The pig and pony [http://www.sacbee.com/capitolandcalifornia/story/2442268.html] show came to California Wednesday, with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recounting the charming antics of his unusual pets in his state of the state speech. Oh those scamps! It remains to be seen whether Californians will find they were offered anything more than a cute story and a stable-full of muck and horse manure.
There will doubtless be much talk nationally of Schwarzenegger’s request for more federal money—and his denunciation of Obamacare as it now stands in Congress. This is as it should be: California, the once-engine of the American economy, faces a roughly $20 billion deficit, a number few doubt will increase without dramatic, and painful, spending cuts. Unless we can figure a way to sell the naming rights of the state to China, our financial troubles will, by hook or by crook, feed into the troubles of the nation.
Of less immediate but ultimately more serious concern is the governor’s call for a constitutional amendment to guarantee California never spends more on prisons than higher education. “It is simply not healthy,” we are told, that “the state spends more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns.” The solution? We must legally bind ourselves into spending more on higher education than on prisons, “choosing universities over prisons.”
What is most troubling about this formulation isn’t the wish to reduce prisons costs—and the governor does suggest ways in which this might be attempted. Nor is it the silly dichotomy Schwarzenegger presents in which our only possible choice is between spending on higher education or prisons.
Worse is the assumption that, when faced with difficult fiscal problems, we ought to place them outside the bounds of regular political discourse. Entering his seventh year in Sacramento, our governor has decided that our best hope for the future is to take the politics out of politics. Schwarzenegger’s proposal bespeaks an ignorance of republican principles, troubling in one of the highest officeholders in the land.
As the American Founders argued, our diversity in goods is tied ultimately to our diversity in faculties and interests. The system that they designed is meant to secure to us the fruits of our labor, against dangers foreign and domestic. While they believed men’s passions must be made to serve reason in government, they knew those passions can never be eliminated from the breast of man. Governance is inseparable from political strife.
Overcoming this strife by removing government from the political process was a central goal of the Progressive Era architects of the administrative or bureaucratic state. It was premised on an understanding of man and society inimical to that of the Founders. The inefficient rough and tumble of partisan politics, the Progressives stressed, produces outcomes no rational administrator would choose if given the opportunity.
Their idea was that if a post- or non-partisan leader could aggregate the various conflicting and passionately pursued political ends, and devise a means by which most such goals are met, then governance could indeed be unmoored from politics. Such bureaucratic choices would then have to be protected against future political passions—removed from the political realm. “Progressive” leadership of this kind is meant to overcome partisan politics once and for all, replacing it with non-partisan administration.
The administrative state has as its goal the rational, peaceful, organization of life: the rational becomes real in the well-organized state. The nation’s Founders, in contrast, sought the “low but solid” foundation afforded by republican institutions. They believed the state does not exist to bring about our ideals, but to protect our rights. Given this modest and realistic understanding, constitutions are naturally limited in scope. They delineate who does what in government—and what is rightly beyond the reach of its power.
Our constitutional strictures are there for a reason. By separating the government into three distinct branches, the Constitution minimizes the rule of any faction in society and also empowers each branch to perform its prescribed tasks with energy. These objectives also require that our elected officials genuinely discuss and deliberate, which requires that they have a range of policy options available. It is futile to separate the branches of government while constitutionally barring them—in this case, future legislatures and governors—from exercising their judgment in addressing the various articulated interests among the people.
The further the decision-making process is removed from politics, the more the people are removed from self-government. “Ballot-box budgeting,” of which Schwarzenegger’s proposal is a classic example, seems democratic because it requires a public vote. But the people voting today are not the same people governed by those laws tomorrow. And to that extent, their representatives, when precluded from deciding these now out-of-bounds policy questions, are unable to adequately represent their constituencies.
To the admirer of the administrative state this is hardly a problem, for the people are fractious and unpredictable, not knowing their own minds let alone their long-term interests. The people are required to give voice, in their collective capacity, to measures brought before them by their rulers; henceforth, this voice will serve as justification for the removal of the issue decided upon from the normal channels of discourse.
Republican government, as properly understood, requires a certain amount of trust in our representatives and vigilance among the represented. Both can be bitter pills to swallow when faced with feckless representatives. It is certainly a challenge in California, where the temptation to appeal over the heads of the legislature and the governor directly to the people is great. Indeed, some of the conservative movement’s greatest victories in California were achieved through this very means.
However, the temporary advantages secured by “direct democracy” must not obscure for conservatives its ultimate incompatibility with the genius of American republican government. On this issue Publius, in Federalist 63, is clear: “The true distinction between [other republics] and the American governments, lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter.” By erecting buffers between the people and the normal political process the Founders sought to ensure that conflict over the right policy to pursue would not lead us to call into question the legitimacy of the entire system. They understood that enshrining our normal policy differences in constitutional amendments raises in importance the degree to which we differ. Far from settling conflict, such a process promises in time a far more divisive break between those who support the policy, and those whose opposing positions are rendered unconstitutional.
Strife can of course be tempered by the kind of policymaking Schwarzenegger proposes, but self-government suffers in the process. This is a lesson as old as Plato’s Republic, a lesson brutally illustrated this past century by the state cults of Europe. Political strife is tied to our love of self and family; to overcome this we would have to submerge the passionate attachment to our own in an attachment to the abstract state. But passionate attachment to our own is the starting point for republican self-government: self-government goes hand in hand with partisan strife.
Politics is both heartbreaking and tedious to partisans: we want our side to not simply win, but win for all time. This never happens, since contrary interests continually arise to challenge once-settled issues. Governor Schwarzenegger’s call for a constitutional amendment to lock future legislators and governors into a partial spending formula for higher education reveals a frustration with “politics as usual,” and a desire to overcome the partisanship that leads to such politics once and for all. The governor, in effect, is asking Californians to help govern by reducing his need and ability to govern.
No doubt there is a brilliant joke somewhere in the governor’s story of “the pig and the pony.” But for Californians, no matter what the joke, it will most certainly be on us. At least one pig and pony showman will be leaving California this fall, but we’ll be left to clean up the mess many years hence. We can take grim comfort in the fact that the rest of the nation will be forced, willy-nilly, to pick up after us.
Patrick Collins is Director of the Claremont Institute’s Golden State Center for State and Local Politics.