Congressional Representatives Should Secure Rights, Not Interests

In the vernacular, the role of representatives is most often understood in terms of how they service the interests of the polity: the average citizen is busy and involved in his or her own life and has neither the time, inclination or requisite knowledge to make informed political choices. Or so the reasoning goes.

Enter the representative, who fulfills one of two roles, depending upon whether one buys into the delegate or trustee model of representation. In the former, the representative is a kind of political courier: he listens to his constituents and votes in accordance with the interests they express. By contrast, the trustee model of representation affords the representative a much greater degree of autonomy: he still listens to his constituents but uses his own judgment to determine what policy best serves their interests.

In both models, representatives are primarily casts as government agents who are a proxy for the interests of their constituents. Even the trustee model, which has as its cornerstone a certain degree of arrogance, does not question the validity of constituent interests, but merely suggests that as the average citizen in the polity is not privy to certain government information and is not an expert in the nuances of complicated affairs such as healthcare law, he or she does not know what choices are best calculated to satisfy those interests.

Focusing the actions of legislators — who, in order for government to function, must have a certain degree of discretion — on interests practically ensures none will be served. Even the trustee model of representation demands the individual legislator assert his judgment. A community is, after all, a set of factions, all vying for supremacy. Government requires choice and policy often elevates one group at the expense of another.

There is no doubt that such practices do nothing to bolster political efficacy, but whether they serve broader civic good is less clear. Several factors are at play. First, there’s a question of whether exporting needs to a proxy actor can genuinely satisfy the individual whose interests are at issue. Second, there’s the question of how individual factions are played off against each other in the collective body of the legislature. Third and finally, there’s the question of whether government is too expansive in looking to something as subjective as need as a guide rail for the legislative process.

The Exportation of Need

Representatives who look to their constituents’ interests are substituting their judgment for the individuals whose needs they are serving. Even when representatives adhere to the ethics of the delegate model of representation and vote solely in accord with the express wishes of their constituents, their ideas and wills necessarily override those of the people they represent. A given representative cannot actually understand the motives or reason behind a particular constituency’s interests. He can, through his own experiences, come to understand them, but ultimately his ability to conceive the merits of an argument is a product of his own perception. Even though the ends are the same, the process by which each party arrives is different as two parallel roads running towards the same destination. The journey ends in the same place, but what one experiences in getting there is different, as will be the tales relayed. A representative must often defend his actions; he must do so on his own terms, and here the difference in intellection becomes crucial.

It is evident that even the system of representation that pays the most deference to respecting the autonomy of the individual intrudes upon it. But, this is a largely theoretical matter. Does this correlate to any real-world harm?

Interestingly, certain arguments made by Alexander Hamilton would suggest so. In Federalist 23, while making the case for an energetic executive, Hamilton argued against diluting the powers of the president, as he believed doing so would render the office utterly ineffectual. He writes, “the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained.”

Effectively, this reinforces the idea that an individual is the only person who can look to their own interests. Conversely, this means that the representative, even if looking to fulfill the needs of their constituents, is really safeguarding his own. His motives differ from his constituents’, even though both are in pursuit of the same goal: the constituent is concerned with his own survival just as the representative is concerned with his. Neither can truly do so when the means requires an agent outside of the self.

Individual Interest and the Common Good

This little logical conundrum does affect the quality of government. Representatives concerned with fulfilling the interests of their constituents effectively divorce the self from need. The individual is proactive in generating need, but passive in filling it: this is dependent upon the services provided by another.

But faction is an incredibly important part of keeping government in check. Legislators often like to speak of “the common good” as the ultimate motive of politics. But there is no such thing as the common good because life is individuated. Interests align only superficially: the process of reason by which individuals determine need depends upon the context of the life of the person in question. This is evident in the differentiation between constituent and representative: even though they are ostensibly allied in pursuing similar ends, they do so for very different reasons. The relationship that binds them can endure only given a very specific set of conditions. Once these change — for instance, say the topic of legislation up for debate changes — so too does everything else. Different policy proposals affect different coalitions, in and out of government. This is not a problem if everyone is the primary agent in their own life, because their reason informs them which avenue is aligned with their interest. But if interest-adjudication has been exported, the issue immediately becomes incredibly murky.

What’s more, faction cannot keep the public in check if the most involved players are forever exerting their judgment on behalf of another. Madison’s conception of Congress was not of one unified body, enervated with a single animating will: the public good. Rather, it was of a messy, fractious contest between parties directly lobbying for their livelihoods. Madison sought to foster rivalries in Congress, not in order to actively pit one group of people against each other, but with an aim to ensuring “that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”

Self-interest keeps individuals honest. When an individual’s survival depends on his or her choices, the greatest motivation lies in making choices that are in keeping with the nature of reality. In private communities, this amounts to an incentive to treat one neighbor’s fairly, to enter into business transactions honestly, lest one make an enemy of someone upon whom one’s quality of life depends. When everyone in a community behaves this way, the whole prospers. But only so long as each individual is self-regulating. Madison took this model and attempted to recreate it, on a broader scale, in Congress.

Rights, Not Interests

But how is the idea of factions pursuing their own interest reconcilable with a representative system, where individuals are not the primary agents in their own lives?

The problem is the preoccupation with interests. Rather, the emphasis should be placed upon rights.

Interests are subjective. Only the individual who has determined a particular end to be towards their benefit is capable of navigating the complexities of life and successfully reaching their self-determined end. The individual’s end is the product of having integrated various values into their motives in life. Understanding how to apply these values to things external to the self can only come from someone familiar with the internal process of having rationalized certain values. No external agent can do so.

Representatives might, in the short-term be able to substantively achieve an end, but they cannot substitute the process that makes an individual decide to pursue that end.

Rights, unlike interests, are objective. They are held by all people in exactly the same manner and to the same degree, even if individuals choose to exercise and apply them differently. If representatives are concerned with protecting rights, rather than pursuing interests, the issue of which constituency is more deserving of support is somewhat negated. Policy will still pursue different objectives and disparately impact various constituencies, but so long as protection of rights is the guide rail by which representatives vote, individuals are still held at parity in the eyes of the law.

Among the troubles of the representative system, particularly when the trustee model is widely accepted, is that government agents who exercise their judgment must inevitably promote one constituency’s interests over another, which ends an extra air of legitimacy to those causes that are championed. As government is not a creator and receives its resources from its citizens’ pockets, this can mean that groups whose interests have been deemed less worthy of government protection than others are subsidizing others whose interests are elevated to the apex of political virtue. This not only has negative implications for efficacy, but it also makes rule of law impossible. Representatives exercise their judgment and discriminate against certain groups, violating the parity with which rights are held before the law at the same time.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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