Spending Limits Protect Against Factions

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published June 10 by Grand Junction Free Press.

“Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.” It’s mob rule; fifty-one percent of the population voting to enslave the rest. “Democracy is a form of government in which you can vote for a living instead of working for one,” adds Lawrence Reed.

America’s Founders feared the inherent pitfalls of direct democracy, which is why they established a constitutional republic. The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights (in its text, if usually not in its modern interpretation) tightly controls and limits the powers of the federal government.

The Constitution establishes a purely representative government at the federal level. We vote on elected officials, and (as outlined in Article V) congress or state legislatures must initiate constitutional amendments. Moreover, Article IV, Section 4 states, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government.” So, for instance, Colorado could not impose a hereditary line of state kings.

Does the federal guarantee of republican government render state-level popular votes void? Specifically, does it clash with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), passed by voters in 1992? That’s the claim of a lawsuitfiled in district court and signed mostly by elected officials. The suit hopes to overthrow TABOR and allow state and local governments to tax and spend more without voter approval.

The suit favorably quotes James Madison, who argued against pure democracy in the tenth Federalist paper. However, in an article for theColorado Springs Gazette, legal scholar Rob Natelson notes that republican governments easily accommodate some direct participation by the people.

Natelson explains, “What Madison actually was saying was that a type of mob rule identified by Aristotle (and called, in English translation, ‘pure democracy’) was not republican. Madison clearly thought a republic could feature direct citizen lawmaking, since in Federalist No. 63 he referred to ancient Athens, Sparta, and Carthage as ‘republics.'”

In other words, TABOR, as part of Colorado’s constitution, remains fully compatible with the U.S. Constitution. The politically motivated lawsuit presents a sham.

Moreover, TABOR actually helps protect against the sort of factionalism that Madison warned against. The lawsuit quotes Madison, “It may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

The lawsuit conveniently omits Madison’s next line: “On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.”

This describes precisely the state of the modern Colorado legislature. “Factious tempers,” “local prejudices,” and “sinister designs” often rule the day at the state capitol.

For example, the legislature continues to finance corporate welfare, despite the explicit prohibition against doing so in the state constitution. And the legislature continues to impose protectionist legislation, as with the beer laws, rewarding interest groups at the expense of consumers and entrepreneurs. Most modern legislative functions involve forcibly seizing money from those who earn it to give it to those who do not.

Thus, the state legislature epitomizes the evils of faction. While Madison clearly saw the dangers of mob rule, he also warned against the comparable threat of an unrestrained legislature.

The essential characteristic of republican government becomes, then, its constitutional form, which limits the powers of government and protects the rights of the individual from abuse by factions, whether democratic or legislative. A legislature unbound by constitutional rule becomes the rapacious tool of special-interest factions.

The individual rightly claims among his essential rights his ability to work for a living, in voluntary association with others, and to dispose of the fruits of his labor by his own judgment. This is the fundamental human right most often threatened and abused by legislators, many of whom essentially institute legalized theft in exchange for political bribes.

TABOR helps to mitigate precisely this danger. Far from undermining a republican form of government, TABOR augments the constitutional protections of the individual and limits the threat of unruly factions. In requiring voter approval for new taxes, TABOR does not impose mob rule; it checks legislative abuses by the approval of the people. TABOR does not free the majority to abuse the rights of the minority; it allows the voters to stop the legislature from abusing people’s rights.

We can argue about whether Colorado voters too easily amend the state constitution. We can debate whether proposed constitutional changes should first meet a test of conformity to federal and state bills of rights. But as to the status of TABOR, far from undermining our republican form of government, clearly TABOR helps to protect it.