Is California Really Unique in Being “Ungovernable”?

Sunni's picture

That’s the claim of a recent Economist article, titled The Ungovernable State. While I agree with the author(s) somewhat (not knowing the details of California’s constitution nor governance systems, I’m trusting that the information in the article is at least nominally accurate), at a fundamental level California is not alone.

A summary of the situation, from the article:

California has a unique combination of features which, individually, are shared by other states but collectively cause dysfunction. These begin with the requirement that any budget pass both houses of the legislature with a two-thirds majority. Two other states, Rhode Island and Arkansas, have such a law. But California, where taxation and budgets are determined separately, also requires two-thirds majorities for any tax increase. Twelve other states demand this. Only California, however, has both requirements.

If its representative democracy functioned well, that might not be so debilitating. But it does not. Only a minority of Californians bother to vote, and those voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population, says Steven Hill at the New America Foundation, a think-tank that is analysing the options for reform.

Those voters, moreover, have over time “self-sorted” themselves into highly partisan districts ... . Politicians have done the rest by gerrymandering bizarre boundaries around their supporters. The result is that elections are won during the Republican or Democratic primaries, rather than in run-offs between the two parties. This makes for a state legislature full of mad-eyed extremists in a state that otherwise has surprising numbers of reasonable citizens.

And that is why sensible and timely budgets have become almost impossible, says Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, an association of corporate bosses. ....

Representative democracy is only one half of California’s peculiar governance system. The other half, direct democracy, fails just as badly. California is one of 24 states that allow referendums, recalls and voter initiatives. But it is the only state that does not allow its legislature to override successful initiatives (called “propositions”) and has no sunset clauses that let them expire. It also uses initiatives far more, and more irresponsibly, than any other state. ....

The broken budget mechanism and the twin failures in California’s representative and direct democracy are enough to guarantee dysfunction. The sheer complexity of the state exacerbates it. Peter Schrag, the author of “California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment”, has counted about 7,000 overlapping jurisdictions, from counties and cities to school and water districts, fire and park commissions, utility and mosquito-abatement boards, many with their own elected officials. The surprise is that anything works at all.

As a result, there is now a consensus among the political elite that California’s governance is “fundamentally broken” and that the state is “ungovernable, unless we make tough choices”, as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and a likely candidate for governor next year, puts it.

It seems to me that what California exemplifies is the underlying problem of any type of coercive governing structure: problems inevitably arise, and are then compounded by adding layer upon layer of “solutions”, each of which of course adds its own problems. Representative government is a failure largely because the representation quickly falls by the wayside—at least for those who aren’t among the powerful and/or wealthy. Direct democracy fails because it becomes mob rule, pitting otherwise peaceable individuals against one another. And that’s where the fnord lies in these kinds of messes—thinking that the structure is fine; we just haven’t found the “right leaders” or a perfect balance or some other idealistic nonsense.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s a permanent, realistic solution to the problem. Smaller communities formed on voluntaryistic principles are probably more workable, but the problem re-emerges when those communities begin working together, it seems. Who then handles the logistics, and the problems that arise? Re-enter higher-order government, and the problems start compounding.

Separating economics and governance is an attractive idea, but it strikes me as utopian and hence unworkable—unless humankind can shed some deep-seated aspects of its way of being and become “better”. What form that “better” might take is beyond my imagining at present.

It seems to me the best we can do is remove coercive government systems, stay small in size and scope, mind our own business in forming voluntary communities. And then, do our best to make sure our offspring understand history thoroughly, so that when they’re tempted to improve things they know—at least in theory—what the outcome is likely to be.


Hello, Sunni and friends, this is my first time posting and, I hope, far from my last.

Having lived in California for 3 years back in the '70s, and having quite a few friends and relatives who live there now, I have an affinity for the area and its people, and have been saddened to watch the steady advance of Leviathan in the years since I left. California once was almost a libertarian paradise, in terms of economic freedom and opportunity, and personal freedom was not far behind, at least in those years between the wars. I experienced the best period of freedom of my life when I lived in the community of Silverado Canyon, in Orange County, with the nearest cop a good 25 miles away, and the residents about equally divided into freedom-loving hippies and conservative, government-fearing hillbillies. The former grew pot openly in their back yards, and often shared it with the latter. It was a time of blossoming peace, with the Vietnam war winding down and the draft abolished; and with the Watergate scandal overturning the rock of government and exposing the slimy things that lived under it, the heady whiff of antistatist revolution was in the air. At the time, I was very optimistic about the future of freedom in California and the country at large.

Alas, I am now 35 years older, and almost infinitely more cynical. I have no hope that California will ever again be the literal Golden State. What hope I have revolves around the notion that it may devolve into a non-state, and here I take issue with the implication that "ungovernable" is somehow bad. If true, does the tax collector give up and move to greener pastures? Give me liberty, or give me an ungovernable place to live, and I'll take my chances.

When I lived there, there was an active secessionist movement in the southern counties, which were predominantly right-libertarian and opposed to the collectivists who dominated in Sacramento and points north. (The ideological differences, however, were overshadowed by the issue of water rights, or should I say political arguments over government control of the water supply.) I bring this up now only to suggest that internal secession seems a viable option for California, if it proves to be truly ungovernable in its current form.

If at first you don't secede, Californians, secede, secede again! Break the current unworkable government down into the smallest possible units, than abolish those. As we say, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Warm regards.

Far out

Is this the same Kosmik Kid of The Wine Commonsewer's blog? Neato!

Sunni, this sentence has me confused, am I missing something?:

And that’s where the thinking that the structure is fine; we just haven’t found the “right leaders” or a perfect balance or some other idealistic nonsense.



Murphy's Bye-Laws

Freaky, man.

I hope it is the same Kosmik Kid; perhaps the Kid will enlighten us on the matter.

Sunni, this sentence has me confused, am I missing something?

Well, that’s freaky—your quotation has several words missing from it, which are visible to me in the text. Here’s what I wrote, and what I see:
“And that’s where the fnord lies in these kinds of messes—thinking that the structure is fine; we just haven’t found the ‘right leaders’ or a perfect balance or some other idealistic nonsense.”


Yes, 'tis I, the sometime poster on TWC's blog. I love that place... TWC is a great friend. I earned the moniker in my California semi-hippie days/daze and have been thinking of updating it to something more age-appropriate... The Kosmik Kurmudgeon? I'm open for suggestions.

I'm reasonably certain that TWC shares my expectation that the 6 budget questions will be voted down tomorrow in CA. Now, I grok the disdain for voting expressed here, but if it symbolizes a tax revolt, I'll be cheering on the voters. Gotta start somewhere.

By the way, Sunni, I bookmarked this site ages ago, must have seen it on TWC's blogroll, but neglected to link over... now I wish I had done it long ago. Great stuff -- the prospects for freedom are alive and well-nourished at Sunni's place.

Thanks, very much

I appreciate the feedback, Kosmik; but I’m certainly not the only, nor the best repository of pro-freedom information.

... must have seen it on TWC's blogroll ...

Sadly, I’m unfamiliar with TWC outside of the comments at Pint’s place.

Bad joke, poorly executed

Sunni, I must confess to attempting to perpetrate a bad joke in not being able to see the fnords. I feel shame.


Murphy's Bye-Laws

“You must remember this ...”

We reptiles are the original low riders—pretty much anything can and will sail right over our heads.

[This is about the only way I can explain missing your joke. Sorry, Pint!]


Only a minority of Californians bother to vote, and those voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the state’s younger, browner and poorer population

What the heck are they talking about? That's the most inaccurate statement regarding California I've ever heard. Maybe he's hanging out in Orange County or something. Where I live, "Si Se Puede" (Yes We Can!) is EVERYWHERE, and it refers entirely to voting. Voting day is advertised here almost entirely in "brown, poor" language, whatever the heck that even means. I'm feeling just a bit humiliated for being so wrongly placed in a box that might belong more on the East coast than it does here. Neither can I see how it's true that voters are older. I don't know. Maybe older, whiter, richer people have more time to stop and answer polls. Browner, poorer people are busy hauling ass to work after voting.

Furthermore, Older, whiter, richer people tend to be more conservative if I remember political science 101 correctly. If California voters were all ^ those things, we'd be more like Texas. But we're not. They're trying to raise taxes again today (why our schools need so many dang administrators I'll never know, but my vote is NO on all tax-raising schemes), and we've received two emails trying to scare young, poor, brown people into voting for higher taxes in the last week, with phrases like, "[if you vote no on the tax increases] we may be required to consider unprecedented actions including further enrollment reductions, layoffs, additional student fee increases and the potential closure of select campuses." and "Si Se Puede!" and "Help us support your right to a better future".

Goddess, it's sickening.

Anyway, I know that wasn't the point of your post, but I get a tad defensive when people start spouting nonsense about how the white man makes all the rules and we natives have to live with those rules. It isn't true. We aren't victims. This state is the consequence of the logic (or lack thereof) and actions (or lack thereof) of all those who came before me: yellow, black, red, brown, AND white (and now of myself as well). It's so easy to turn race, age, etc into a scapegoat and blame a specific demographic for everything that's going wrong, but it's morally wrong to do so.

I wondered about that

but I didn’t give it much thought as I very rarely trust blanket assertions like that one, even from individuals I know.

A Bit

In Richard Pipes' history of the Russian revolution he shows repeatedly how, right up until the February revolution exploded in Petrograd, things could have gone very differently. In Russia the situation seemed irreconcilable; the peasant communes, intelligentsia, police, Tsar, bureaucracy, landed gentry and capitalists all had grievances with each other. Pipes demonstrates that the particular problems could have been worked out without any kind of revolution, but many were convinced that this was not the case. Pipes notes why the liberals, despite their sharp opposition to revolution and their severe philosophical disagreements with all the SRs, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks did not take a firm stand against them when there was still time; they shared the same basic assumptions and ideological precepts as those other groups (including the maximalists) and so agreed with them on the most fundamental levels - if Peikoff had been writing about Russia in The Ominous Parallels, and blamed it on Marx, he would have been right - which resulted in them openly approving of the ends of those groups and tacitly accepting their methods as valid. Considering that and the hard-leftist bent of much of California's intelligentsia (Wolfie, if I'm in trouble saying that, please say so) there is the distinct possibility that while a solution can be worked out, it may not be until the state government tears itself apart.

I firmly doubt that this situation is unique to California. The institutional problems may be inevitable, but like any disease, they have a prior cause. I haven't the slightest clue what that cause might be, other than the basic faults of democratic/republican government, and I have nothing to say on the subject which you haven't already said better than I could.

PS, I sent you an e-mail some time ago, and in addition to the information requested, I believe I forgot to ask about the return address for the book.

A superabundance of options.

That’s the primary reason you’ve not gotten a reply. I hadn’t forgotten about your email ... but every time I try to narrow down the choices you offered me, my head goes all woozy. I will try to persevere through it ASAP.