Romanoff Debates Ref. C

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Romanoff Debates Ref. C

by Ari Armstrong, October 28, 2005

Andrew Romanoff, House Speaker and leading advocate of Referendum C, discussed the measure with me at CEC Middle College of Denver on October 27. We managed to address some fundamental issues in a relatively pleasant way. Romanoff and I each made some pointed comments, but generally, I thought, in the spirit of getting to the root of the matter.

I've made selections of the audio recording available. Please note that the mp3 file consists of excerpts from the discussion, not the entire thing.

A few notes about the school: "CEC" stands for "Career Education Center," and the school is associated with the Community College of Denver. The audience consisted of perhaps 60 high school students who were, I was told, around 16 years old. A handful of adults, I think all teachers, also attended. Students told me that, to attend the school, they have to sign contracts regarding attendance and grades, which strikes me as a good idea.

For the most part, the students seemed engaged and relatively knowledgeable. Sometimes I am concerned that teachers introduce superficial political discussion prematurely, before students have had a chance to learn enough history and critical thinking to put political views in context. Politics, after all, is a complex subject rooted in philosophy and dependent on economic theory and a reasonable knowledge of history. Here, though, the students were older, and they seemed at least as sensible and nuanced in their approach as many adults I've met.

The teacher who invited me, Bonnie Hutchens, who, I gathered, supports Referendum C, nevertheless went out of her way to bring both sides of the debate to her students. I don't think it's out of place to express the concern that institutions in which every teacher and administrator makes a living solely off of tax dollars might foster a slight bias in favor of more taxation. Yet such a bias can be largely overcome simply by teachers making an effort to do so. Hutchens told me she found my name on my web page, so certainly she's made the effort to bring a rounded discussion to her students. It's also good of her to introduce her students to the House Speaker, who does, after all, play a very important role in Colorado politics.

I should note that one student stumped both the speakers. She asked what would happen to the spending limits if Colorado's population declined. Neither Romanoff nor I knew the answer to that question, though we agreed the scenario is unlikely.

The main point I tried to get across is that, while money collected in taxation funds programs that a lot of people like, that money necessarily comes at the expense of other values. And so I quoted Henry Hazlitt (and suggested that students read his Economics in One Lesson): "The government spenders forget that they are taking money from A in order to pay B. Or rather, they know this very well; but while they dilate upon all the benefits of the process to B, and all the wonderful things he will have which he would not have had if the money had not been transferred to him, they forget the effects of the transaction on A. B is seen; A is forgotten."

I argued that those who earn that money will tend to spend it for the best uses. I pointed out that, if families pay more money in taxes, they have less money to spend on education, health care, charity, investment, and so on. Higher taxes also leave families with less money to spend with local businesses, so, on the margins, increased taxation results in lost jobs.

I also suggested that families have good incentives to spend their money wisely, whereas politicians often lack that incentive.

Romanoff countered that we should trust the democratic process, and that elected officials are accountable through elections. He said that Referendum C is necessary to improve Colorado's economy and to maintain adequate spending levels for colleges and health care. He said that, for some things like education and health care, it's best for us to pool our money through taxation to provide those things.

I had a couple of counters. I said that, if democracy is the best way to decide how to spend our money, perhaps we should have a 100 percent tax rate, because that would maximize democracy. I also pointed out that, generally, we do buy such things as health care on the voluntary, open market. I directly pay my dentist and doctor for specific services. I again came around to the point that people should be able to decide how to spend that money.

And Romanoff again came around to his point about democracy. He said that, by passing Referendum C, people would be deciding to spend their money on various government programs.

A girl at the back of the room asked a question that, I thought, effectively countered Romanoff: what about all the people who vote against Referendum C?

While Romanoff suggested Referendum C would help Colorado's economy, I suggested that it would hurt. That money would be taken away from families who would then have less to spend on their own values, and generally freer economies are more prosperous. I summarized some of the findings of Lawrence McQuillan in the Freedom Index.

I did come up short on a couple of important issues. First, I did not adequately describe the difference between "democracy" in the sense of pure majority rule and "democracy" in the sense of a representative, Constitutional order in which individual rights are paramount. Second, while I talked a lot about why those who earn the money can be expected to spend it best, I didn't firmly tie this to the morality of individual rights. I had two basic problems. First, I was trying to find a balance between discussing a particular ballot issue and relating it to broader principles. Second, I was trying to limit the discussion to something manageable given the short time available. (The discussion lasted a little over an hour, and some of that time was devoted to students' questions).

In retrospect, it seems obvious that I could have addressed both issues with a fairly brief comment. (Hopefully some of the students who attended will read this article.) I wish I'd said something like, "Andrew Romanoff has talked a lot about democracy. But there are two very different ways we can take that term. If democracy means simply majority rule, then democracy can be and has been highly abusive. What we need is a Constitutional system that protects individual rights, including the right of the individual to spend his or her income as he or she sees fit. It is only within that context that voting for a representative government is just and beneficial. Otherwise, majority rule degenerates to the majority's abuse and exploitation of minorities and individuals."

Nevertheless, I thought the discussion went well overall, and I appreciate the invitation.

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