Be Careful What You Wish for
June 14, 2000
By David Trumbull
I cannot hide it. Quite the opposite, I fairly reveled in my Schadenfreude on reading of the City of Cambridge's plan to defend the domestic partners ordinance. Is it true, as reported in the newspapers, that the city argued for dismissal of the suit on the ground that some of the plaintiffs, being tenants, not owners of real estate, have no standing to sue the city?
I had heard that there were people with such extreme right-wing views. I hasten to add that I have never actually met one. Until now, that is. Since none were quoted as denouncing the tactic, I conclude that our City Councilors all concurred in the tactic. Being a renter myself, it greatly interests me that our officials consider renters less than full citizens. I wonder how the tenant activists feel, now that even their "friends" on the council contend that tenants are second-class persons, not citizens.
Liberal Cambridge politicians arguing for a property requirement for participation in civic affairs is an exceedingly humorous sight. It is also an inevitable outcome of contemporary liberalism. And, yes, I take a guilty pleasure in seeing the chickens come home to roost.
Tenants have long been a favored group in Cambridge. Now we see that gays are more favored. The conservative observer is not surprised to find that, in the People's Republik of Cambridge, "some animals are more equal than others." When group rights replace individual rights, groups will have to fight it out for preferences. Justice, under the group rights theory, is, as one dead white male contended, "merely another name for the advantage of the (politically) stronger over the weaker."
A special benefit for my group--"let's help the poor tenants"--will always have an appeal to the group proposed for the favor. The trouble is that favoring any group means, by extension, disfavoring all who are not members of the group. As more groups are singled out for special favors, more individuals resent exclusion. The ensuing rounds of favors, designed to offset the resentments created by earlier rounds, merely create more inequities and more demands for favors. The end is that all are worse off than if the government had treated all citizens equally.
Be careful what you wish for
Starting with a now famous tax limitation question in California, American conservatives, over the past quarter century, have used ballot questions to win important victories. Massachusetts would likely not have our important Prop 2-1/2 taxation protection had Citizens for Limited Taxation waited for the legislature to act. Putting the question directly to the people got around a legislature that stubbornly clung to an old tax-and spend mentality. Ironically, direct democracy by way of citizen initiated ballot question was, originally, a progressive reform, and one not obviously reconcilable with conservative theory of representative government.
Having ditched their initial reservations about direct democracy, conservatives adopted initiative and referendum as bulwarks against legislative and judicial usurpation of popular sovereignty. A few years back, many Republicans opposed the "motor-voter law", arguing that looser registration rules would add many questionable names--including those of dead persons--to the voter list. Democrats for the most part supported motor-voter, presumably because the graveyard vote, although not big, is very reliably Democrat. Liberals, the conservatives argued, would use this inflated voter list to subvert the popular will in many other ways, including crushing popular ballot questions. This argument was, at the time, denounced as racist--that's true, I can't make this stuff up.
How sweet it was to see the conservative argument vindicated. In 1999 Cambridge liberals failed to get a pro-rent control question on the local ballot. Supporters of the rent control scheme specifically pointed to the motor voter law as an impediment. They alleged that dead persons on the voter list improperly increased the number of signatures needed to put the question before the voters. Well, wasn't that the point all along?
Sometimes it seems the law of unintended consequences is the only corrective to our local one-party government. Moreover, it is frequently the source of an uncharitable, but relatively harmless, laugh at others' expense.
[Lee Street resident David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]