One of the most foundational assumptions behind modern democracy is that the elected officials somehow represent the interests of those who elected them.
Advocates for the political status quo flog this position repeatedly, claiming that taxation and the regulatory state are all morally legitimate because the voters are “represented.” Even conservatives, who often claim to be for “small government” often oppose radicalism of any kind — such as secession — on the grounds that political resistance movements such as the American Revolution are only acceptable when there is “taxation without representation.” The implication being that since the United States holds elections every now and then, no political action outside of voting — and maybe a little sign waving — is allowed.
This, position, however, rests on the idea that elected officials are truly representative. If taxation with representation makes government legitimate — as some argue — then we must first establish that the government’s claims of representation are believable.
On a theoretical level, Gerard Casey has already cast serious doubt on these claims. Casey draws on the work of Hanna Pitkin, who admits it is plausible that:
Perhaps representation in politics is only a fiction, a myth forming part of the folklore of our society. Or perhaps representation must be redefined to fit our politics; perhaps we must simply accept the fact that what we have been calling representative government is in reality just party competition for office.
Two Ways Representation Doesn’t Work
Specifically, there are two ways that real-world political representation doesn’t fit the popular notions of how it all works.
First of all, even if a politician wanted to faithfully represent the people within his constituency, this would be impossible. It is impossible because the politicians can’t know the views of the whole population within his constituency. And it’s impossible because the more diverse a constituency becomes, the more unlikely it is that any legislation can be crafted to serve the interests of everyone.
Secondly, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that political representatives even try to respond to the policy desires of the district voters. The idea that government coercion is made legitimate through political representation leans heavily on the idea that politicians adhere to a delegate model of political representation in which they try to advance or protect the interests of their constituents. Unfortunately, this is a bad assumption.
The Impossibility of Representing “the People”
Casey illustrates that political representation does not work on a theoretical level. But let us be “practical” types for a few minutes and imagine that we could, in theory, put together a constituency of people with similar economic, cultural, and religious interests. We could then at least entertain the idea that it might be possible to represent this group. That is, with a constituency that is highly homogeneous, we could at least make a claim that we can understand and pursue the interests of the group.
But even if this is our standard do such legislators even exist?
Trustees Versus Delegates
Up to this point, we’ve been assuming that elected officials imagine themselves largely as delegates of the populations they represent. This, after all, is the assumption behind the basic framework of Madisonian political theory: that different socioeconomic and cultural groups will be represented in Congress by elected officials, and these different groups will pursue their own interests, thus providing checks and balances against each other.
But what if elected officials don’t view themselves this way?
What if they view themselves as trustees whose job it is to do what’s “best” for the people in their district regardless of what the voter preferences actually are?
Those who have worked with elected officials will see little novelty in this suggestion. If I may be permitted a personal anecdote, I will note that in my days working with state legislators, it was not uncommon to be told by a legislator that he was torn as to whether vote in a way “the voters want” or to do “the right thing.” The “right thing,” in the mind of a legislator, is simply that which comports to his or her personal ideology.
If the legislator chose to overrule what he or she perceived to be the opinion of “the people,” then at least on that day, the legislator was acting as a trustee rather than as a delegate.
If elected officials are in the habit of voting to suit their own ideologies — even when it means overriding the ideological preferences of many voters — then its hard to see how we can also call this “representative” or a system that transmits “consent” from the voters to their political representatives.
And yet, in spite of all the evidence that elected officials neither know the preference of voters, nor vote in accordance with them, we continue to be told that governments must be respected and obeyed because they have legitimacy granted to them by the fact they are “democratic” and “representative.”
For centuries, this myth of representation has served to quash opposition to government abuse, and to bolster claims that submission to government is “voluntary.” It’s time to abandon the myths.
Full article: No Matter How You Vote, Politicians Don’t Represent You (Mises Institute)