While visiting Southern California last week, I made a quick trip to a grocery store. Two men approached me outside the door.
"Would you like to sign a petition to protest the high price of gasoline?" one of them asked.
It wasn't an unreasonable question. While folks in Utah have been complaining about prices rising to about $2.50 at pumps, I never found a single gas station in California that was less than $3 a gallon. Most were significantly higher.
And so my questioner's voice was tinged with passion. His body language had a populist swagger that indicated he didn't expect a lot of resistance. He certainly didn't expect the question I threw at him.
"What are you proposing?"
"We want the politicians to hear us." he said.
"And when they hear you, what will you say? Do you propose price controls? Do you support a windfall tax? Are you hoping to persuade Congress to invest more in the development of alternative fuels? Just what is it you would like me to put my name to?"
Clearly, I was beginning to get in the way of what was planned as an easy harvest of signatures. My questioner most likely was being paid for each name he gathered. The cause was of secondary importance. He turned quickly into brush-off mode.
"This is going all the way to Washington," he boasted. "We're sick of the high prices."
With that, I got out of his way, never bothering to tell him I'm not a California resident, anyway. But I felt like thanking him for a prime example of the dangers of popular initiatives and referenda.
Before leaving on this trip, I wrote a column about this, saying that if governments are to allow the public to write laws or overturn acts of the Legislature, they should make it difficult to do so. Some of you reacted strongly to that idea, saying you were tired of arrogant state lawmakers with the attitude that they know better than the public.
I bristle at that attitude, too. And yet the public seldom shows evidence that its collective wisdom is much better. Nor does it show much interest in being consistent. Recent opinion polls in this newspaper have shown widespread disgust with this year's Legislature over decisions to fund a soccer stadium and to start a voucher program for private schools. A separate opinion poll, however, found a widespread feeling of approval for the overall performance of the Legislature and the governor (in the governor's case, the approval was 77 percent). So much for indignation and anger.
Still, two petition drives are in full swing. One would overturn one of the voucher laws. The other would overturn the stadium funding decision. Both have until a week from tomorrow to gather about 100,000 signatures spread out over 15 counties an enormous task. Which is as it should be.
In the Federalist paper No. 49, James Madison considered the relative merits of allowing direct appeals to the people when government is perceived to have stepped out of line. He concluded that the dangers outweigh the benefits, because, as he put it, "The passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government."
Just before leaving Southern California, I stopped at a gas station. A man on the other side of the pump was quick to start up a conversation by saying, "Can you believe these prices?" The politicians, he argued, need to be held accountable.
Passion, indeed. But reason? I didn't hear a lot of that in the Golden State, just as I didn't hear a lot of it last fall when Utahns were upset enough about gas prices they prompted the governor's office to launch an investigation.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]