EARLY in this century, California political reformers adopted the initiative and the referendum, devices that weakened the power of elected officials and substituted more direct voter control of the government. These mechanisms have enabled citizens to circumvent reluctant legislators and to force changes that were difficult to achieve through conventional political means. A good example is the adoption, in 1978, of Proposition 13, an ex- pression of taxpayer revolt on the part of property owners.
But out there even ahead of the state of California is the city of Berkeley. There voters routinely consider matters that elsewhere would be handled by elected legislative bodies. In June, for example, the citizens of Berkeley adopted a commercial rent control program -- a fairly complicated matter -- and in November they will be asked to decide whether to prohibit doctors from using shock therapy in the treatment of mental illness. A coalition of former mental patients and some therapists in the city have obtained enough signatures to put the question on the ballot.
While shock therapy is used far less frequently today than it was a few decades ago, some psychiatrists, even those who never use the procedure, question whether this kind of medical judgment should be made by the voters at large. Until fairly recently, professional practice in this country was regulated essentially by the members of the professions themselves. Later, state regulatory agencies were given supervisory powers, but again, medical societies and bar associations usually worked cooperatively with state agencies. The professions generally have fought attempts by powerful and independent agencies such as the FTC to regulate their practice. It can be assumed that regulation by the voters at large, without the filter of elected lawmakers or specialized regulators, would be even more objectionable to the doctors.
It should be. The voters of Berkeley are innovative and articulate people with ready access to the opinions and ideas generated at their university. But surely even this well-educated electorate is not qualified to make medical judgments of the kind being sought on this ballot.