Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Escape from Bondage

I have a certain affection for initiatives and referenda, if only because they avoid the bundling problem that arises from voting on candidates and party platforms instead of specific issues. Bundling is one (though by no means the only) reason that special-interest legislation is so common. A politician can alter his minor policy positions just enough to accommodate special interests, thus attracting their votes and campaign dollars, while maintaining his visible policy positions to avoid alienating the rest of the voting public. (Even if you knew your representative supported the ridiculous honeybee subsidy, would that be important enough to outweigh his position on abortion and the death penalty?) By treating issues separately, ballot measures let voters deal with each issue on its own merits. They can also allow the voters to take positions that spook politicians, like legalizing medical marijuana.

But as always, there is a downside. Ballot measures can mislead voters into thinking they can have a free lunch, instead of realizing the trade-offs entailed by "good causes." Yesterday, Californians approved a whole slew of bond issues for "good causes" like school construction and maintenance (see my post below), after school programs for kids, housing and emergency shelter, etc. Sure, there was a dollar amount on each bond issue, with fine print explaining that all this money would eventually have to be paid back by the state. But what do those dollar figures even mean? To the average person (who doesn't even know the size of the yearly state budget - I sure don't), $13 billion spent by the state might as well be $1.3 billion or $130 billion. The real significance of the dollar figure is what the money could have been spent on, such as other government programs or (good heavens!) the personal spending choices of future taxpayers. That information, of course, is not included on the ballot.

Hence my agreement with the following sentiment expressed by Gary North in an article about the pure entertainment value of voting: "I love any election in which there is a bond issue on the ballot. I get to vote 'no.' The more worthy the cause appears to be in the minds of its supporters, the more I enjoy voting 'no.' … So, every other year, I get to go into a voting booth, close the curtains, pick up the hole-puncher, and punch chad-free holes into the 'no' slots of every bond issue. Pop, pop, pop: I love that sound!"

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