Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Trouble with Representative Government

Representative government - is it of the people, by the people, or for the people?

One of the basic functions of a government official is to represent the views and opinions of the people. This includes officials on all levels - from city councils to school boards, and from state legislatures to Congress and the President.

But what exactly do we mean when we say a person 'represents' us? Is the President bound to follow the wishes of the majority? Literally speaking, the president is not a representative. His is an executive function. We hire him to carry out the laws. We hire actual 'representatives' to make our laws, as we would like them to be made.

So, is the government some alien body that rules over us? Or is it only an embodiment of the voice of the people?

These are two extremes. On the one hand you have representatives that will vote however and say whatever their constituents want them to. On the other hand, there are those representatives that do their own thing. They don't really care what people think- and if the people don't like the way they vote, they should vote them out. But, having been voted in, they take that as a license to do what ever they want.

Somewhere in between these two extremes we find most of our representatives. Many are willing to listen to the voters and at least consider their viewpoints. There is a wide range of approaches in representing a large body of people.

A representative is not a flip-flopper when they change their position with their constituents' disapproval. Neither are they a flip-flopper if they always vote how their constituents want. But, it can be difficult to listen to a silent majority. A representative can only listen to his voters as much as they are willing to speak up. "The squeaky hinge gets the grease" as they say.

So, if a representative is elected and makes it clear that she will listen to her constituents faithfully, which part of her constituents does she listen to? She can't take an accurate poll of every person on every single issue to get the majority's opinion. But, she can't ignore 49% of her voters either. A wise representative then, takes a wide range of viewpoints into consideration and uses their judgment to determine what is in the best interest of the most number of people. In short, an effective representative is a discerning judge of the public good.