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Legalize Wal-Mart

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BY GREGORY FOSSEDAL, UPI Columnist

WASHINGTON, April 7 (UPI) -- If there are any two propositions America's political and press aristocrats agree on, they are as follows:

(1.) Regular people are disgracefully apathetic about politics; and

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(2.) It's a good thing. That's because regular people are, unlike elites, ill-informed, unsophisticated, and corrupt -- easily bought off by money, narrow self-interest, and demagogic appeals.

So it comes as no surprise that there is widespread disapprobation of the effort by Wal-Mart to place one of its super-stores in Inglewood, a California mini-city that is what might be called an "in-burb" of Los Angeles, the mega-city that surrounds it.

There is disapproval of Wal-Mart itself, all right, on a mix of environmental, social, and other grounds. That disapproval appears to have won the day, as returns from a referendum on whether to allow a Wal-Mart Superstore ran solidly in the "no" category from Inglewood.

The store itself, however, did not appear to be the real sore point. What was especially interesting in recent weeks was the invective hurled, not at the store itself, but at the poltical process Wal-Mart chose to seek its approval.

"It's an escalation," said Paul Shigley, editor of the California Planning and Development Report -- "a new phase" of Wal-Mart's growing threat. Yes, today, ballots; tomorrow, war resolutions, U.S. troops, weapons of mass destruction. A city official interviewed on CNBC called it an "effort to circumvent democracy." Yes, think about it... people voting? Making decisions directly on an issue like this? The slippery slope to totalitarianism is thus apparently paved with chads.

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There are a number of objections to California's initiative and referendum process, to be sure. One centers around money. Supposedly, according to a superficial study by journalist David Broder, and regular squawking since, under California's widespread use of direct democracy, large monied interests are able to buy up the votes of common folk by out-spending opponents, and democracy becomes more, not less, subject to corruption.

Leaving aside the question of whether the voters as a whole are more or less venal than their representatives -- a big leave-aside, by the way -- the history of referenda shows no such popular cravenness. In fact, spending in referenda and initiatives offers far less of a prediction of success than it does in representative votes. If you want to buy an election, the efficient way is to purchase a House or Senate seat -- and thus control tens of thousands of policy votes, not just one.

Several years ago, California voters were asked to approve a pro-smoking initiative put on the ballot by cigarette companies. The very fact that the companies were backing the measure with big money became a campaign issue, and the proposal was rejected soundly. Although there is some evidence that massive spending can help defeat a measure, given the natural caution of voters, the electorate is especially hard to sway into voting "yes."

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Yet another complaint is that, as if in dealing with a personal doctor or an attorney, we people should leave such matters to the experts in government. There is little evidence, however, that the knowledge of our representatives makes them superior at judging such issues, especially when their own conflict-of-self-interest in attracting money, obfuscating issues, and getting re-elected is accounted for.

When California held a vote to recall its governor last fall, such diverse members of the chattering class as Broder, Chris Matthews, Margaret Carlson, Fareed Zakaria, George Will, and even William Safire could be heard sniffling about how sad it was that voters were taking matters into their own hands.

Only Robert Novak distinguished himself in applauding not just the possibility of a GOP takeover, but the very process of recall -- wherever it might be applied.

Six months later, the voters of the state have spoken; the old governor is out; the budget is on its way to mending in 2004-2005. This latter fact is thanks largely to the fact that voters, in a ballot initiative two months ago, did in a few weeks of debate what their legislators had not done for years. Maybe the voters are not so incompetent after all.

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All the high-sounding cavils, then, are not the real reasons for the resentment of the anti-Wal-Mart crusade. The real reason is Wal-Mart's sheer effrontery in getting the people -- ew, all those Nascar fans -- involved in settling a political issue.

In the eyes of the elites, issues are supposed to be settled by elites, thank you, with an occasional visit to the neighborhood every four years to tell the masses all the great things that have been settled for us by our lords. The voter is supposed to be the baseball, not -- for heaven's sake -- the bat.

"You don't get to get around all of the environmental impacts accepted in this country," Rep. Maxine Waters said Monday. "You don't get to bypass the city and their building and safety and their planning departments. What they have done is they have gone over the top."

Now, Waters happens to be one of the true bright spots in a U.S. Congress, a leader and a fighter. She was not, however, at her best when she spoke those sentences. Democracy, you see, means precisely that "you" get to "get around" city regulations, and even laws -- if "you," meaning a majority of the people, decide to overturn those laws, or suspend them in a given case.

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Congresswoman Waters is right, however, in one respect. Wal-Mart has, in effect, gone "over the top." It's gone over the top of elected professional politicians and took its case to the people. It dared to question the judgement of the zoning commissioners and the bought-and-paid for city council members and the "civil rights activists" -- and proposed to let the jury decide. Like Oliver Twist, there was a whisper from Bentonville: "Please sir, may... the... people have a vote?"

This week in Inglewood, the people had a vote. But the beautiful thing about the Wal-Mart effort and other instances of direct democracy isn't whether you liked how they there voted or not. (If you don't get this, you don't "get" democracy.) This, believe it or not, was secondary.

The beautiful thing about the vote is that it took place. Wal-Mart got to go "over the top," in that wonderful Freudianism from Waters, and the people got to decide.

Wal-Mart's critics should be pleased by their victory. Perhaps they will, now that they like the result, have a little more faith in the voters. Don't expect it, though. Those who don't trust the people until they know the result of an election don't really believe in democracy. "Democracy," in the words of Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gros, "means believing in the people even when you don't like the result."

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The vote against Wal-Mart's store is unfortunate, then, mainly because it may discourage Wal-Mart officials from launching similar efforts around the country.

On a substantive level, California was probably overdue to say no to something. In a state that now allows marijuana sales for "medical uses," and where one of the largest cities performs gay marriages -- the electorate couldn't quite bring itself to legalize Wal-Mart. Here's hoping the store will try democracy again in another venue.


Gregory Fossedal is an occasional contributor to UPI, including a frequent financial column.

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