Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Democracy Sacrament

Two stories that seem not to fit together in fact do.

The LA Times has a website that challenges the visitor to balance the CA budget, and it is surprisingly difficult. I imposed no tax hikes, and chose all spending cuts except law enforcement (a clearly legitimate government function), furloughing government workers (a cheap shot), and one-time fixes (intellectually dishonest, just kicking the can down the road one year).

I still barely managed to do it. I assume the reason for that is that federal mandates and California's mountain of referenda take a lot of spending cuts off the table. This is ultimately what democracy, unrestrained, comes to. It is so easy to vote that other people's money (including people in the future) be put in service of your interests rather than theirs. Once people discover they can do this, as the saying goes, the game is soon up. (Myron Magnet in City Journal tells of how this has played out in New York.) California's experiment in radical democracy has hit the wall.

The good news is that, contrary to some of my fears in the last few months, it seems that people are drawing a line on how much of a power grab they will tolerate at the national level. Cabinet officials and Congressmen are getting confronted all over the country (go here to see an example involving HHS Secretary Sebelius) over the ongoing attempt to end private health care before anyone has time to read the bill or find out what it costs. It seems that people were willing to tolerate the big stimulus corruption-fest, but are unwilling to add onto that another huge burden of public spending for health care. For now, anyway.

And this brings me to the other story, Honduras. The president of that land wanted, in clear violation of its constitution, a second term, and presumably one meant to last for the rest of his life. And so he tried to conduct a referendum authorizing that. But the Supreme Court told him he couldn't, the Parliament concurred, and the military was ordered to remove him. (The similarity not just to Hugo Chavez but particularly to Salvador Allende are eerie.)

But much of the world, including US officials, thinks of this as a coup against a democratically elected precedent. This is the result of the belief that elections are the source of political legitimacy, that how we choose the government, rather than what the government may do once chosen, is the only interesting question. If the people of Honduras want to vote on whether their president should have another term, the majority rules, right?

Wrong. Elections are part of a complicated package that include the separation of powers and protection of the citizens' basic rights, and no part works without the other. (The wave of radical democracy in Latin America that started with Chavez has crippled the other components of ordered liberty.) This sacramentalization of democracy, of transient majority opinion as the font of all wisdom, is unfortunate, but increasingly common. In the US the barriers are perhaps holding, but if so just barely.


Post a Comment

<< Home