Tuesday, July 09, 2013

What Constitutes Democracy versus Democary

George Skelton is a long time reporter on politics for the LA Times.  He does not have much use for Proposition 13.   On the 3rd of July he proposed that the two thirds requirement for raising taxes and for approving local public works projects be lowered to 55%.   Skelton's real views are contained in the following quote - "Any supermajority vote requirement is illogical and contradictory when compared to the mere 50% plus one needed to pass statewide bond issues. But at least 55% gets much closer to majority rule."  Skelton has been around for a long time - he started in the Capitol about the time I did.  

Skelton's column amused me because it is so bereft of any understanding of voting theory and logic.   For him, the 55% rule, which he proposes has no basis in logic it is only justified because it is lower than two thirds.   The reporter could benefit from understanding some basic theory about voting.

In the American experience there was special concern paid to the potential errors of majority rule.  During the Eighteenth Century there was a lot of concern about the excesses of "democratic" revolutions - Edmund Burke wrote his reflections on the French Revolution and expressed that point of view -  the risks of not protecting the rights of the minority were well understood when the Constitution was adopted.  During the Nineteenth Century many states and localities used simple majority rules to do exactly what Skelton proposed in his article.  The result was a series of financing disasters.   Many of the rules for financing that limit the ability of entities to take on any debt and some of the voting requirements for adopting bond issues came about from the kinds of scandals that happened when a majority pushed through things without proper care.

When the fraction for school bonds was lowered to 55% I went back and looked at school bond issues which passed and those that did not after Proposition 13.  The ones, until the 55% rule was adopted, that explained why bonding was necessary and made a clear case for what the money would be used for - passed overwhelmingly.   The ones which were justified on some amorphous notion that if we just spent a bit more dough the schools would be better did not pass in as high a number.   The voters are not dumb.

There are other reasons for keeping the voting requirement high for adding taxes or spending money into the future.   First, it helps to recognize that future voters will be a part of the decision.   A higher voting requirement puts some brakes on those who would spend for almost anything.   Higher voting fractions also slow down the tendency to "cycle" - in pure majority votes the losing side will constantly be trying to get that extra one or two percent to their side and overturn a decision with which they disagree. 

For Skelton, neither the theory of protecting the rights of the minority nor the benefits of higher fractions for some decisions are important.  Were he pressed he would have a hard time demonstrating the pain inflicted by these requirements - except for those who think the public sector should be mostly unbridled.   But for voters who care about stability and rationality in public decisions, the theory and practice are quite important.

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