There's a thoughtful piece in today's Wall Street Journal that poses a somewhat parochial, California-centric question, which nonetheless has relevance for other states, like Colorado, where citizen initiatives and referenda have gained popularity as governing mechanisms.
California is a basket case, obviously. But who's responsible? Some people blame the state's fondness for citizen initiatives and so-called "ballot-box budgeting" -- an accusation we hear in Colorado as well. Others (like the writers of the piece) argue that the state's notoriously free-spending politicians, in tandem with a smothering regulatory climate, are responsible for killing the California dream. "The Golden State's problem is not overly controlling voters," the authors conclude, "but out-of-control politicians."
I sometimes worry about the implications of ballot-box governance, even while supporting some ballot measures that, while not flawless, are in my view beneficial on balance -- our city and state TABOR being a good case in point. My preference is that citizen initiatives be used carefully, narrowly and sparingly, as a last resort. I sometimes think they are becoming seen as a first resort, and that's a problem.
It often comes down to a lesser-of-evils calculation. Which does one fear more: the danger of direct democracy, or elected officials who have a tendency to run wild if left to their own devices? Initiatives might be thought of as a "governor" placed on the engine of a rental vehicle, which keeps it from being driven recklessly. The vehicle still can be steered where the drivers (the politicians) want it to go. But it can't go there at any speed the driver's desire. The drivers retain some discretion, but are also constrained by the vehicle's owner (the people), in order to discourage crashes.
It's not a perfect analogy, I know, or the perfect governing model. But there is no perfect analogy, or perfect governing model. At least our system affords us the freedom to experiment.