19 August 2011

Pardon the dust, centralization in progress

A couple of weeks ago, California became the 8th state, joined by the District of Columbia, to pass a law that will give all of its electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide, popular vote. In order for this law to take effect, however, a number of states whose combined electoral votes total 270 (enough to win in the electoral college) must all pass similar legislation. If that happens, then the electoral college, while (likely) still in place, would be rendered moot.

Disturbingly, this change seems to have broad appeal and public support. According to Gallup surveys in 2001 and in 2004, about 60% of the population supports electing the president by popular vote. Editorial writings seem to hold an especially dim view of the federal government's presidential election process, stating that "[i]n a country that purports to be the world's greatest democracy, the Electoral College is an undemocratic embarrassment." Politico says that the bill signed by (California's) governor Jerry Brown is "designed to fix our broken presidential election system." And according to nationalpopularvote.com, 2,110 state legislators have endorsed the change.

I say disturbingly because this represents a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the design and history of the federal government. There is evidence for this in Ali Velshi's comments on Jon Stewart's show from earlier this week (starting at about 4:50, specifically 5:18) in which he complains that members of congress are representing their constituents instead of the "entire country":

In his comments, he explicitly states that he believes that there is some solution to our problem(s) that benefits everyone. For someone who reports on business and markets, this is a surprising position. It has a very "central planning" ring to it. That is, if we would all just trust the government, they'll do what's best for us because they know best. But a discussion of (the evils of) central planning is for another article. More to my current point, who should representatives represent if not their constituents -- the very people who elected them? Representatives are not sent to congress to do what's best for the country. They're sent to represent the interests of their constituents -- apparently much to the chagrin of Mr. Velshi -- and in doing so, the ideas that move forward are the ones shared by a majority of the people. (Don't get me wrong; I'm no fan of democracy or what has become of our republic.)

This misunderstanding extends beyond the punditocracy, though. I found this comment (repeated in a blog by an author who took issue with it for a different reason):
...no federal protections for us is just a wee bit troublesome too; we're either one country or fifty different ones. You can't have one State treating minorities as equals while another treats them like dirt.
The fact is that the United States are (or were intended to be) fifty different countries. Because these countries are small and share a common geography, they decided to form a federal government that would allow them to act together for mutual benefit in areas like defense and economics. This federal government was never intended to regulate individuals so much is its function was to govern the states. The states would in turn govern their individual populations. (I've written previously about the sovereignty of the states.)

If the federal government were kept small and limited to its original intent, then
dysfuctional state policies are constrained by the possibility of "voting with your feet." If a state imposes overly high taxes, adopts flawed regulations, or provides poor public services, people and businesses will tend to migrate elsewhere, thereby incentivizing the state government to clean up its act in order to preserve its tax base.
Instead, as the federal government grows and the states weaken, this ability to vote with one's feet will be no more. If you think that the taxes, regulations, or public services of a particular state are bad, wait until they are uniform nationwide. Make no mistake, giving the presidential election to the winner of the popular vote has nothing to do with furthering democracy or preventing what happened to Al Gore in 2000 (something that has happened only 3 other times in the 200+ year history of the U.S. federal government). It's ultimate effect will be to push state power and sovereignty further and further into obscurity until all political power is fully centralized at the federal level.

* * *

I didn't have the space to delve more deeply into the evils of central planning or other problems with the proposal to elect the president by popular vote. Some of those are addressed in an editorial by the Las Vegas Review-Journal. In that editorial, I found a reference to a doctrine often (incorrectly, it would seem) attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler. It reads:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.
It sounded very apropos and also reminded me of this quote, attributed to George Washington:
The last official act of any government is to loot the treasury.
* * *

Wikipedia also summarizes some of the theory behind indirect election of the president.

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