Collective guilt in California

They say democracy is a terrible system of government until you consider the alternative. But there’s got to be something that works better than democracy in California.

A new year brings another in a seemingly endless succession of financial crises. This year, the state has to find a way to fill a $20 billion deficit. Anywhere else you would consider raising taxes to pay for it. But you can’t raise taxes in California without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. That’s made political stasis status quo on anything that involves money.

Here’s how it goes. The Republicans are resigned to being the minority party in Sacramento. But that’s okay with them as long as they control at least a third of the Legislature and can stop any tax increase. The Democrats don’t have enough votes to raise revenue but, deep in their hearts, they’re probably okay with that too. If they could raise taxes with just a simple majority they would actually have to do it and piss people off and end up not being the majority party anymore.

And then there are the rest of us good citizens who dislike and distrust politicians so much we don’t want to let them do anything. This is why California voters continue to segregate funding, by proposition, for this or that project so there’s less money in the general fund for politicians to get their grubby hands on. Our distrust of elected officials means any effort to raise local taxes in California requires a local vote of the people.

I hope I don’t give the impression that politicians are good people who should be allowed to do whatever they want. Politicians have been known to be corrupt and incompetent. But I thought democracy was supposed to work well in spite of that. Good systems of government should transcend the imperfections of their leaders.  

Our system is messed up but it’s not the fault of politicians. It’s our fault. Let’s talk about collective guilt.

It’s a concept that’s been applied to the people of Nazi Germany. The German people, we think, bore responsibility for the evils of the Hitler regime even though the government was a dictatorship and very few Germans were directly involved with the killing of Jews. You have to prove personal responsibility to convict people for specific crimes. But the entire German nation bore collective responsibility because their coöperation was essential in order to operate the diabolical Nazi machine. Collective guilt is a weight that Germany carries even today, when the country is populated by people who had nothing to do with Nazism.   

So if the German people could be held responsible for Nazism, can Californians be blamed for our dysfunctional government? Of course we can! We not only live in a democracy we live in a direct democracy.

Since the whole thing is our fault, let me propose a possible solution. If voters are going to continue to make policy decisions, through direct democracy, let’s give them a choice and make them accountable. Don’t just propose a tax boost and put it on the ballot for a popular vote, up or down. Let voters choose either a tax increase or a package of budget cuts. They’d have to choose one or the other, and the proposal with the most votes would win and become policy. It would be just like choosing between two candidates.

The beauty of this is people will know what services they’re getting rid of, as they keep their taxes low, and they’ll be responsible for it. The system will need close regulation so the proposals are presented simply yet truthfully.

If you think this system will be even more disastrous than what we already have, you may be right. But it will force us to acknowledge that this state really does belong to us, and with freedom comes responsibility. Collective responsibility.

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One Comment on “Collective guilt in California”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    Of course the unfortunate idea of the “Propositions” came from somewhere, certainly before my wife and I entered the state ten years ago. My understanding is that a group of people hated paying property taxes and began taking over California’s legislative business by going to the people. For some reason the majority of us dislike paying taxes and opened the current “Pandora’s Box.” Of course we all love services but complain when we are charged for them. The result has been a low tax base causing failing public schools and the collapse of our infrastructure. Until we have an informed electorate who are willing to pay needed taxes we will continue this downward slide. Yes, Tom, it is our fault!

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