Four years after winning independence from Britain, 55 delegates from the new American states completed the awesome task of drafting a new constitution. On September 18, 1787, one Mrs. Powel asked delegate Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Dr. Franklin’s reply was both a warning and a commission to us, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
So, we’re supposed to have a “republic,” but what, exactly, does that mean? We better find out if we are to live up to Franklin’s charge to “keep it.”
A REPUBLIC IS NOT…
In Federalist 39 James Madison wrote of Venice, where government consists of “a small body of hereditary nobles” and Poland, “which is a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy in their worst forms” and England, “which has one republican branch only, combined with a hereditary aristocracy and monarchy.” All of these countries claimed to be republics.
Madison’s point was that these weren’t true republics and were, in fact, the antithesis of the system of government defined by the new Constitution. The American concept of a republic could not include a ruling class or power concentrated in too few hands. Neither could it include favored treatment for some at the expense of the great body of people. After all, the colonists had just thrown off the bonds of over 150 years of European mercantilism in which government controlled, regulated, subsidized, and penalized commerce and production for the benefit of the King’s favorites.
In contrast to concentrated power in “a favored class” or “a handful of tyrannical nobles,” Madison explained that the American republic was “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure (of the people), for a limited period, or during good behavior.”
A REPUBLIC IS…
Some think that the definitive characteristic of a republic is its system of representatives, but representatives aren’t the main point. The definitive characteristic of an American republic is the recognition that the origin of all political power is from what Madison called “the great body of the people.”
Article I § 1 of the Missouri Constitution reflects this principle:
That all political power is vested in and derived from the people; that all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.
The first three words of the US Constitution make the same bold statement: “We the people…”
So, the American republic is a government “by the people, of the people and for the people” with a structure and procedures designed to keep it that way. That means the power “we the people” conveyed to government is to be distributed, not concentrated. And natural tension must exist between those distributed powers, with “checks” one upon another. The last thing we want is to allow a ruling class to establish the sort of foothold that only violent revolution can shake free.
TOOLS FOR MAINTAINING A REPUBLIC…
Stronger, more worthy men than ourselves paved the way for the liberties modern Americans are squandering. They made provisions for protecting the tools future generations would need to nurture and protect the republic they planted.
The “tools” include things like, free speech, a free press, fair elections, recall and impeachment, nullification and private ownership of guns. These things either expose or depose concentrated power.
The wisdom of term limits also comes to mind and another critical tool – one that may become more and more important as our leaders continue to lose sight of what a republic truly is – is the citizen’s initiative and referendum petition (I&R).
When government insiders accumulate even more power by socialistic appeals to an entitlement class or when they employ mercantilism with its corporate welfare and other special favors to the “connected,” when the people’s “representatives” no longer represent “we the people” and are oppressive or unresponsive to their wishes, then Madison’s “great body of people” must have recourse!
ELECTIONS ARE NOT ENOUGH…
One might reason that elections of our representatives are that recourse – after all we can always “throw the bums out.” But do elections alone keep a republic a real republic? Don’t forget what USSR stood for. It was “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” They had “elections,” too.
As important as elections are, alone they can’t be counted on to protect the people’s liberty. The rest of liberty’s tool chest is also needed. If you’re prone to overestimate the efficacy of elections just consider how often you have the option to even vote for a candidate who really reflects your values, let alone one who really stands a chance of winning an election. If you’re fortunate enough to find one, that’s still not enough, because he will need 50% of everyone else’s representatives to vote with him to get anything done.
The fact is, usually the best we can ever hope for are representatives who approximate our values. The great political theorist Gaetano Mosca explained our dilemma this way:
If his vote were to have any efficacy at all, therefore, each voter is forced to limit his choice to a very narrow field, in other words, to a choice among the two or three persons who have some chance of succeeding; and the only ones who have any chance of succeeding are those whose candidacies are championed by groups, by committees, by organized minorities. [The Ruling Class, pp. 50.]
Mosca brings to light another stark reality; established political machines have a tremendous advantage. This is particularly true when they can use the public till to buy influence through socialistic or mercantilistic practices. Entitlement programs on one hand and things like tax credits , redevelopment subsidies and regulations biased toward the state’s “favorites” on the other hand further entrench those already in power. The “organized minority” in power enjoy some pretty significant advantages over the disorganized masses of “we the people.”
INITIATIVE AND REFERENDA, THE TOOL OF “WE THE PEOPLE”…
Sometimes there are important issues which are supported by vast majorities of the people but not their elected representatives. Term limits is one example, for obvious reasons. (Only one state legislature has ever imposed term limits on itself and those limits are weaker than those imposed through initiative and referenda.)
Outlawing private use eminent domain is another example. For a variety of reasons most legislators are unwilling to support the sort of property rights protection 90% of the people want. Sometimes partisan bickering leaves the people out in the cold.
“Throwing the bums out” over this one issue is not always a viable option, since you are liable to end up with someone worse or someone who will hurt your position on other issues.
That’s when “the people” need to affect public policy with surgical precision. That’s when they need to have the option of fixing one problem without creating a host of other problems when they trade one bum for a worse bum.
When there’s an issue the vast majority of people support and their representatives won’t step up to the plate, the citizen’s initiative and referendum (I&R) petition is liberty’s tool of choice.
I&R MUST BE INDEPENDENT OF THE INFLUENCE OF TYRANNICAL NOBLES…
In 1908 the people of Missouri recognized the importance of keeping the I&R tool as independent of the ruling class as possible. That’s when they adopted the current Article III, § 49:
The people reserve power to propose and enact or reject laws and amendments to the constitution by the initiative, independent of the general assembly, and also reserve power to approve or reject by referendum any act of the general assembly, except as hereinafter provided.
In an effort to preserve the principles of a republic, Missourians wanted the ability to affect public policy “independent of the general assembly,” but it stands to reason that the same logic would apply to other centers of political power, like the Secretary of State, State Auditor and the Courts.
All of these entities have a great deal of influence on the I&R process. All of them can be used or abused, depending on with how much favor they look upon a given issue. All of them can also be unfairly manipulated by outside partisan interests. If I&R is to be a tool to help keep power in the hands of the people, steps must be taken to keep I&R as independent as possible from these powers as well as the general assembly.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED IN MISSOURI’S I&R LAWS…
The very thing that is supposed to help to keep political power “vested” in the people has become a rich man’s game to the exclusion of the people.
There’s nothing wrong with well endowed interests having access to the petition process, after all the people themselves always get the final say at the ballot box. The real crime is excluding average citizens from also using I&R to give their neighbors a chance to vote on an issue.
Laws which allow special interests to litigate a ballot title to death and rules that can be applied arbitrarily and capriciously increase the complexity and the cost to the extent that I&R is out of the reach of “we the people.” Average citizens shouldn’t have to hire expensive petition management companies to navigate through a quagmire of rules just waiting to trip them up.
Here are some common sense changes for Missouri statutes:
- Limit the amount of time ballot titles can be litigated to 3 ½ months.
- Do not allow a registered voter who signs a petition be disenfranchised due to someone else’s mistake.
- Eliminate ambiguities in the petition process.
- Make it illegal to prevent or intimidate someone from signing a petition.
- Make it illegal for petition circulators to “bait and switch” petitions.
- Allow petition proponents some latitude on petition sheet layout for clerical purposes.
For Missouri to maintain the character of a true republic, she is well advised to protect the people’s second to last line of defense against tyrannical rule.
The people’s right to petition should be protected from those who wish to eliminate it and from those who seek to abuse it. The people should demand that protection from their elected representatives.
Ron Calzone is the chairman of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights. He also owns and operates a working cattle and horse ranch in Maries County. He lives in Dixon, Missouri with his wife and children.
Article originally carried on The Missouri Record.