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I had an epiphany during a panel discussion of Lobato v. State of Colorado (the Colorado district court holding that the Colorado public school system violates the state constitutional requirement that the state provide “a thorough and uniform” public education system, and that vastly increased funding would be necessary to be in compliance with the state constitution) at the annual policy summit of CLLARO/CLF (Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization/Colorado Latino Forum): A constitution is unenforceable in a state that allows direct democracy, or what I call “government by plebiscite” (usually in the form of the initiative process, through which the polity can directly amend the constitution or pass legislation, entirely circumventing the state legislature), and therefore such direct democracy is ultimately incompatible with both constitutionalism and the rule of law.

The panel consisted of Lisa Calderon (the mother of one of the plaintiffs), James Eklund (an attorney for the state), Prof. Kelly Hupfeld (UC Denver Assistant Dean of the School of Public Affairs) and Liane Morrison (Executive Director of GreatEducation Colorado). Two of the panelists (Lisa Calderon and Liane Morrison) were advocates of and in agreement with the Lobato decision; one (Kelly Hupfeld) was academically fascinated by and apparently somewhat favorable toward the decision; and one (James Eklund) had the thankless and clearly not entirely heartfelt task of presenting the state’s opposition to the decision to an audience of progressives overwhelmingly on the other side.

The discussion revolved around the familiar issues of quality of education, deficiencies in funding, the constraining constitutional provisions of TABOR and the Gallagher amendment (which constrain Colorado state government taxing and spending power, and require the state to submit any proposed tax increases to the electorate for approval), and the question of whether the court overstepped its bounds and addressed what is properly “a political question” and therefore not within the competence of the court to address (a separation of powers issue). For the record, I’ll state that I’m agnostic regarding the central legal question involved in the decision (i.e., whether it was the court’s role to quantify in dollars what constitutes “thorough and uniform,” or whether that is a political question to be addressed by the state legislature), but wholeheartedly agree with the decision as a matter of public policy, and am glad to see it as a potential catalyst for much needed systemic change.

(As an aside, non-lawyers aren’t always familiar with, or interested in, the distinction between legal analysis, on the one hand, and social/political/economic public policy analysis, on the other. But this distinction is a vital one to constitutional government and the rule of law, and I think we’d be well-served to make it a more commonly understood aspect of our social institutional landscape, a goal, ironically, that could be more effectively met through a better-funded and designed public education system.)

Of the facets of Lobato directly discussed, the reference to TABOR and Gallagher comes the closest to identifying what I think is really the most essential issue implicated by this decision, though it was raised in too superficial and limited a way to identify that issue clearly. Some might take exception with this claim, arguing that the deficiency in school funding and subsequently in quality is the central issue, but I am not talking about the obvious and fairly easy to understand political ideological battle between those who, on the one hand, recognize that we have underfunded and underperforming schools, and those who, on the other, believe that less government is always better government (the latter delusion being one I address at length and in depth is a series of essays hyperlinked to in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). Rather, I’m talking about the subtler and more structurally fundamental question of whether the rule of law and governmental accountability can exist in the absence of a government to be held accountable.

Though TABOR and Gallagher don’t eliminate government entirely, they do diminish its role sufficiently to raise this question, because compliance with the court order to dramatically increase public school funding is, in reality, virtually impossible for the government to accomplish without the electorate agreeing to it, and if there is no concise and identifiable population of people (e.g., the state legislature) that can be held legally accountable for refusing to obey the court order, how can the court order possibly be enforced? And if a court order mandating governmental compliance with the state constitution can’t be enforced, how can the state constitution be said to exist as a legally relevant and effective document? In other words, in circumstances when direct democracy makes the enforcement of court orders mandating constitutional compliance impossible, direct democracy is incompatible with constitutionalism and the rule of law!

Certainly, there are subtleties and complications involved in this analysis. Courts never have troops to enforce their orders, and I may be exaggerating to some extent the distinction between a state legislature choosing to ignore a court order and a populace choosing to ignore a court order. But, while the distinction may be less stark than I have made it, I think it still exists, and is still critically relevant: A state legislature consists of a very limited number of identifiable individuals who can be held directly responsible for violating a court order, while an entire electorate is comprised of a large population of ultimately anonymous individuals who can not be held directly responsible for defying a court order.

Many, perhaps most, court orders directed against governments require state expenditures to be carried out. Desegregation in the Civil Rights era certainly did, for example. Those who hold the purse strings are those who can be held responsible for either complying with or disobeying such court orders. If the purse strings are held too diffusely to hold anyone responsible, then such court orders are essentially meaningless, and therefore so are the laws they serve.

One can argue that while direct democracy is incompatible with a bill of rights which protects the rights of individuals from the vagaries of power, including the rights of minorities from the democratic power of majorities, it is not incompatible with a constitution, since a constitution need not include a bill of rights. A constitution might say, instead, that as long as majorities exercise their power according to a prescribed law, which is ultimately up to those same majorities to interpret, then the rule of law has been adhered to. But this is a sham rule of law, only marginally better than the “rule of law” created on the spot by the whims of a ruthless dictator (since even dictators hold power in part by dispensing favors to supporters who form with the dictator a ruling faction, and the tyranny of the majority is nothing more than such a faction that is at least one person –though never necessarily more than one person– larger than half the population).

In other words, such a “constitution” is merely a ruthless dictatorship of a bare majority over all others, always subject to the caprice of that majority, regardless of how that maj0rity might choose to exercise it. If such a majority decided to interpret its constitution to permit the execution on sight of everyone with green eyes, then that would be within the law as defined by this “constitutional” society. A law which protects only those who wield power, whether they are few or many, is no law at all, but rather naked tyranny.

In reality, constitutions not only protect minorities from majorities, but also majorities from themselves, since it is often the case that foolish fanaticisms, sometimes entirely organic and sometimes fabricated or fanned by and for a minority with resources to influence popular opinion, inform mass decisions that are self-destructive. A majority mobilizing its genius through a process of careful reflection and contemplation to guide and channel its future passions (i.e., by drafting a constitution) is likely to fare better than a majority which simply surrenders to its own ephemeral whims.

This argument is related to the argument by the plaintiffs in Kerr v. State of Colorado, a challenge to the constitutionality of TABOR under the U.S. Constitution, which “requires all states to have a Republican Form of Government embodied in a representative democracy” ( In the complaint, the plaintiffs reference Federalist #10 (by James Madison), which states:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

But the observation in this essay goes beyond that of Madison: Not only does representative (as opposed to direct) democracy temper passions and protect minorities from majorities, but it is ultimately indispensable to the very existence of the rule of law!

“The Father of the U.S. Constitution” understood the defects of direct democracy, and condemned those who advocated for it. A careful analysis of the effects of direct democracy demonstrate that it is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of an effective constitution and the rule of law. Ironically, once again, it’s precisely those who arrogate to themselves the mantle of defenders of the Constitution who are the ones against whom it must be defended.

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  • (The following is a comment I wrote on a Facebook thread following a reposting of the link to this essay.)

    Other than the two problems with direct democracy that I discussed in the essay (violation of the Constitutional requirement that states have “republican” -i.e., representative- forms of government, as argued by James Madison in Federalist 10; and the impossibility of holding a diffuse and individually unidentifiable decision making “body” responsible for the constitutional legality of its actions and decisions), there is also the problem that it drastically reduces our ability to mobilize and channel information and expertise in the political economic decision making process, and reduces policy-formation to a far less time-dedicated and information-rich process, in which the role of knowledge and expertise is virtually eliminated, and the less-conscious currents of popular “fads” and superficial false certainties hold more sway.

    A society is more than the sum of its parts, and our ability to maximize human welfare clearly depends on divisions of labor which allow the mobilization and articulation of various expertise and dedications of human capital. A person who trains for years and works exclusively for decades studying and contemplating and designing social institutional programs has something to offer to the process that a person who trained for years studying and practicing in some largely unrelated field (e.g., dental hygiene, plumbing, auto mechanics, hair styling) simply doesn’t replicate. That unique expertise has to be channeled into the process in particular ways to capture its value.

    That doesn’t mean there is no vital role for those others with other expertise and experience, and with interests that need to be protected and a voice that needs to be heard. I think there’s vast room for improvement both in how we address “the agency problem” of insuring that our agents are acting in our, the principal’s, behalf; and in how we facilitate the “genius of the many,” the upward flow and articulation of diffuse information, insight, and knowledge that also has a unique and irreplaceable value. But the way to capture that genius clearly isn’t government by plebiscite, which squashes it as effectively as (or more effectively than) oligarchy or technocracy. Neither of these errors is the goal toward which we should strive.

  • sblecher:

    Hello Steve, The Colorado state government, or any state government functions as a republic only when the legislature does its job, and one of its primary responsibilities is taxation. The Legislature has always been reluctant to tackle difficult issues, and that leads to frustration among the voters. The Conservatives like to say, “This is a republic, not a democracy.”, but at the same time they distrust government and hate taxes. The state constitution is relatively easy to amend, so they propose amendments that take power away from the Legislature, and transfer it to the Constitution. Where taxation is concerned, they demand direct democracy, namely a direct vote of the people for every tax measure. In addition there is nothing to prevent totally contradictory amendments to the state constitution, and that has finally got the state government into serious trouble.
    Anyway Madison is right, though he overestimated the wisdom of state legislators.

  • Right, Steve. Amendment 23 requires spending on education to increase by a certain annual rate, while TABOR requires the electorate to approve any increase in taxes, meaning that one constitutional provision mandates spending that another constitutional provision renders potentially unenforceable.

    As a matter of social institutional design, no one should ever be trusted to be wise or altruistic. Assume the worst, and by doing so, create the best possible. In a hypothetical world populated by equally dumb and selfish beings, what would be the best social institutional arrangement? That is the question we should start off asking and answering, only taking into account the role of our better angels on the margins rather than at the center of how we arrange our coexistence, perhaps seeking ways to cultivate and inform those better angels, but not counting on them to carry the day.

    So, while Madison used the rhetoric of differential wisdom, I don’t think his point depends on that. Even equally dumb and selfish people become differentiated in certain ways by training and experience, so that state legislators, ideally, would be better trained than lay people in such relevant disciplines as economics and law. Unfortunately, much of the same overzealous populism that gives us TABOR and the initiative process also gives us state legislators whose only qualification is that they share the same blind, uninformed ideological baggage as those who voted for them.

    We have a choice, as a polity, whether to govern ourselves more intelligently or more stupidly. Scrubbing the process of the mechanisms by which more information and analysis is brought to bear on the decision-making process is the choice to govern ourselves more stupidly, whether we do it by insisting on direct democracy or by insisting on representation by transparently unqualified representatives. (Elected office may be the only profession in which actual qualifications to do the job are frequently rendered irrelevant to the hiring process, or even sometimes an outright liability.)

  • sblecher:

    In all fairness, the Colorado legislators, and most other state legislators are better educated than they were, say, a hundred years ago, and most of them are reasonably intelligent.
    Even Congress didn’t always show wisdom. Think of the years leading up to the Civil War. Remember, politics is the doctrine of the possible, so solutions that forward-looking legislators, or other elected officials envision may not be politically feasible, because the general public is not ready.
    Great leaders can get the public to share their vision for better or worse. Sometimes we wish for a benevolent dictator, bur most dictatorships end in disaster. There have been very few benevolent dictators since Pericles of Athens.

  • We have many brilliant and very hard working state legislators. Unfortunately, we also have some who could be replaced with a rock, to the state’s benefit.

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