My friend Joel Fox, the Fox in this Fox & Hounds Daily, is fond of comparing ballot initiatives to war. In columns, he performs the cool trick of taking writing about war, replacing the word “war” with “initiative,” and showing how the meaning doesn’t seem to change much.

But the comparison is a little bit off – because it gives too much credit to initiatives. Let’s deconstruct.

Fox writes:

Carl von Clausewitz, the acknowledged student of war, famously said war is “the continuation of policy by other means.” War is decisive.  One side wins; one side loses.  A firm direction is taken as result of war.  There is no compromising.

Like war, the initiative process is an establishment of policy by extraordinary means. Initiatives are decisive. One side wins; one side loses. A firm direction is set. There is no compromising.  There are, however, follow up lawsuits.

Intriguing, but not quite.

This much is true — initiatives are a way of attempting to establish policy. But initiatives are not often decisive. Winning an initiative does not mean you’ve won the war — as Fox himself notes in frequent columns about the non-stop fight against Prop 13.

As academics have shown, initiatives are often undermined or sidestepped by the various branches of government. In fact, the battle may continue on even after constant defeats or victories (see the endless battle over parental notification for abortion). Losing an initiative has often led to winning. And “a firm direction” is not usually set by initiatives.

If anything, initiatives in California are so complex that they muddy the waters and make the direction hard to see. Californians voted to enact a protection for education funding in 1988 – and since that protection was enacted, education funding has rapidly declined in the state compared to other states. Or, if you prefer a more recent example: that 2008 vote to approve a high-speed rail bond really set the direction for the state, didn’t it?

An initiative only looks like war in the fog of, well, initiatives. But initiatives are tools of fighting. It may be best to think of them as a particular kind of weapon: Land mines.

Initiatives – whether they succeed or not – are placed in the political soil. But it’s never quite clear what they’ll do or when they’ll go off. Usually, land mines are laid to protect something, or frustrate somebody’s attack. And sometimes they serve their intended purpose.

Other times, they blow up the very people who laid the mines. That’s what happened with Prop 22 and California cities. The initiative they got passed was supposed to stop the state from seizing money from redevelopment agencies. But when the state tried to shut down the agencies and the cities challenged the move in court, Prop 22 was used by the state supreme court to block legislation that might have kept redevelopment agencies alive. The cities stepped on their own land mine, Prop 22.