The opening on Monday of the California State legislature should strike fear into friends of liberty. While it is true that this particular legislature will be more inclined than previous ones to regulate and tax, and encourage moral license, similar fears have moved Californians going back to the Gold Rush days.
Unfortunately, the cure for those early fears has finally proven to be much worse than the original vices. What we see today in Sacramento is the logic of the Progressive reformers of the early twentieth century. To fight the corruption of earlier governments, this reform movement sought to regulate industry, in particular the railroads, and minimize partisanship. Politics would be more "professional," deferring to "experts" in the universities. Through politicians such as Woodrow Wilson, thinkers such as John Dewey, and magazines like the New Republic, Progressivism inaugurated the liberalism of modern government. The Progressive "box" in which we act and think today seems to confine us to ever more regulation and higher taxes.
In the recently published Democracy in California, professor Brian Janiskee of California State University, San Bernardino, and I elaborate this Progressive domination of California government. Our introduction to California politics and government emphasizes the threats to limited, constitutional government from a source many of us take for granted — the desire for reform, whose criterion has become unlimited centralized regulation and high-budget programs from Sacramento. Hence the outrageous budget deficit we face today.
In particular, we take as our greatest hope for liberty such basic constitutional principles as the separation of powers — the need for free governments to respect separate functions of passing, enforcing, and interpreting the law. We note the problems, as well as the merits, of going outside the legislature to pass laws or even amend the Constitution by a simple majority of the popular vote through initiatives and referendum.
Above all, we question the fundamental assumption that our liberties are made greater if partisanship is reduced — that is, if we give up on politics. A good sign of this surrender is the impulse to regulate campaign financing — a clear violation of the most basic freedoms of association and speech. Other disturbing evidence is apparent in the cowardice encouraged by "political correctness." This squeamishness reduces debate on serious issues like racial and ethnic preferences, gay rights, and uncontrolled multicultural immigration to mouthing of approved slogans. This is another assault on politics itself and quite in keeping with the Progressive spirit.
By calling to mind these fundamental issues, Democracy in California would have its readers revive the American political tradition, against Progressivism. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and books such as Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America, inspire our goal, which is to revive manly political spirit in the arena of political struggle. Abraham Lincoln declared that the two sources of political will are "moral sense and self-interest." Californians who want to enjoy liberty need to be guided by Lincoln's wisdom. We need to embrace America's first and highest principles and turn our justified fears into determined political action. Fostering this attitude, through example, word, and accomplishment, is the highest duty of liberty-loving legislators. How many will embrace this duty as they begin the new legislative term?
- Democracy in California: Politics and Government in the Golden State, by Ken Masugi and Brian Janiskee