John G. Matsusaka
For the Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy, and American Democracy
University of Chicago Press, 206 pages, $29.
Is the initiative process unduly influenced by moneyed interests? Do most initiatives run counter to popular will? Rigorous analysis of the matter by Professor John G. Matsusaka, author of For the Many or the Few, suggests otherwise. His comprehensive work carefully examines initiative outcomes, opinion surveys and government policies over the last century. His robustly supported conclusion: the initiative process rather closely reflects the will of the public.
This puts him at odds both with frequent press lamentations about initiatives and the position of numerous prominent pundits (Washington Post columnist David Broder, author of Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money, is specifically cited). These critics of direct democracy argue the initiative process has been largely co-opted by narrow special interests.
Prof. Matsusaka, a faculty member at the University of Southern California's business and law schools, states that he did not write the book to build a case "for or against the initiative." Though he is president of the
Initiative and Referendum Institute—an organization dedicated to research and education about direct democracy—he is true to his mission: his research thoroughly examines opinion surveys, initiative outcomes and government spending patterns covering most of the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the last three decades. The scope and depth of his work is remarkable. For example, Matsusaka examines the tax and spending policies of all the states and some 4,700 cities, the extant body of relevant opinion polling, and initiative results to determine whether or not initiatives gave the majority of the public what it wanted.
The results are clear and compelling: Voters prefer lower taxes and less government spending. When given the opportunity to vote on initiatives reducing taxes and government spending the majority support these efforts.
With fine detail Matsusaka examines the history of the direct initiative in the political decision making process, an exercise that reinforces his core findings. In the last thirty years, there is a clear difference in the tax and spending policies of state and local jurisdictions where direct initiatives are used. Such jurisdictions have lower taxes and less profligate government spending patterns. These results reflect the alienation of the Progressive state from the voter and taxpayer.
While the direct initiative is more prevalent in the West, some Southern and Eastern states have it. Many local
governments also have a provision for the direct initiative. A useful appendix provides details about initiative provisions in the states that allow them, and another appendix examines the details pertinent to 20 large
American cities allowing direct initiatives, including New York, not generally considered a hotbed of fiscal conservatism.
Matsusaka is careful to dissect polling data and correlate it with initiative outcomes. His conclusion that the two are tightly correlated is solidly supported by the
empirical evidence. And it is here that he raises some interesting philosophical questions. It is clear from the data that direct initiatives give the voters what they want. The canard that voters are easily and cynically
manipulated by "wealthy special interests" is convincingly rejected.
Why then is the initiative so often employed to redirect the course of government fiscal policy these days? Matsusaka's answer is direct and succinct: "Without the initiative, voters are forced to accept the policy choices of the legislature. With the initiative, voters are given choices." When state legislatures and city councils do what their constituents actually want, the initiative process lays dormant. When they deviate from the public will, the initiative is more often employed, as it has been in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Prof. Matsusaka speculates about what causes these deviations from the popular will. One explanation is that elected officials make "honest mistakes." That is to say, the politicians think that they are doing what the public wants but misread popular will. A less benign view is that politicians may actually say one thing to voters but do another when in office. An even more disturbing possibility
is that (some) politicians know exactly what they are doing and, for whatever reasons, are actively thwarting the public will. In any case, the direct initiative is a potent corrective measure.
To contemporary critics who argue that clever and misleading advertisements can sway public opinion about an initiative Prof. Matsusaka counters that the public has many sources of information upon which to base a decision. Many doctrinaire environmentalists, for example, can confidently rely on the endorsement of such organizations as the Sierra Club to assist them in deciding how to
Prof. Matsusaka also reflects on the meaning of the direct initiative in the larger scheme of a republican government, and provides three useful frameworks for thinking about initiatives. He dubs them the delegation view, the information view, and the competitions view. The delegation view posits that the initiative gives voters a way to redirect their representatives. The information view holds that the initiative captures the diverse information sources of the broader citizenry which may escape elected officials (think of rising property taxes
and Proposition 13). The competition view sees initiatives as a way for non-politicians to compete against political insiders in proposing public policy.
Whatever direct democracy's place in republican government, For the Many or the Few clearly debunks the argument that the initiative process serves the (ignoble) interests of small numbers of manipulative and wealthy special interests. Based on Prof. Matsusaka's meticulous (but admittedly somewhat dry and clinical) work, a reasonable counter-argument could be made that the direct initiative is in fact the antidote to the sort of manipulation that political (and, not incidentally, media) insiders are wont to practice. They, especially, should read it.
Steven Frates is the President of the Center for Government Analysis and a Senior Fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. He has served on the California State Constitution Revision Commission and currently sits on the Governor's Performance Review Commission.