unchecked and allowed the majority to tyrannize the minority. If the American experiment was to last it had to learn from, and not mimic, ancient democracies.

    The answer lay in republicanism, wherein the people’s elected representatives were responsible for making law. America’s original constitutional structure was, therefore, not a pure democracy – it was a democratic republic. This new form of government was embodied in Mr. Madison’s proposed Constitution, and offered an alternative to the historical forms of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. This republican form of government would allow for checks and balances to prevent a tyranny of one, the few, or the many from jeopardizing liberty. America’s constitutional order safeguarded the long-term interests of the people, while thwarting the passions of the people from becoming law.

    In this constitutional republic, the Executive would possess the power of the sword and would be able to protect the nation’s security as effectively as any king in Europe. The House of Congress, possessing the power of the purse, would be directly elected by the people and would reflect their will, while Senators appointed by each state would compose a more aristocratic body with stable, long-term interests in mind.  John Jay optimistically predicted in Federalist 64 that “the President and senators so chosen will always be of the number of those who best understand our national interests… who are best able to promote those interests, and whose reputation for integrity inspires and merits confidence.” Responding to Jefferson’s concern about the Senate being appointed by the states (as opposed to being elected by the people), Washington used Jefferson’s habit of cooling his coffee in his saucer as an analogy. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

    Such constitutional barriers to rapid legislation were viewed as obstacles on the road to progress by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. As a result, the so-called “progressive” 16th (Federal income tax) and 17th (direct election of Senators) amendments substantially altered America’s national system of government. At the state level, a number of reforms – such as direct election of judges, popular recall, and policy referenda – altered the institutional nature of American self-government and removed checks on the rise and influence of factions.

    Perhaps no other state adopted the direct-democracy model as vigorously as California. The demands on the state budget went unchecked for years as California became a welfare state—the result of many popular initiatives which proposed government services without concern for the state budget. When one Ronald Reagan became governor of California and dared to assert that the state had no business subsidizing intellectual frivolity, riotous protests ensued.

    One man, however, could not reverse nearly a century of popularly impulsive rule. According to the Economist, California’s form of democracy today continues to promote imprudent and short-sighted policies:

    It has no safeguards against Madison’s tyranny of the majority. It recognizes no saucer that might cool the passions of the people. Above all, it is not a system intended to contain minority factions…. Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified.”

    The rise of factions and fiscal irresponsibility should not have come as a surprise, since James Madison had warned early on that the outgrowth of factions and selfish wants of individuals are “sown in the nature of man.”

    Before tinkering with the Founders system of government, the brilliance of their design should be fully understood. Because the Founders looked to history, human nature, and higher justice, America’s constitutional order possesses the wisdom of the ages. That wisdom should be utilized as California attempts necessary reform in the coming months and years. Other states, however, should see California’s experience as a cautionary tale and remember Madison’s warning in Federalist 10: “Pure democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    9 Responses to California's Plight Confirms the Founders' Fears

    1. George Colgrove VA says:

      Very good post Marion! Though nationwide we do not have the same dramaitic shifts that CA has, we are never-the-less still yanked by populus drives.

      From my observation in over 20 years of practicing politics, the left are very good at yanking us to the left by populus rhetoric, fear mongering and midnight votes in congress. But once pointed, the right who does observe the republican form of government fails to yank us back. Republicanism keep the ship pointed in the new direction. The net result is near constant left leaning "yanks" with little resistance back to the right.

      This method has worked for 70 years and has resulted in a $14.3 trillion debt. Solution is to do what Reagan did, go direct to the people and educate. We can "yank" the ship back on its original course so long as the republic understands why.

    2. a.d. monday , searcy says:

      California, the land of fruits and nuts carrying placards.

    3. R Holland, Chandler, says:

      California gets what California deserves.

    4. Mike, Wichita Falls says:

      As long as DC doesn't bail out CA and similar progressive states, including bail outs to their state workers, other states considering such progressive moves will reconsider. That reality seems to be taking hold so far; let's build on it at the state and federal level.

    5. Larry Welch, Idaho says:

      We need more posts like this one by Marion Smith! Our nation desperately needs immediate and long term education. We are in a struggle requiring sustained effort.

      The legislature here in Idaho passed a resolution to initiate a move to repeal the 17th Amendment – returning selection of US Senators to state legislatures. This effort deserves strong, energetic national support to start our country on the road to recovery.

      It is stunning to read the Economist's views at the same time our President is breaking/bending every rule to destroy indivdual liberty.

    6. Leon Lundquist, Dura says:

      Marion Smith, thanks to you for your fine Article. I was surprised you didn't use the phrase "small d democracy" to express what Liberals always promote when they say 'democracy.' Small d democracies are indeed doomed to failure, California is the example proving the rule. The worst President we ever had I think, is Woodrow Wilson. The man was completely Lawless! He was the one who first used Propaganda against Americans, he was the Progressive that Sec. Hillary Clinton admired most! Gad zooks! That is like the open admiration for Chairman Mao in the Obama Administration! Crazy! "Mass Murder is nothing!" Really?

      You are absolutely right, if the Senate were appointed by the States then we wouldn't have most of the really crazy stuff coming out of Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson did that! Now, as the New York Times selects the RINO candidate for Republicans (like McCain) it is clear to me that Representation in our Representative Government is already the dead canary in the coal mine! "Don't worry! The canary isn't dead! It is like VP Biden, just resting his eyes!" It isn't much help! When California goes bankrupt those crazy nuts will be saying "It is George Bush's fault!" That is no rebuttal, Bush was a RINO!

      Socialism doesn't work! California proves that! Europe proves that! "We don't have to accept the proof!" Representative Democracy is the only Democracy that works! We no longer have it, but bet me! The Californians will be blaming their faults on the Republican Form of Government! "We need State Socialism!" they will say, when that is exactly what made California fail!

    7. Carol,AZ says:

      I appreciate your well written article acknowledging CA as the primary example, to ignore, "Checks and Balances," and the rule of law.

      We hear you loud and clear in the Western States.

      Ca has met the ice berg and their's no u-turn for this shipwreck.

      Ca's Liberal ignorance continues, while Western States refuse to cave-in for the enforcement of checks and balances.

      When you look westward from here, you can quickly smell the "odor" coming from the West Coast over numerous examples of breaking the law.

      As you quoted; the "folly sown in the nature of man," is certainly one point of view over this issue.

      Corruption doesn't cover it, CA welfare state of the union doesn't cover it, nor the greed of man.

      Despotic Government through the continuation of autocratic tyannical political power covers CA's partnership shared with NV.

      This duality has promises to keep with Nancy Pelosi and her minions and Harry Reid for 2012. .

      Along with both States having the largest illegal population living there in the USA, it's Jame Madison's worse nighmare.

      It's also America's worse nightmare.

      It stared with money bribes for votes , States were "gifted" funds for passage, of the HCP, no one wanted.

      It continues with the Feds and CA, declaring War on AZ doing unprescented damage to our economy already in fiscal bankruptcy four times, at that point in our State's history.

      It continues with Yellow Journalism for ALL reporting coming from CA.

      It continues when union organizers from CA, bussed-in their militant LA Raza protestors to protest en masse during the trial of SN 1070. Along with the decimation of the American flag they stump around in their brown uniforms and boots in front of the news media using gang tag signs for attention.

      This well organized example of one State pitting itself aganist another for supreme power predicted by Mr. Madison and Mr. Hamilton came true, inplace of American self government, checks and balances and enforcing laws based on our Democracy.

      This damage control with impunity by CA hasn't worked.

      The word backlash comes to mind.

      Our State has gotten back to business.

      We are experiencing growth in many areas. In resale for the housing market, increased development for new Buss, and expansion of existing businesses already here.

      Az continues to secure it's border for the safety for all us and 31 other States support us now, enforcing thier laws over this issue. We understand Checks and Balances.

      We admit we haven't gotten it all correct.

      Based on the hand-out from the Romans, offered to us, and in direct reference to Mr Madison and Mr. Hamilton, we are waiting for a huge piece of that ice berg coming from CA.

      It's just a matter of when?

    8. AD, CA says:

      CA will, invariably, choose the road worst travelled.

    9. Dimebag Dave, People says:

      Too much democracy? For the corporation citizens maybe. Enron, private prisons, war on drugs, gutting education, poisoning the food and water, shipping jobs overseas, and the housing bubble had nothing to do with the collapse because they were making people rich on Wall Street. It's okay to strip a society from the inside out and blame the working poor as long as you're making money off of it. Just make sure you pay off our 'representatives' to tell everyone else that you're too big to fail.

      The citizens of the world are starting to wake up to the lie of a society based on exponential growth, endless war, and limitless supplies of cheap oil. They won't roll out a guillotine for the Oligarchy like they did in the French Revolution. Instead they will come with sharp knives, spits, and open fires because there will be nothing else left to eat.

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