Since 1789 important reforms seeking better government have been made in the United States. Many changes have indeed been improvements. But sometimes reforms haven't worked, or even made things worse.
We are told that fools learn from experience, whereas wise people learn from other people's experience. But we are worse than fools if we don't even learn from our own experience. When a reform, implemented with good intentions, turns out to have been a bad idea, many won't admit that they were wrong. They will denounce proposals to undo the change as "reactionary" and "on the wrong side of history." (But who knows what direction "history" is moving?)
Willingness to reverse changes that don't work will actually make it easier to enact a reform, since it allows reformers to promise that if it turns out badly it can be repealed.
A major example of a failed reform was the 18th Amendment (1919) prohibiting "intoxicating liquors." Proponents argued that alcoholic beverages were medically and socially harmful and that banning them would greatly improve American life. They brandished ample evidence of harms caused by consumption of alcohol, but didn't anticipate the dreadful side effects Prohibition would cause.
Demand for alcohol went underground, creating profitable opportunities for organized crime and setting off turf wars among bootleggers. The murder rate zoomed. Police were bribed to leave bootleggers alone. It proved impossible to enforce legislation that was opposed by substantial numbers of people.
Less than 15 years later the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. People were in such a hurry that special ratifying conventions were called rather than waiting for state legislatures to meet.
The lessons of the Prohibition experiment were soon forgotten. We have just begun to take small steps towards ending the equally disastrous "war on drugs" by legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Other failed reforms haven't produced such obviously bad consequences, which makes reversing them even more difficult than ending the war on drugs.
Three reforms — the initiative, the referendum, and recal — enacted by many states at the beginning of the 20th century, tried to make government more democratic. Recall allowed voters to oust bad state officials before their term ended, but have been rarely used. The referendum suspended some enactments by state legislatures until they could be confirmed by a popular vote, and has also not produced particularly bad results.
However the initiative, whereby citizen groups place proposed legislation on the ballot and it becomes law if voters approve it, has not worked as hoped and should be repealed.
Legislation enacted by initiative tends to be drafted by special interests — people who don't consider the problems their legislation will cause for other equally important interests. They don't worry about whether the legislation will undermine other important public policies. Such bills tend to be written without the due process of legislation usually observed by legislatures — public hearings, expert witnesses, open debate, consideration of amendments, compromises.
State legislatures are more likely to enact reasonable compromises between inherently conflicting public goals.
As long as states do not get rid of the initiative, citizens should always vote against them unless the case in favor is overwhelming.
Bad reforms can result from good intentions. But actual results are more important than intent, as historian Thomas Babington Macaulay well understood.
Macaulay had gone to see a riot in London. He was hit squarely in the head with a dead cat. The perpetrator apologized, saying he had intended for the cat to hit a Mr. Adeane. Macaulay replied that he would rather it had been intended for him and hit Mr. Adeane.
Let us not forget what the proverbial road to hell is paved with.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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