Wednesday 17 July 2013

PERSPECTIVE: Representatives and their duty

By James Campbell 

ONE of the interesting issues that on occasion has cause to crop up in parliamentary democracies is the problem of the obligations elected representatives owe to constituents.

The matter of representation in democracies is not as straightforward as you may think.

Critics of representative democracy such as Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that the general could not be represented.

The general will "is either itself or something else; no middle ground is possible (see Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978, page 198)".

In a similar vein, American political philosopher Benjamin Barber argues that the current form of representation operating in democracies "alienates political will at the cost of genuine self-government (see Benjamin Barber, 1984. Strong Democracy, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984, page 145. See also Michael L. Mezey, Representative Democracy: Legislators And Their Constituents, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, 2008, page 2)".

Critics of representative democracy often espouse forms of direct democracy where the mediating role of a representative is lessened and the voice or "will" of the people who actively participate in self-government manifests directly in the making of decisions.

In modern-day nation states, this type of direct democracy is usually considered too difficult, time-consuming and tiring to achieve.

So we elect representatives to express our interests. What duty do our representatives have to their electors?

One of the most eloquent speeches on this problem was made by the famous conservative politician and thinker, Edmund Burke.

He argues that elected representatives must not simply represent the wishes of their electorate but, at times, must also exercise their own judgement and wisdom even if this contradicts the wishes of those who elected them at the time.

To understand his view, we ought to read closely the following which is part of his famous Speech To The Electors Of Bristol, 1774.

Burke declares: "Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents.

"Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own.

"But, his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution.

"They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion (see Edmund Burke, Speech To The Electors Of Bristol, Nov 3, 1774, in Select Works Of Edmund Burke. A New Imprint Of The Payne Edition. Foreword and Biographical Note by Francis Canavan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999) Vol. 4. )."

The key to his opinion is twofold. On the one hand, representation involves sacrifice and duty.

A good representative must not be simply self-interested or pursue his personal gain.

To represent constituents is a privilege and an honour that entail sacrifice and service.

On the other hand, a representative does not merely mimic what he thinks is the prevailing prejudice or fancy of his constituents.

A good representative uses his wisdom and sometimes in doing this may best serve you not by simply following current caprice.

It seems to me that in contemporary debates about the issue of representatives jumping from one party to another or simply ignoring the interests of their constituents, there are some who seem to want to take the second part of Burke's formulation without attending to the first.

Once elected, they simply think their office is their property which they can dispose in any fashion they please.

But representative office is not a property to advance personal gain.

The key to Burke's argument regarding the right of an elected representative to exercise their judgement -- and if necessary, advocate in ways that may be contrary to current fad or fancy -- lies in the fundamental idea that representation is also a duty, involving sacrifice of self-interest. Burke makes clear the significance of this obligation when he declares: "From the first hour I was encouraged to court your favour to this happy day of obtaining it, I have never promised you anything, but humble and persevering endeavours to do my duty.

"The weight of that duty, I confess, makes me tremble... (see Edmund Burke, Speech To The Electors Of Bristol, Nov 3, 1774)."
This abnegation of self-interest which forms the basis of an elected representative's privilege is the foundation upon which our faith in our representatives is built.

We trust our representatives to exercise their reason because we respect their commitment to their civic duty and the sacrifice of self-interest this entails.

To forget the first portion of Burke's formulation and only accept the second is to diminish the very foundation of trust and respect for our elected representatives which modern democracies so desperately need. - END

The above article appeared in The New Straits Times' Learning Curve on last June 30th. It could have missed many but maybe our elected representatives should read and try to understand the crux of the matter, in James Campbell's perspective. 

The last few paragraphs of the perspective might shed additional light for those elected representatives who seek guidance. 

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1 comment:

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