The higher-taxes crowd is misrepresenting America’s founders

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, March 27, 2006

The Silver State nowadays is hearing a lot of what America’s founding generation called bletherskate.

Though dictionaries today spell it blatherskite, the meaning remains the same as in the late 18th century: nonsense.

Dusting off the older spelling seems appropriate, however, because the rubbish being proclaimed concerns America’s founding generation itself.

More specifically, it involves the Founders’ views on republics and democracies, and the nature of American government they meant to leave behind.

As usual, it’s the Nevada political establishment’s fear of the TASC taxpayer-protection initiative fueling all the nonsense. In the search for some way to infect voters with the establishment’s fright, the initiative is being depicted as subversive and un-American. This smear, however, requires significant misrepresentation of American constitutional history.

That said, it does not appear that the Silver State politicians and scribblers conducting this assault actually recognize the falsity of what they’re saying. To grasp that, they’d have to know a good deal more about America’s founding generation than they—as we’ll see—actually do.

But what, precisely, is the electrode making them sit up so straight? It’s the prospect that voters, in passing TASC, would gain the constitutional authority to veto the new higher taxes on them the establishment wants. Thus all the doomsday rhetoric.

An example is the accusation made by Assemblyman David Parks at a Nevada Motor Transport Association debate with TASC proponents in December. Parks, a 27-year employee of Southern Nevada local governments, asserted that Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (a precursor to TASC in allowing voters to reject higher taxes) “subverts our representative form of government.”

Three days later, Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston proclaimed the Nevada measure “undermines the very tenets of a republic” and “contravenes the underlying principle of the U.S. Constitution.” The following day he exclaimed that the Nevada Tax and Spending Control amendment “surely would cause an epidemic that would eviscerate any notion of representative government.”

In January, Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Geoff Schumacher chimed in, opining that the Nevada proposal “violates the spirit of American governance.”

“We are a republic,” he declared, “which means we elect representatives to make governmental decisions on our behalf. If we don't like what our representatives are doing, we elect new ones. We don't try to do their jobs for them.”

And so it goes. Partisans for Nevada’s existing special-interest-dominated political system insist that voters must stay in their place, deciding nothing of substance other than which politicians get to sell them down the river.

It’s a line of argument that relies for its justification on a simplistic and erroneous view of what the Framers believed. To the contrary, however, the Framers did not see republics and democracy as mutually exclusive categories.

True, the Founders were emphatic about the dangers of unrestrained democracy. But the view that republics could have no institutions within them of direct democracy is something they would have dismissed as absurd.

Today our contemporary educational order has left most of us stripped of the classical context that America’s founders brought to their constitutional discussions. The Framers’ generation, however, had been educated to know Greek and Roman history and philosophy. Thus when James Madison, in Federalist 63, discusses the topic of republics, he goes into the histories of Sparta, Carthage, Rome, Athens and Crete. And he points out that all of them had both representative and directly democratic institutions—implicitly acknowledging that a role for the latter does not bring their status as republics into question. Similarly, in Federalist 34, Alexander Hamilton mentions two of the assemblies of the Roman Republic, the Comitia Centuriata and the Comitia Tributa—in both of which the Roman people voted directly on laws, judicial decisions, and other matters. Thus Hamilton, too, understood that republics could include important institutions of direct democracy.

What the Framers wanted was to implement Aristotle’s idea of “mixed” government—combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in a state to assure its stability. It was a notion they had absorbed not just from Aristotle but also Roman sources like Polybius and Cicero. We see the result today in the U.S. Constitution’s tripartite division of the federal state into executive, judicial and legislative branches.

That same notion—that the people can have a direct voice in a republic’s decisions—lives on today in many ways, including the New England town meeting and the requirement, here in Nevada, that general obligation bonds must always go before the voters.

Pleaders for Nevada’s tax-and-spenders really need a new argument.

Steven Miller is editor of BusinessNevada and policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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