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Political Representation Essay

Today, in countries which choose representative democracy as a form of state, ordinary citizens have the right to one man-one vote and thus they, in regular elections, vote for a political candidate or a political party which they want to be their own representative. This form of state is called ‘representative democracy’ or ‘modern constitutional representative government’ or political representation in general. Nowadays, the legitimacy and authority of the representative government is regarded as resulting from its being an expression of the will of the people.

However, this expression as the source of the legitimate authorization for public acts is indirect: citizens transfer it to their representatives as intermediaries. The representatives as intermediaries are those who make the people’s will present on its behalf. Thus, political representation has its theoretical scheme two political actors: the citizens or the people and the representative. This scheme of political representation which looks simple actually has many political implications for political actors and processes.

My final paper is concerned with exploring what the modern terminology of political representation means and what implications it involves. As Hanna F. Pitkin, Allen P. Griffiths show, the conceptual analysis of the idea of representation, or the distinction between the several senses of representation, is very helpful for avoiding equivocations in the word ‘representation’. Griffiths posits four senses of representation. The first is descriptive representation, in which one person represents another by being sufficiently like him or her.

The second is symbolic representation, in which persons can represent or embody traditions and spirits of things without having any particular personal qualities: so the flag represents the state, even though the flag itself does not connote the character of the state. Third, ascriptive representation, like the relation between the member of parliament and his or her constituents, means to represent in the sense that what the representative does or decides commits those he or she represents. Fourth, members of parliament may always concern themselves with the interests of their own electors against any other interests.

This is representation of interests (Griffiths, pp. 188-190). The distinctions between these four senses of representation provide us with a starting point for understanding what representation means. There is a certain idea common to the various senses of the term representation: a reflection of something in the place of that thing. The common idea of representation applies within the political sphere in the sense that the basic scheme of political representation is the notion of one person standing in place of another for the performance of public acts.

The eighteenth and the nineteenth century European thinkers, Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham, contributed to the establishment of the theorization of political representation as a dominant political practice. They, albeit with different emphases and arguments, were interested in how it is appropriate or possible for the people to pursue their interests in a society, and how representative government must work to be a government for the well-being of all people.

To address these issues, they investigated who was to be the representative, who was to be the represented and how their relationship was to be established and maintained. I will start with Burke’s view of politics or government, a starting point from which to approach his conception of political representation. According to Burke, politics or government is basically a matter of trust. The essence of this trust lies in the exercise of power being for the ultimate benefit of those over whom it is exercise, and hence in being in the end accountable to them.

When the exercise of political power is contrary to this initial purpose, it loses its legitimacy: That all political power which is set over men, and that all privilege claimed or exercised in exclusion of them, being wholly artificial, and for so much a derogation from the natural equality of mankind at large, ought to be some way or other exercised ultimately for their benefit…. If it is true with regard to every species of political dominion….

then such rights, or privileges, or whatever you choose to call them, are all in the strictest sense a trust; and it is of the very essence of every trust to be rendered accountable; even totally to cease, when it substantially varies from the purposes for which it alone could have a lawful existence. (Burke, 1783) As viewed in this passage, for Burke all political power is exercised by someone to the exclusion of someone else. However, the exclusive exercise of power is not for the specific group which has the power but for the benefit of those who entrust that power to it.

This act of trust is a result of the voluntary will of the people. According to Burke politics, and in particular the constitution of the state and the due distribution of its power, requires a deep knowledge of human nature, human necessities and various elements necessary for the operation of the mechanism of civil institutions. Politics is a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill, not to be taught a priori (Burke, p. 124). Due to this inherently professional character of politics, Burke thought that only people with reason and judgment had the capacity to engage in politics to control the state for the benefit for all people.

He believed that this was the way to guarantee the true interests of people. To this end, in Burke’s view the representative must be created to act on their behalf. Burke’s representatives, who are distinguished from men in general above all by being equipped to participate in public functions, have two main tasks to perform for their constituents: one is to act on behalf of men in general because of the latter’s incapability, the other is to act on behalf of the public in order to defend the interests of both.

Together with Burke’s acceptance of the contrasting social roles of men and the public and their essentially conventional basis, this definition of the representatives’ task lays him open to the criticism that those definitions of the roles and the tasks in practice simply strengthen the predominant class in society (Bart, 1972: p. 360). From Burke’s own point of view, however, the individual may all too often be foolish but the species is wise and acts rightly. Therefore, for Burke the species itself to which men and the public each belong both deserves and needs to be protected by the creation of the representatives.

This is why he insists that a representative or parliament is necessary to act as a guardian of a privilege. To defend individual interests within a civil society, a representative must not only be committed to their defense, but also he must be able to judge accurately what their interests really are. For Burke, a member of parliament is not a simple delegate for the electors, but a representative authorized by his or her constituents to exercise his independent judgment to their behalf.

Thus, for Burke the judgment of interests of the individual and society is made not by the electors, but by the representative who has knowledge, reason, moral insight and commitment which is not reducible to anyone’s particular interests. In analyzing political representation, even if Burke insists on the need for the creation of the representative by the reason of the ordinary man’s lack of knowledge and practical ability for politics, he does not deny that the whole people is supreme author of political power.

In making representatives the members of a state must aim to secure their interests according to their portions in a society, which is, in Burke’s view, simply a requirement of justice. At this point, Burke is concerned with the modern understanding of political representation: the scheme of political representation aims to strive for the public good. But Burke, unlike most other more recent major interpreters of political representation, is far from accepting the full equality of the represented when he sets out what is involved in the selection of the representative.

Burke’s conception of political representation is developed in different ways by various thinkers after him. I will now explore how J. Bentham addresses these issues. Bentham’s idea of political representation emanated directly from his general philosophical position. That is, just as Bentham’s philosophy, politics and sociology are based on the greatest happiness principle, so we can trace his idea of political representation to be same fundamental source (Bentham, 1983: p. 2).

For Bentham a society is the total assemblage of self-interested individuals, and the public interest in a society is nothing other than the sum of the interests of the individuals. Bentham’s distinctive view of society is, unlike Burke’s, is founded on the assumption that an individual is the best judge concerning what his or her interest is (Bentham, p. 12). Therefore, when they pursue their interest respectively without relying on exterior criteria such as the judgments of the more capable men, society’s general interest can and will be obtained.

Bentham’s view, which interprets individuals as the best judge of their own interests, extends to the standing of the individual in the sphere of politics. According to Bentham, sovereignty in a state is exercised by the constitutive authority (Ibid, p. 25). The constitutive authority, to which all other authorities of the state are subordinate, resides in the whole body of electors. Thus, Bentham sees that when public decisions are the expression of the thoughts and feelings of the public, the general interest in a state is not separated from the particular interest of its individual citizens.

The general interest cannot be established without direct reference to individual interest. In the process, Bentham notices the occasional conflicts between the general interest and the individual interest. With his belief in the people, Bentham maintains that the success or failure of representative government depends not on the people but on the representative, because while the people have the moral and political capability to sustain their polity, the representatives tend to have ‘sinister interests’ which are harmful to representative democracy (Bentham, p. 70).

To the end of the successful working of the representative system, Bentham emphasizes the power and importance of public opinion as follows: Public opinion may be considered as a system of law, emanating from the body of the people…. To the pernicious exercise of the power of government it is the only check; to the beneficial, an indispensable supplement. Able rulers lead it; prudent rulers lead or follow it; foolish rulers disregard it (Bentham, p. 36). For Bentham, public opinions are formed by aggregate of the opinions of the members of society, and are not a mere echo of government or professional politicians.

Public opinion made in this way is not corruptible. Bentham’s trust in public opinion as the determinant factor in bringing matters to a conclusion is specifically shown in the proposal of the public opinion tribunal. Believing that the people’s voice, not the capability of the representative, is the social force behind the successful operation of representative government, Bentham argues that the settlement of conflicts and disputes in a society can be done through continuous attention to what the people think and what they want.

Bentham thinks that the problems and tensions in making the representative government work lie more with the rulers whose interests could not be always assumed to be identical with the interests of the people. Hence, he established many institutional devices to enable the representative to perform their roles properly in the interest of the whole people. For example, Bentham’s conception of secret suffrage as a method of voting aims to make it a safeguard against the abuse of power (Bentham, p. 186).

In addition, such devices include the ‘temporary non-relocability system’ of the legislature, the ‘p.o. t. ’ and the ‘legislation penal judicatory’ (Bentham, pp. 72-91). Through these devices, Bentham tried to make the representatives accountable to the represented. By doing so, he sought to ensure that the represented the people remained as the political actor qualified to decide the matters in a state even after setting up representatives. For him, the importance of the representative system does not only lie in it being a great security for good government, but also in its placing sovereign power in the hands of the people continuously.

This is the central point of his case for political representation as machinery for good government for the greatest numbers of individuals in a state. Conclusion Believing that representative government would enable the people to pursue their public interests effectively and representative democracy would thus be a desirable form of state, Burke and Bentham tried to address the theoretical justifications or representative government and its practical problems in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Burke’s conception of political representation was essentially based on a conception of a trusteeship.

Although Burke mentions the prevalence of the people in the ultimate resolutions in major conflicts, his conception of a healthy viable practice of political representation commits him to a politics of trust on which the people is compelled to depend. Bentham’s validation of the idea of political representation is developed very differently from Burke’s. By presuming every person’s entitlement to power in a state, Bentham maintains that the people have the knowledge and ability to judge public affairs for themselves.

Nevertheless, the people employ a representative to act on its behalf as a matter of convenience. Bentham does not believe that the representative can run the government better than the people, because the representative does not process moral and political capabilities superior to the people. Accordingly, for Bentham, the representative is a delegate to express the public opinion, wishes and feeling, which is a way to promote the general interest in a state.

I suggest that political representation must be understood not so much in the terms of a particular relationship based on the theoretical justification for viewing the people and the representative as the main political actors, but through a broader and more comprehensive conception of the political process. Today discussion of more fundamental elements in political representation seen as a scheme for public action is almost non-existent. The problem is not only that we have not posed the questions seriously, but also that we are quite unable to answer them convincingly.

The theory of political representation is at present in a very feeble condition. Despite intense interest in practical issues of political representation, the term political representation itself has been poorly and inadequately understood. Without a fuller understanding of political representation than we at present have, the main emphasis of political representation narrows to technical issues of the rational pursuit and advancing of particular interests and of elections as a means of allotting of power.

I do not deny that in contemporary politics we need to analyze how interests are distributed among groups if we are to grasp what is actually happening. But in order to assess how and how far representative government can reasonably be expected to produce good government, we must recognize that there is more to political representation than the instrumental and fundamental pursuit of material interests.

Otherwise, as is demonstrated by the way in which our contemporary discussions about political representation have in practice been carried on, representative democracy works less as a substitute for popular self-rule than as a mechanism through which a given population of a society can in practice pursue their interests effectively. This means that we must learn to understand political representation not in narrow terms of the responsiveness of the particular relationship between two political actors, but more through a comprehensive conception of the political process as a whole.

Bibliography Bentham, J. ‘Constitutional Code’ in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. F. Rosen and J. H. Burns (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) Burke, E. Writings and Speeches, ed. L. G. Mitchell, Vol. 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) Burke, E. The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, ed. W. King and F. Laurence (London: Rivington, 1826-7) Griffiths, A. P. (1960) “How Can One Person Represent Another? ” Aristotelian Society, Supplementary.


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