Representation Revisited

I wrote a blog not long ago on the idea of representative government. It fascinates me, I must confess. Why people decided that it was OK for one person to “represent” dozens, hundreds, even thousands of others is so illogical it beggars belief. Rousseau said that we are free only at the moment we elect our representatives; after that we are enslaved to them. And that we continue to call this a “democracy” simply shows how loosely we use words.

After the English Civil Wars very near the end of the seventeenth century the Whigs struggled with the notion of representative government even before Rousseau. They knew the best possible form of government was a pure democracy in which each citizen participates in government and partakes in the making of the laws they are then called upon to obey. That’s as close to real civil liberty as we can get on this earth: obeying the laws we make ourselves.

But while this may work in a Greek City-State in 300 BC, perhaps, it will not work in the modern world where states tend to be large and unwieldy. So the English experimented with representative government and held brief Parliamentary sessions for their short-term representatives who were supposed to go back home and get directives from their neighbors as to how to vote next time they were called upon to do so. And, of course, the representatives were not paid so they were not eager to stay in office and grow fat while spiders wove webs in their beards.

But that didn’t work very well, either, since the sessions were too short and the constant change in personnel made it hard to get anything done (though I dare say the King thought it worked quite well!).  So the length of the Parliamentary sessions got longer and the representatives eventually had to be paid and soon we had the birth of the professional politician. The English Whigs were very nervous about this, of course, since they knew that in electing a representative they were in effect transferring their wills to another. And, as they feared, Parliament gradually became a separate body making independent decisions — another sort of despotism, if you will. In fact, members of Parliament could make laws that went counter to the wishes of the people they were supposed to represent: the very opposite of political liberty. As one of the Whigs at the time said, the idea that the representative could do what they liked was “almost too monstrous to conceive.” But that’s what developed. It wasn’t what was in the plan as originally conceived, but it was a plan the Americans adopted after their own struggles with the concept. But as we can see the phrase “Representative Government” is a misnomer.

If the idea of representation were to mean anything at all the governing body would have to be proportional: it would have to represent the political body as a whole. As John Adams said early in the discussion about representation in this country, “It should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” One possible way of determining fair representation would be as follows:, if 30% of the population is Republican, 35% is Democratic, 30% are Independent, and the remaining 5% are “Other” a truly representative body would represent those groups in precisely those proportions. Or one might choose representation by income levels or property ownership, perhaps. But none of these options was adopted as we know. Most of our representatives on both sides of the political aisle are (as it happens) among the wealthy 1% of the people in this country and we can be relatively sure that they represent their own self-interest — certainly not the rest of us. (It might do to recall that the founders of this country chose the term “Republic” because the Latin root res publica meant “the public thing” where all private interest is sacrificed to what is best for all. Just a thought.)

In the end it would appear that we have arrived at the point the founders wanted above all else to avoid, to wit, the condition of the English House of Commons in the middle of the eighteenth century which had become, according to James Iredell writing in 1776  “so unequally, irregularly, and inadequately representative that it had left little to the real voice of the people and had become separated from, and converted into a different interest from the collective.”

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4 thoughts on “Representation Revisited

    • We take delight in our friends, try to get the best possible people in public office, and stop worrying about things we cannot change.

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  1. Good post. Unfortunately, our government is going to get worse unless the super PAC concept is overturned. It takes too much money to get elected, the better candidates don’t run and the ones who do are beholden to the special interests groups. As an example, the GOP slate was one of the weakest ones I can recall and the nominee shows it. Unless we fix election funding, it probably matters little what the structure up looks like.

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