Thursday, July 17, 2008

Representatives

The concept of a representative government is that there should be people to represent our interests when we are otherwise unable to. However, that doesn't mean that the representative should be able to represent us when are are able to represent ourselves.

I propose a direct, fractional voting scheme. Basically, the representative represents all those who do not vote directly on an issue. Thus every time a bill comes before Congress, registered voters would have a period of time, a month, perhaps, in which they could vote on the bill. The number of representative would cast his ballot in place of all those who did not vote. Thus if a typical representative represents 150,000 registered voters, and 12,000 voted directly (via the mail, perhaps), those 12,000 votes would be counted, and the representative would vote the remaining 138,000 votes.

I don't know what kind of impact this would have on the electorate as a whole, but it's an interesting thought experiment. What consequence would direct voting like this have?

5 Comments:

Anonymous Dominus Sit Illuminatio Mea said...

The concept of a representative government is that there should be people to represent our interests when we are otherwise unable to. However, that doesn't mean that the representative should be able to represent us when are are able to represent ourselves.

I'm afraid that this is very, very far from my conception of representative government.

Personally, I believe in the vision of a representative (generally called the Burkean vision) as someone who, to paraphrase Hamilton, will represent his constituent's interests rather than inclinations,. The very purpose of government is to restrain men from following their baser instincts (or, as Madison puts it in an oft' quoted turn of phrase, "if men were angels, no government would be necessary." The phrase's catchy-ness makes up for its philosophical indeterminateness--after all, Madison seems to have forgotten that there are hierarchies even among the angels). Direct democracy, where issues of political morality and policy are decided by nose-count, barely qualifies as government, defined in this way.

But one need not even subscribe to this dusky view of human nature to realize that government is at its easiest a science and at its hardest an art. One need not accept the strong form of representation above to accept the weaker form: that we elect representatives because governing is a full time job, requires practice, education, experience, expertise and natural ability.

Hospitals don't feel compelled to take a poll before hiring doctors, setting medical policies, or issuing diagnoses. Architectural firms don't feel compelled to put design choices up to popular vote. And yet wee feel compelled to subject the science of government to popular control. I can see at least two reasons for this compulsion: either we feel (1) that the only legitimate governments are democratic ones, or we believe (2) that democratic government yields better consequences.

This is not the time or place to articulate an entire philosophy of civil authority, but suffice it to say that democracy, far from being the only legitimate form of government, is subject to serious shortcomings as a justification of civil authority (trenchant popular apathy, among the most insoluble of these). This leaves the teleological argument: democracy, if not required for legitimacy, is at least beneficial. While democracy may be beneficial in doses, it is far from a panacea. A popular element in government is extremely beneficial as a cure for corruption and individual tyranny, but taken to extremes it gives birth to its own problems (among them...mass corruption and mass tyranny...).

1:03 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

I'm afraid that this is very, very far from my conception of representative government.

If I recall correctly, the argument was that sheer numbers and the impracticability of meeting together were the rationale for a representative system.


Madison seems to have forgotten that there are hierarchies even among the angels).

The trouble with elite representation is that the elite of every society are those who have done well under the status quo. As beneficiaries of the status quo, they have little incentive to change it, even when necessary.


that we elect representatives because governing is a full time job, requires practice, education, experience, expertise and natural ability.

You should read Direct Democracy by Thomas Cronin. His study of direct democracy devices indicates that, where they are used, despite the hand wringing, they have a track record as good as legislatures, and that they are much more likely to be political neutral.


Hospitals don't feel compelled to take a poll before hiring doctors, setting medical policies, or issuing diagnoses.

But they do feel compelled to hire non-medical personnel to make ethical decisions.

The place for technical skills is the bureaucracy.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Dominus Sit Illuminatio Mea said...

If I recall correctly, the argument was that sheer numbers and the impracticability of meeting together were the rationale for a representative system.

Yes, this is one justification for representation. But though I find it compelling, it is not my primary reason for preferring representation to direct democracy. Nor was it our Framers primary reason.

The trouble with elite representation is that the elite of every society are those who have done well under the status quo. As beneficiaries of the status quo, they have little incentive to change it, even when necessary.

What problem? :)

You should read Direct Democracy by Thomas Cronin.

I've not read Cronin, but I've read work by other democrats (e.g. Dahl, Dworkin, Etc.) And I'm far from persuaded. I suppose this is because I hold what Sowell would call the constrained vision of human nature.

His study of direct democracy devices indicates that, where they are used, despite the hand wringing, they have a track record as good as legislatures...

These things are hard to test reliably. Moreover, the test necessarily depends on the criteria you adopt. I find it unlikely that I would share Cronin's criteria for good government.

...and that they are much more likely to be political neutral.

I'm not sure exactly what this means. Does it mean that we would have less bitter partisanship if we made our form of government more directly democratic? That might be good, and it might not--it depends on what we're trading off for it. There are many ways to quiet partisanship--one is to elect a dictator, and keep the people out of the government altogether. Another is to execute or deport everyone on one side of a political issue. There would be less partisanship, but at what cost.

But [hospitals] do feel compelled to hire non-medical personnel to make ethical decisions.

But this is a punt. The gravamen of my argument is that governance, like medicine or architecture, takes special skills. Ethics does as well (indeed, ethics is inextricably intertwined with politics itself). Perhaps hospitals don't let doctors make ethical decisions, but they also don't make the decisions by straw poll.

The place for technical skills is the bureaucracy.

This is very interesting. I'm surprised that you seem to find bureaucracy more acceptable than representation (or am I misreading you? I feel like I am.). Bureaucracy seems to me to have a few of the benefits of representation (government by people with skill, etc.) but many additional liabilities. A bureaucrat doesn't [i]represent[/i] any one. Nor is he responsible to a constituent in the same way that a representative is. There may be areas of life that must be handled by bureaucrats, or something like them (lest I be accused of inconsistency, one of these areas is the legal system), but government by bureaucracy frightens me almost as much as government by the mob.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

I've not read Cronin, but I've read work by other democrats (e.g. Dahl, Dworkin, Etc.) And I'm far from persuaded.

Foreign Affairs' book reviewers liked it, if that's any recommendation to you.


I find it unlikely that I would share Cronin's criteria for good government.

It's not a polemical book, but a scholarly work, with many more hedges than one uses in a blog post.


Does it mean that we would have less bitter partisanship if we made our form of government more directly democratic?

It means that initiatives tend to be less partisan than legislatures. Initiatives, according to the reviews of voting behavior in Cronin, tend to be risk-averse, so they achieve a gradualist, middle-ground approach. Highly partisan, controversial, or radical initiatives tend not to be passed, or at least, passed to a lesser extent than legislatures do so.


I'm surprised that you seem to find bureaucracy more acceptable than representation

Perhaps it is because I am a nameless, faceless bureaucrat. :-)

In my particular duties, I can say I have more knowledge of citizenship law than almost all (if not all) members of Congress. They don't need to know the technical details. The broad scope is sufficient.


but government by bureaucracy frightens me almost as much as government by the mob.

I have not yet come across a good way of regulating the bureaucracy.

One way is the Salvation Army technique, which involves moving the top management from department to department to avoid empire building. The downside is it sometimes takes a few years to get a grasp on the problem, and it makes the level immediately below the rotational level immensely powerful.

Another technique, from the Japanese, is the "up or out" approach, which means that every few years you have to be promoted or you go to the private sector. This approach keeps fresh blood flowing in, but it also gets rid of your most experienced people, creates an incentive for collusion (get a job with the people you're regulating), and leads to staggering organizational charts with innumerable levels of promotion.

If I ever run across a good solution, I'll post it.

8:31 PM  
Anonymous Dominus Sit Illuminatio Mea said...

Foreign Affairs' book reviewers liked it, if that's any recommendation to you...It's not a polemical book, but a scholarly work, with many more hedges than one uses in a blog post.

I'll have to put it on my reading list.

In my particular duties, I can say I have more knowledge of citizenship law than almost all (if not all) members of Congress. They don't need to know the technical details. The broad scope is sufficient.

There's nothing in this that is at odds with my overall argument concerning the requirement of expertise for good government. My main complaint with bureaucracy is that bureaucrats don't represent anyone, and consequently are less directly responsible for their actions. Absent these liabilities, I would be much more comfortable with bureaucracy (though I would also find fault with our present day bureaucracy because of some of the subject matter that it seeks to regulate).

12:38 PM  

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