Everybody is for democracy - in principle. It's only in practicethat the thing gives rise to stiff objections. There stood Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the Harvard commencement last week, exalting the idea of freedom and deploring its predictable effects. From Dares Salaam, Tanzania , came the voice of Julius Nyerere, chivying Jimmy Carter for a failure to support "one-man, one-vote" democracy in parts of Africa - excluding, of course, Tanzania, where Nyerere is leader of a one-party state.
And here in Washington, as well as in Sacramento, two of the best-knownpopulists of our time - President Carter and Gov. Jerry Brown - were having to deal with an uprisig of the populist' theoretical best friends:the people Proposition 13, the California taxpayers' revenge, is full of morals and lessons for those who think democracy comes easy - or orderly or cheap or controllable or risk-proof or free.
The only thing everyone seemed able to agree on in the capital last week was that the voters of California, who passed by a 2-to-1 margin the initiative cutting property taxes by 60 per cent, were sending government a "message." It was, the consensus continued, a message sent also by those voters around the country who were balking at rising taxes and school and social service levies. And it was (to use the most common term) an expression of "frustration." But frustration with what - beyong the apparently endless need to pay ever more to government at one level or another? That's where the perplexity began.
Naturally, people have tried to find in the message confirmation of their own political and economic predilections. These include - from different quarters - the idea that the taxpayers are mindless yahoos; that they are fed up with and oppressed by tax gouging; that they are indicating they want fewer "big government" or "big spending" programsthat they are trying to recapture control of their own economic destiny that the message could most aptly be headlined: "California to LIberal Government:Drop Dead."
The trouble is that although some combination of the above may be valid, the message itself was limited - and its consequences may not be those intended. That the voters of California do not want to pay such freakishly high property taxes is clear. But whereas the voters said they did not want to pay for certain services out of local property taxes, they did not say they didn't want those services any longer - and trying to sort out the meaning of the message, as given, from its likely consequences, occupied much of official and interest-group Washington last week.
Do taxpayers want merely to pay less tax or do they want the big and blowzy programs of government cut back? The accountants and the budget makers observe, for instance, that Californians have now contrived to fatten the federal government's tax take by about $2 billion (people here are already arguing about what to do with the "windfall"), since federal income-tax deductions for local property taxes will now be sharply reduced. Others point out that Californians have put their localities more at the mercy of state and federal government than before, losing a large part of the local say-so that comes from local financing of public programs.
And in Washington, a quiet half-terrified, half-traumatized inspection of government programs was going forward with a view of figuring out just what the federal-state-local implications of the California vote were. There are a great many federal programs of some importance to Californians concerning jobs, transportation, housing and so forth that may legally have to be curtailed, or at least drastically scaled down, because they require matching funds from state and local government.
No one can say for sure how much of this potential fallout was intended, and how much was simply incidental to the voters' desire to say " Enough! " to property-tax increases. My guess is that it was largely incidental, that most people have not reached the complex conclusions implied by the vote, but rather were making a general statement about too-high taxes, badly run government and the infuriating sense that there was nothing to be done about either. For some of society's casualties and victims - those in need of special services and help - the impact could be hard and the price high. For Jimmy Carter, the problem is a lulu: maintaining his spiritual leadership of and kinship with the aggrieved middle class while resisting expressions of that aggrievedness that work hardships on the poor and disadvantaged.
That is the downside of the California vote, and in political-science, civics-book terms, there is another element in it to worry about - namely, the trend to extreme and excessive use of the initiative and referendum technique of governing. This is a paradoxical trend that has seen this most unconservative of techniques (popular, as distinct from representative, government) employed with huge success to further the aims and views of conservative politics.
I am enough of a temperamental right-winger myself to be very leery of this extensive use of the direct vote to decide issues of substance in government. And the substantive consequences of the California vote - the blunt-instrument approach to tax cutting - strike me as disturbing too. But I am bound to say that even for those of us who opposed the passage of Proposition 13 and similar measures around the country, there was something indisputably wholesome in it, some elements worth cheering.
These are precisely the elements that the critics of our social system find so hard to accommodate or account for - the messy, risky possibility that in a fit of orneriness and exasperaion the whole system will be upended and deranged from time to time. Yes I know I am being rather romantic about it. But I do not see how anyone could fail to appreciate the spirit in which an electorate could do the unthinkable and send its smug and hypocritical political leaders into a frenzy of confusion as to what to do next.
Washington, under Democrats and Republicans, has a profoundly neurotic attitude toward "the people." It is built on equal parts of suspicion, loathing, fear, respect and dependence. So after the California voting, the whole great, groaning apparatus of federal government was trying to figure out what to do next, trying to set aside its political panic and take the message and make the new dispensation work. But things will be different now. The voters have indicated that there are limits - and what the limits are. If that confounds Sacramento and Washington . . . too bad. If it puts some reasonable and orderly aspect of government at risk . . . too bad: Government had just better do something about it is the message. What a mess. It's what this particular democracy is all about. Solzhenitsyn take note.