Sunday, September 14, 2003

Re: The Great Litmus Test

Barry, I must heartily disagree with your analysis of the responsibilities of our elected representatives. If it was their job to react directly to the opinions of the public, we would hardly have need of them at all. The very reason for their existence is an effort to buffer public policy from the random tides of public opinion. James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10: "Hence it is such that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." It was in an effort to curb the flighty tendencies of the public that a representative government was chosen.

In the view of the founders, as in my view, it would be irresponsible, given the historical record of previous democracies, to expect the public to be steady, just, and consistently well-informed. As I have said on other occasions, it is foolish to attempt to solve systemic problems with calls for personal responsibility. Telling the people that it is their fault for not seeing through government propaganda created to stir their emotions is no more responsible than trying to solve crime by telling criminals they need to stop breaking the law or solve poverty by telling the impoverished they should get of their ass and get a real job. The system needs to recognize that the emotions of the people are inconstant and easily swayed and that their judgment can thus be impaired. And the system needs to be constructed in such a manner as to be able weather these storms of turbulent sentiment. And so it has. Thus have we a congress. A congress, quoting Madison again, "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

It is precisely the duty of our representatives to look at a larger picture than next week's opinion polls. And as I see it that duty is in relation to the importance of the issue. If the issue is whether or not a resolution is passed to commend the Red Cross for their efforts in Afghanistan, I would not see it as a dereliction of duty, per se if a representative casts their vote for trivial political reasons. But if they do the same on the question of going to war, that would clearly be a dereliction of duty. I do not know what other duty there is for a representative than to exercise their wisdom and love of justice, held above "temporary or partial considerations", with regards to the momentous issues of the day.

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