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.