Government, California-Style

David Cameron at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010

Like Kevin Drum I’m a bit baffled that David Cameron would promise the people of Britain “California-style referendums on any local issue if residents can win the support of 5% of the population.” Is he unfamiliar with California? I suppose it’s actually quite plausible that the UK media hasn’t covered the California budget mess very closely and folks just have a vague idea that it’s sunny and pleasing in California and direct democracy sounds like a good idea.

This is a shame, however, because Switzerland is not only a good deal closer to the UK it also offers a dramatically vetter version of direct democracy. A Swiss-style system, where the public frequently gets to vote on a proposal that’s already passed Parliament and either confirm it or veto it, seems to me like it would be a reasonable addition to a British political system that’s short on veto points. Certainly it seems like a better idea to me than “reforming” the House of Lords in order to turn it into a more meaningful second legislative house. Unicameralism plus referenda is a perfectly reasonable approach. But California-style initiatives are a recipe for disaster.

In general, I think the key to getting the political process right is to understand the importance of popular participation in consenting (or not) to policy proposals veruss the importance of technocratic design of policy proposals. The problem with California’s initiatives isn’t so much that the public gets to vote on them as that the actual proposals themselves are designed by interest-group advocates who aren’t accountable for the consequences of their ideas and generally lack the technical competence to draft sound proposals. One strength of parliamentary systems is that even rank-and-file legislators primarily have a consent (or not) role while policy design is in the hands of ministries. At the federal level in the US we generally have more technical competence in the executive branch (not a slam on congressional staff, but everyone considers it a promotion when a staffer gets offered an executive branch job) but measures are largely designed, rather than simply voted on, by congress.