Free Or Slaves?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no friend of representative government. He was convinced that citizens are only politically free when they make the laws they themselves obey, in a pure democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that in a pure democracy the citizens would be well-informed and discuss the issues thoroughly. They would then vote and their decision would be the correct one. Anyone who was in the minority would then obey the will of the majority and in doing so, paradoxically, be “forced to be free.” Freedom, in Rousseau’s view, is defined as doing the right thing. Any form of representation, on the other hand, is a form of slavery, according to Rousseau. Citizens are putatively free for one brief moment when they vote, but after that moment has passed, they are slaves to the people they voted into office — those who would subsequently make the laws the voters would then have to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rousseau, of course, never envisioned an age in which the airwaves would be filled with political campaigning, promises never to be fulfilled, and smiles that never seemed to leave the faces of the politicians who spent fortunes to be elected — not to mention the endless stream of phone calls and emails promoting the latest candidate who will assuredly  “cut the pork” and “break the grid-lock in Washington.” He also never envisioned an age in which the candidates themselves would be chosen by a handful of wealthy men running giant corporations, thereby limiting the “freedom” of the voters even more. After all, how free are we when we don’t even chose the folks we are supposed to vote into office? But, then representation is itself a logical puzzle. Think about it.

One person cannot possibly represent more than one other person — with whom he presumably agrees on every possible point of contention. Two or three, or two or three thousand people who are supposed to be “represented” by a single person, a paid politician, is a logical impossibility. And when that politician’s allegiance is to the wealthy few who have placed them on the ballot in the first place, then the notion of political freedom in a representative government begins to stretch beyond recognition.

In a word, Rousseau’s notion that voters are free only when they actually vote (presuming that they bother to vote at all) raises problems in the world we have come to know — the world in which politicians are professional liars, for the most part, who are selected by a process over which we  have no real control. We seem to have even less political freedom than Rousseau imagined, which was very little indeed. But why worry? I’ve got over two hundred channels on my television: now there’s real freedom!

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.”