Minding the Issues - Our Representatives -- What Is Their Job?

As the time approaches for campaigns and campaign promises, multitudes of politicians are competing to be our representatives. So this might be a good time to consider what they are competing for: What does the job of a representative consist of? (By "representatives" I mean not only legislators but also executives such as presidents and governors.) What are the legitimate grounds for a representative's decision? Conversely, when do a representative's constituents have a right to feel betrayed?

One answer is that representatives should do what their constituents tell them to do on any particular issue. This kind of view is often called the DELEGATE VIEW - representatives are simply delegated to transmit the views of their constituents.

The weaknesses of the delegate view are evident. Taken seriously, it prescribes that representatives becomes little more than vote-recorders. So why have representatives at all - why not simply use a calculating machine? There is no use, on this view, for the representative's expertise, or experience, or skill at effecting compromises. And obviously the constituents will not all have the same views. So which views does the representative record? The only justifiable answer, it would seem, is to follow the numbers. But this threatens to usher in the "tyranny of the majority."

So let's look at the other end of the spectrum, the so-called TRUSTEE VIEW, which prescribes that representatives follow their own judgment rather than listen to the voters. This view was most famously expressed by Edmund Burke, 18th century British author, orator (famous for his support of the American colonists and opposition to the French Revolution), and member of Parliament. Burke told his constituents, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

This trustee view also has its drawbacks. Taken consistently, it holds not only that representatives should achieve what their constituents want, but also that they, the representatives, are the best judges of what the constituents should want - in other words, that the representatives are the best judges of what is good for their constituents. This is paternalism, the antidemocratic presumption that those in authority should rule over their constituents like a father rules over his children. A follow-on presumption is that representatives are to be elected because of their personal character, which is often irrelevant to their political programs, or that they will be elected because they are of the "better sort" (in other words, of high social standing).

If we reject both of these extreme positions, what is the proper viewpoint? Here I can't give a complete answer or one that is satisfactory to everyone. But I will suggest a logical framework for thinking about the subject, a framework consisting mainly of distinctions and questions.

To begin, let's distinguish between the constituents' wishes and their interests. This distinction is significant because voters are not always aware of their true interests; after all, they are not experts. So their wishes might be misguided.

I take it as axiomatic that the representative's job is to work for the best interests of their constituents.

With this in mind, let's make another try - a commonsense view of the representatives' role, beginning before election-time: Candidates will lay out their complete programs, and the principles they will follow, for the voters to consider. The voters will then decide among the competing sets of programs. Once in office, representatives will exercise their judgment, but they will explain how each of their votes serves to carry out the programs and principles they have run on. Those who fail to carry out their promised programs will be punished at the ballot box the next time around. (In this arrangement, roughly speaking, representatives are delegates with regard to the ends pursued, but trustees with regard to the means for achieving those ends.)

This may be the best overall suggestion I can offer, but its shortcomings are apparent as soon as it's enunciated. For one thing, it has nothing to say about the situations that cannot be foreseen at election time. Nor does it cover changing conditions. Also, it does nothing to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate interests of the voters (a point covered below).

And most of all, this commonsense view has no relationship to real life. Voters have little or no chance to become acquainted with candidates' complete programs. Instead, voters are presented with the ever-present sound bytes, purely emotive appeals, attack ads focused on a single vote, and other tactics that present a partial, simplified, and distorted picture of candidates' overall positions.

If a satisfactory overall formula is beyond our grasp, we will have to look at a representative's responsibilities case by case. To do this adequately, a logical framework is extremely useful. The framework I offer is built around distinctions, to which I now turn.

Here are three distinctions. Their significance lies in the claim that the action or behavior on one side of each distinction is legitimate while that on the other side is not.

1) Between two types of actions: Private behavior (actions that affect only the person who does them or others who freely consent), vs. those actions that affect others without their consent.

This distinction appears in the Bill of Rights, of course, and beyond that - as I see the matter -- it stems from the purpose of government itself. Simply put, governments are formed to regulate the way in which citizens interact with one another. So private behavior is none of the government's business and should not be subject to regulation.

However, we must recognize those types of behavior that affect others indirectly. For example, possession of illicit drugs is properly subject to government regulation if it is shown to encourage the drug trade and thus foster addictive drug use. That having been said, we should also make sure that when behavior is claimed to have an indirect effect, the claim is not bogus (as, for example, the bogus claim that gay marriage will harm heterosexual marriage).

2) Religious doctrine as a reason for governmental decisions, vs. principles based on the public good rather than religion. For example, it is generally considered illegitimate for the government to prohibit businesses from opening on Sundays if the only reason is that religious doctrine proclaims Sunday as a day of rest. But it would be legitimate to prohibit business on Sundays if it could be shown that this achieves some non-religious public good, such as giving shopkeepers a break from their daily routines. And of course there are innumerable other examples of regulatory measures that are based solely on the aim of promoting public safety or welfare.

3) Regarding religious conviction: Presenting religious or moral conviction (one's own or others') as sufficient reason for a policy, vs. being motivated by one's religious convictions to carry out actions that are justified on non-religious grounds. As an example of the first alternative, it has been claimed that Christian school prayer should be mandatory on the grounds that the majority of citizens in our country are Christians - i.e., religious conviction is given as the sole and sufficient reason for school prayer.

By contrast, many of those who participated in the civil rights movement did so out of deep religious commitment, but the principles of equal justice that the movement strove to achieve were justified quite independently of religious doctrine; they followed from the letter and the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.
Some particular issues

We can use these distinctions to guide our thinking about specific types of issues as they arise. Here is how I see a few of them:

1) Should a representative follow his own conscience? It depends on what his conscience is telling him. Here are the major possibilities:

a) To be faithful to his promises to voters: YES.
b) To follow principles of justice he believes in on non-religious grounds (when these do not conflict with his promises): YES.
c) To obey the Constitution: YES.
d) To follow the dictates of his personal morality (e.g. Bush's decision to squelch federal funding of stem-cell research): NO. If a representative decides on this basis, he is representing only himself, not the people.

2) Should a representative comply with a moral consensus among most or all of her constituents? Again, it depends -- in this case, on the specific type of policy involved. If it concerns only private behavior, the answer is NO, simply because private behavior is not the business of government at all, as stated above.

If the behavior in question affects others (as a random example, increased funding for cancer research), then the answer is more complicated. In principle, the representative should strive to achieve her constituents' goals. However, there may be some question as to whether the policy in question really is in the voters' best interests. (Remember: voters' wishes may be misguided.) If this is the case, and if the representative has not promised the voters that she will pursue the policy that their moral consensus demands, then it's up to her to use her own judgment, given that she explains her decision.

3) How should a representative respond to the conflicting interests of his constituents? How, for example, does a representative decide how much to tax the rich as against the poor? Or how to decide between those who favor and those who oppose the death penalty? Etc. (I'm assuming that all the interests here are legitimate, i.e. they are not based on religious doctrine and they don' t seek to regulate private behavior.)

The answer lies in the principles of justice the representative follows. But how are these adopted? The representative undoubtedly has a set of principles that he believes in, but to depend solely on these principles means that he fails to be a representative, as mentioned above.

However, on these issues the representative must fail to represent somebody. If A conflicts with B, he cannot satisfy both. Of course he can and should do his best to broker a compromise or find some synthesis that will satisfy all parties to the greatest degree possible; that is the representative's art. But at the end of the day, there will still be conflict.

So the representative, taking all interests into account, must fashion for himself the principle of justice that will govern the conflict (in the case of taxes, for example, the principle of sharply progressive taxation). Perhaps he can persuade constituents that his principle derives from a basic principle they are all committed to, such as equality of opportunity. In any case, this principle will be part of the record that the representative submits to the voters, either in words or in practice, and the majority of voters will make the final decision.

My treatment of these questions is clearly incomplete; to give just one example, I have not addressed the question of how to respond to the polls. But I can hope that I've provided a helpful framework. Think about it.

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Volume 2, Issue 17, Posted 2:02 PM, 08.14.06