Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A "no" vote to referenda for land use laws ...

  Is democracy always good?  I say "no."  The California Central Valley city of Davis, famous for its progressive policies, has adopted a municipal code that requires a public referendum for any proposed change in land use currently mapped for agricultural or non-urban use.   This will no doubt slow new developments in the city.  But democratic votes aren't the best way to make most decisions of government.  Doesn't a public vote avoid the problem of special-interest influence on elected representatives?  Perhaps, but it holds more drawbacks.  First, if the question involves pitting a public benefit versus an arguable individual "right" (no matter how small), the "right" side is bound to get short shrift from the public.  NIMBY rises, and the public's respect for a right dissolves, when voters are able to hide behind the secret ballot.  Imagine if your right to paint your house pink or to put up a controversial political sign were subject to a vote of your neighbors?  Moreover, with democratic decisions, there is no way to police the outcome -- a vote can be motivated by bases such as race, religion (imagine a vote on the siting of an Islamic center), or other unfair grounds.  Referenda also are also hampered in many cases by the public's lack of knowledge of the issue, which then results in a disproportionate number of ballots marked by the those with a personal "interest" in the issue.    
   Yes, representative decisionmaking is imperfect, in that it is subject to undue influence by the powerful and the connected.  But it is, for most questions, including land use issues, a better system than direct democracy. 


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