The latest flash from California announces that popular mistrust of public officials gives license to middle-class greed. How to stop the rising wave of self-indulgence presents a genuine national problem.
For the minority groups who suffer most are no barrier. And neither are those politicians - notably President Carter and Gov. Jerry Brown - who affect to be in touch with the new populism.
The medium for the California message was Proposition 13, which the voters approved in the state primary last Tuesday by a 2-to-1 margin. The measure cuts property taxes by over 50 percent, and makes the imposition of new taxes extremely difficult.
Many public services are bound to suffer. The Los Angeles school system, for example, currently derives 70 percent of its revenue from the property tax.
A couple of special circumstances seem to legitimize voting for the proposition. Property taxes in California have recently risen steeply. A surplus of between $2 billion and $4 billion and accumulated in the state treasury. Everybody agreed that at least some of the money should be used to ease the tax burden. But Brown's administration didn't get around to doing anything, so the voters had cause to "deliver a message."
Behind that legitimate cause, however, there lurks a cloven hoof - self-indulgence by the relatively comfortable majority at the expense of the poorer minorities. The Los Angeles Times and CBC, in that connection, published a highly revealing poll that identified the reasons moving people who voted for Proposition 13. One of the questions asked was what services voters felt could most usefully be curtailed.
A huge number (69 percent) cited welfare payments to the poor. A fairly large number (21 percent) named a service chiefly beneficial to the black and Chicano minorities - mass transit.
But when it came to services useful to the middle class, the willingness to make sacrifice disappeared. Only 1 percent thought cuts should come in the fire departments. Only 4 percent were prepared to see reductions in the amount spent for the police.
Most striking of all was the 70 percent of those questioned who did not believe any cuts in service would be required. That view flew in the face of common sense and the repeated assertions of virtually all experts and state officials. It can only mean that the relatively comfortable majority feels so little confidence in the authorities that the mistrust itself serves as an excuse for dumping on the poorer minorities.
Since California has historically been the front end of the country, the place of origin for most social and political movements, everybody has been proclaiming a tax revolt across the land. Harbingers are found in the defeat of school-bond issues in Ohio and of Clifford Case, the venerable senator, by a little-known tax-cut enthusiast in the New Jersey Republican primary.
My own impression is that the public is slightly more discriminating. While there is deep resentment of property taxes, the federal income tax does rather better. Indeed, voters are now telling the Congress that it is far more important to balance the budget than to cut taxes.
But what is in danger of spreading with truly harmful results is the reinforcement of popular self-indulgence by growing lack of faith in authority. A critical case in point is the energy crisis.
The majority of the American people apparently believe there is no such thing. That belief is posited squarely on mistrust of the experts and authorities who constantly claim a crunch is bound to come. So instead of pressing senators and representatives to prepare for the crunch, the voters go out on a driving spree.
The immediate victims of this populist hedonism, unfortunately, are the poor minorities. They are in bad position to fight back, for they have already overplayed their hand in demands for jobs, housing, education, transit and so on. Indeed, reaction to these demands contributes importantly to the self-important mood of the majority.
Neither does the election of candidates thrown up by the new populism achieve anything. In running for office, the Jimmy Carters and Jerry Browns knock government spending and bloated bureaucracy. But once in power, they become captive to minority demands and unable to redesign government in ways meaningful to the majority. They reap the whirlwind they have sown, and end up less credible than their predecessors.
Perhaps the only hope is that the middle-class hedonists - swollen by television attention and newspaper headlines - will also overplay their hand. If so, they would go the same way, and for the same reason, as the groups claiming minority rights. But that, alas, is far in the future.