Monday, February 23, 2009


The Wisdom of Prof. Kimber

Democracy works only if all participants agree on fundamentals. Thus spoke Professor H. H. Kimber in a history class I took as an undergraduate at Michigan State College. It's now Michigan State University, of course. When I was a student there seventy years ago, it was sometimes called Michigan State Cow College.

Cow college aside, recent events in the legislatures of the State of California and our nation have borne out his wisdom. We've seen representative government, also known as democracy, almost fail because of irreconcilable differences among the elected members. An important difference is a disagreement on the proper functions of government.

A "progressive liberal" view is that government should provide all the services people need but can not provide them by themselves. This view was once expressed by President Abraham Lincoln. Most people can no longer provide or pay for their own health care. City dwellers can not by themselves extinguish fires that threaten to destroy their homes. I can not by myself protect myself from food products that contain harmful ingredients and are not so labeled. Etc., etc., etc.

A "conservative" view is that government should provide very few services for the people. Government should confine itself to protecting and guaranteeing the ownership and use of property, such as land, money, books, music, and art. Government should not provide assistance to people who are out of work; otherwise, they will not be encouraged to seek employment. Government should not provide free medical care; people should live healthy life styles and avoid doing things that make them sick. Government should be as small as possible.

In the California legislature, a minority of 1/3 + 1 was able to prevent the passage of the State budget for more than seven months. The minority was opposed to increased State spending on schools, hospitals, help for the elderly, help for the unemployed, etc., etc., etc. The impasse was broken when one Republican senator agreed to vote for the budget if certain electoral reforms were adopted, particularly creating an open primary election.

In the federal legislature, a minority of 2/5 + 1 in the Senate is able to stop legislation opposed by a minority. The Senate is not apportioned according to population and so the minority can represent less than 1/5 of the total population of our country.

One remedy in California would be to change the 2/3 voting requirement for budgets and taxes to a simple majority, like most States. Some of us advocate that change. Our Governor has a different idea. Rather than repeal the 2/3 requirement he wants to reform the two parties by arranging the boundaries of electoral districts and by changing the rules in primary elections to make it easier for "centrist" candidates of the two major parties to be elected to the legislature. Get rid of the stubborn die-hards and it will be easier to achieve the 2/3 majority for budgets and taxes.

The reform to change the way electoral districts are laid out has been enacted and will be used after the 2010 census to reapportion districts for the State Assembly and State Senate. The reform to change to an open primary will be submitted to the voters in 2010. The legislature will not approve a constitutional amendment to eliminate the 2/3 vote requirement because any proposed amendment to the State constitution must have a 2/3 vote in each house of the legislature. That proposal can be put to a vote only by a signature-gathering campaign for an initiative.

We will see how these changes work out, or whether they are adopted. I wonder if I will live long enough to see the results.

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