Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Will Grassroots Democracy Solve the Government Fiscal Crisis?

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Will Grassroots Democracy Solve the Government Fiscal Crisis?

Article excerpt

 I. Citizens Are Presently Involved in Fiscal Decision-Making in     Chaotic and Ill-Timed Ways II. Challenging Direct Democracy as a Viable Alternative for     Municipal Fiscal Decision-Making: Can There Be Too     Much Democracy?     A. The Most Direct Democracy Is the Worst for Solving        Fiscal Crises: Initiative and Referendum     B. More Deliberative Methods of Grassroots Democracy        Are Better Tools to Solve Municipal Fiscal Crises     C. Randomly Selected Participants Improve Deliberative        Democracy 

This Essay is a brief commentary on Patricia E. Salkin and Charles Gottlieb's Article, Engaging Deliberative Democracy at the Grassroots: Prioritizing the Effects of the Fiscal Crisis in New York at the Local Government Level. (1) I focus here, as Salkin does, (2) not on the causes of the present fiscal crises faced by a growing number of states and local governments, but on whether a solution to those financial crises might be found at the grassroots level by engaging citizens in a participatory democratic process.

I will make three arguments, detailed in the sections that follow, in response to Professor Salkin's intriguing premise that engaging citizens in a grassroots, deliberative, democratic process can lead us out of our fiscal crisis. Generally, there is much to like about deliberative grassroots democracy as a solution to any problem, fiscal or other. In fact, it is the American way. But I am not equally enthusiastic about every method of grassroots democracy promulgated as a solution to a fiscal crisis. In fact, there is much evidence that some methods of grassroots democracy are actually harmful to sound government decision-making, particularly fiscal decision-making.

First, voter education is necessary for a successful experience in deliberative democracy. Salkin's Article shows us that involved citizens can and do have transformative personal experiences as a result of participating in a deliberative, grassroots, democratic process in which they are asked to provide specific solutions or make difficult decisions to resolve problems facing government. In some cases, citizens personally transform from a "read my lips: no new taxes" (3) mindset to embrace a more Holmesian (4) notion that some things are simply worth paying for. (5) This suggests that voter education is an important part of deliberative democracy.

Second, Salkin is quite correct to note that improvements to the present methods of citizen participation in fiscal matters of local government are warranted. (6) The present methods of citizen participation in addressing the major issues facing local government are inadequate in several respects, not the least of which is that they are often ill-timed and lacking in dialogue.

Third, at risk of sounding undemocratic, I challenge the notion that more democratic process and participation at the grassroots level leads to better decisions or even better decision-making processes than representative democracy. There is plenty of evidence that more democracy is not necessarily better and that more grassroots participation does not necessarily lead to better or even different outcomes. In fact, one might even suggest that the most direct forms of democracy in use in the United States today--the initiative and the referendum--are complicit in causing or at least contributing to the fiscal crises. (7) We have long relied on the public hearing and the ballot box as the predominant or only methods of public participation in the political process. Both methods have proven frustrating and of limited value, particularly in fiscal matters where they occur too late in the process to help local governments which are then blindsided by the decisions of a public whose desires they have misread.


Local governments should improve public participation in fiscal deliberative democracy if for no other reason than to cease being surprised and fiscally devastated by the electorate's decision-making at the ballot box. …

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