The Incompatibility of Individualism and Representative Government

While the American political system is primarily designed to affirm individual sovereignty, making elected officials a channel of private interests divorces individuals from their rights.

The Selfishness Inherent to the System

The American political system is often praised for holding affirmation of individual sovereignty as its primary value. Securing the rights of the individual against the aggression of other actors—including organs of the government itself—is the unipolar goal of government. All the diverse functions of practical governance—the powers to tax and regulate members of the union in service of the common defense and general welfare of the nation—are second-tier goals, for the particular actions government may take in pursuit of them is limited by the question of whether such an action would infringe rights.

There is, too, a certain selfishness to the idea of American republicanism. Its system of checks and balances is designed to counteract the private ambitions of public servants, setting them ever in opposition so that personal will can never gain a stranglehold on public power. The federal government branches are like junction boxes in an electrical circuit; each regulates the movement of a current along a predefined path, preventing damage from being done to the system as a whole by shutting down when faults are exposed. Each has an uncontested supremacy in its own domain but has no influence over other portions of the circuit. Similarly, the executive, judicial and legislative branches are delegated specific responsibilities by the Constitution. In these, the other branches may not meddle. But each must serve its unique function if any end is to be accomplished. The failure of one negates the work done by the others. This creates high hurdles between ambition and action: gridlock is not a Constitutional design flaw; it exists—particularly in the legislature, where interest is pitted against interest—specifically to stymie most political endeavors, lest rights be railroaded by the hotheadedness of an impassioned majority. In Federalist 51, James Madison suggests the constant aim of his structural design “is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over public rights.”

There is a general perception in modern America that the goals of public policy negates the individual will: that private individuals must subvert their desires in order that the nation as a whole be benefited. Democratic systems adopt a numerical morality; right and wrong are not absolute concepts, defined in reference to any concrete ideas, but are a function of the opinions of the majority. Obeying the general will becomes a moral mandate. One must, therefore, step outside of one’s narrow self-interest lest, by failing to do so, he wishes to become an enemy of the public good. For this is the dichotomy such a moral system advances.

But this is a perversion of the American political epistemology outlined by Madison. Representatives are to be conduits of the interests of their constituents. Congress may be a body in which the interests of diverse factions of peoples are coalesced, but this does not mean individual members of those interest groups lose their sovereignty. General will is not some self-sentient being with an agency and an influence all its own; it is an expression of the tallied opinions of the constituent members of a group. Individual sovereignty is innate even in a group setting. If individuals do not possess the ability to say “aye” to a proposal, they cannot come together and take action representative of the will of the group.

It is this principle the American system of representation seemingly protects. Private interests are the foundation of public policy. Representatives in Congress effectively function as interest aggregators: they “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens,” effectively giving self-interested individuals a platform to express their desires on a much broader platform than they could ever hope to achieve with their singular voice.

Representation: Divorcing the Self from the Self

However, this idea—that individual interests are served better by the efficiency and power of a government whose influence and resources vastly outreach those of a singular person—has eroded rather than aided the concept of sovereignty.

Representation requires ceding autonomy; it presumes one gives up power over one’s private affairs and hands it to a proxy manifestation of the self. That proxy will take indirect action for the self, absolving the individual from acting as a proactive agent for his own interests.

Representation bifurcates the self, separating one’s philosophic being from one’s physical being. Transference of one’s mental process to a third-party comes with its own dangers. Individual minds are able to grasp ideas through the lens of their personal experiences, which means that a representative might understand the expressed interests of his constituent, but he cannot possibly comprehend the rationale behind that interest. At best, he can intuit a rationale based on his own experience; his ability to represent his constituents is dependent upon his being.

And therein lies the fundamental problem of representation: it is impossible to divorce one’s perspective from one’s being. The sympathy any elected official must feel for the constituency block he is charged with championing is not a reflection of reality, but an impression of the senses. It requires the representative rely not on reason, but on emotion: for he must imagine himself in the situation of his constituents and, using the rational processes which are affected by his lived experiences, discern how they might feel and react to the issue at hand. The representative’s response is even further abstracted. Not only is the interest which he is charged with protecting divorced from the being which has produced it, it is rooted in a situation derived of fantasy. Sympathy, as Adam Smith notes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which [the individual] himself seems to be altogether incapable, because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality.

The danger that representative might be an unreliable proxy for interest is here compounded. The individual, tasked with ordering his own interests, does not need to imagine how he might react to injustices done to him. He knows because he is as intimately familiar with the details of his life as he is with his own mental and emotional processes. He will deal with any issues that arise in his life in a manner amenable to his self-defined interests. The same cannot be said for representatives, whose need to imagine themselves interested actors in the political questions they arbitrate renders them unreliable actors. They may invent any number of rationales in order to adopt a position that is not theirs, a position in which they have no stake. It is self-interest that keeps men honest. Representatives, whose self-interest is not tied in any material way to the political outcomes they bring about, lack this check upon their own power.

It is impossible for the representative to be a neutral conduit of interest; he must inject his own feelings into the process. And, if this is the case, the possibility that a representative will cease to act—even by proxy—as a conduit for the private interests of his constituents arises. This is a weakness Madison himself admits. Republicanism, he states, encourages the election of representatives “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.” (Federalist 10) However, this hedging—the hope that the personal ethics of elected representatives will lead to the selection of morally upstanding men least likely to be swayed by personal temptations—is not sufficient. The fact that representatives must involve their imaginations in the process of discharging their duties means representatives will be swayed by personal temptations.

The public action of government is championed because it, as a collective, pools resources, allowing for endeavors beyond the more meager means individuals, subject to the limitations of their physical form, can call to their assistance. But coalescing power to overcome natural law is a risky endeavor. The same instruments that allow government to complete broad-scale tasks also remove the natural limitations that keep individuals in check. Survival is the abiding governor of man. The rational man does not injure his neighbor if he knows his survival is in any way impacted by that neighbor’s labor: if, for instance, his neighbor operates the only dairy farm within the vicinity. But pooling power in the federal government insulates its agents from natural limitations; the ability to command law insulates politicians from the consequences of their actions. Representatives are required to use their imaginations in championing the interests of their constituents; this means they are not neutral conduits through which citizens broadcast their desires to the nation. They are proactive agents of change; they think and feel and empathize with the plights of those they represent. They are a chimerical creature: beings with human thoughts and emotions, subject to the same irrational impulses as humans, but insulated from the checks the natural world places upon irrationality. Their will is married to an institution excepted from the limitations of the natural world.

Any time an individual comes under threat, their default reaction will be towards their own preservation. As reason places limits upon man, informing him that his long-term interests are not served by rash actions injurious to his ability to prosper in future, the survival instinct is not a default endorsement of hedonism (as some social contract theorists might suggest). It is, however, a precursor to hedonism when natural constraints are removed, as is the case with representatives, who can command the law and mold it to their own interests. Worse still, this perversion of interest can masquerade as an altruistic desire to serve a certain constituency group, allowing politicians’ personal desires to be dressed in the veneer of the general will, able to command the sense of moral urgency connected to the voice of a majority in a democratic system.

This is made all the easier by the nationalization of individual interest that occurs as a result of the representative system. Politics is contextual: life is lived at the local level; the issues that hold sway over private interest arise there. They are a product of the unique array of individuals with disparate talents, passions and goals and the conditions in which they interact. But exporting the representation of interest to Congress takes solutions out of the community in which the problems arose and in which those solutions will be implemented. It charges elected officials with no knowledge of localities with the weighty task of drafting laws designed to profoundly impact how communities operate. Representation asks individuals not to be proactive agents for change in their own lives, instead claiming the greater resources agents of the government can call upon can better solve political problems. But this requires divorcing the self from the self and casting the individual to the sideline of their own affairs.


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