Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 84.djvu/381

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377
THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY

referendum with favor. By disentangling issues from one another, by freeing them from the dominion of party and from coalitions of logrolling politicians, he thought the referendum might "prove the most powerful bulwark against violent and dishonest change." He even went so far as to say "that its tendencies might be towards extreme Conservatism."[1] One of the leaders of the Labor Party in England, Mr. J. Ramsay Macdonald, thinks the referendum will enable reactionaries to single out certain measures for defeat and to interfere with a consistent policy of reform.[2]

Judging from the amount and the character of the opposition which the referendum at present excites in the United States, one might suppose that it is nothing less than revolutionary in principle. Yet it involves nothing with which the country has not long been familiar. It squares with the traditional American theory that sovereignty resides in the people. In calling constitutional conventions and in adopting new constitutions it has long been employed in most of the states. It is the usual method of amending our organic law. In the decade ending with 1908, 472 constitutional questions, nearly all amendments, were submitted to the people of the several states.[3] The movement now well under way merely extends the use of the referendum to legislative acts. I can see no objection to such an extension that does not apply with as much force to the right of the people to determine their organic law. The latter is the more fundamental and logically includes the former. If the right of the people to pass upon legislative questions is dangerous to liberty and property, the right to pass upon constitutional questions is still more dangerous, unless surrounded by more careful safeguards. It is evident that the electorate en masse of a large population can not formulate the details of either their statutes or their constitutions. But if they are incapable of passing upon the public policy embodied in the former, neither are they capable of passing upon the general principles embodied in the latter. "The fact is," says Professor Burgess, "that the political science of the modern world is still engaged in the task of working out the distinctions between sovereignty and government, and that political practise is in the transition period between the sovereignty of the government and the sovereignty of the people behind the government."[4] Much of the opposition to the referendum can only be understood in the light of this remark.

The argument that the referendum will lower the character of our legislative bodies is of doubtful validity. This has not been the effect

  1. Op. cit., pp. 22-34 and 276-294.
  2. A. Lawrence Lowell, op. cit., p. 158.
  3. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, op. cit., p. 477, quotes W. F. Dodd's work on "Revision and Amendment of State Constitutions" to this effect.
  4. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 13, 1898, p. 203.