Most probably recall from a childhood brimming with patriotic American History classes and their echo throughout the culture that the battle cry of the American Revolution was “No taxation without representation!” Until 1763, however, a mere 13 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the French and Indian War ended and the erstwhile loyal British subjects in the American colonies discovered that the British policy of “Salutary Neglect” (giving the colonies the support of the British Empire, but not asking much in return, in order to give them a chance to grow strong and prosperous) was about to come to an end, those same colonists viewed representation in parliament in much the same way that the rest of the British did: It was not really geographically based (though it formally was). Every Member of Parliament represented every British citizen.
The Americans themselves had a more geographically based, direct system of representation, and so were beginning to develop a conceptualization which diverged from the British one. But the question of “representation” has remained a trickier and subtler one than our easy rhetoric has ever quite acknowledged. Who ever really “represents” me, other than myself, and to what extent, with what fidelity? Does my neighbor who is my ideological, religious, moral, and philosophical opposite represent me better than the person two thousand miles away who thinks very similarly to me? Do we really want a system based on representation of regional interests in our Federal government, but representation of competing points of view being a more ad hoc matter? Does geography matter as much as it once did? These are all questions we need to examine.
The first question is the expression of the agency problem: When an agent represents a principal, the degree to which he or she does so faithfully depends on a variety of factors, including how well the interests of the agent are aligned to those of the principal. “Democracy” is one such mechanism: You don’t act in what the majority of your constituents consider to be their interests, and they vote you out in the next election. Markets are another, to some extent for some purposes so efficient that they eliminate the agency problem altogether: My agents who make goods on my (and others’) behalf do so because I will pay for those goods on the market. They are not actually my agents, though they function as though they were (as though I hired them to perform a service on my behalf).
But the problem is more difficult when the principal is a multitude, the choices presented to them for agent severely constrained, and only about half having actually selected the agent who in fact becomes the agent of that multitude as a whole. Combine that with the exaggerated expectations of those who supported the selection of that particular agent, and the exaggerated enmity of those who didn’t, and you have a very tricky agency problem indeed.
Geographic representation is never precise; it covers a region, and may favor some within that region more than others. Any other form of factional representation suffers the same defect: Subdivisions within the faction are not represented, and so some level of aggregation must be selected. It is not fundamentally different from having national-level representatives only, since, in all cases, a constituency of some delimited size is represented by individuals selected to represent it. And support for representatives of a state or district may come from outside that state or district, so that the interests of the representative are not aligned strictly to the interests of the region represented, nor to the country as a whole.
The primary purpose of the federal government is to solve national level collective action problems, but the combination of any system of factional representation (whether geographic, ideological, or sectoral) with pressures in the political process to focus on short time horizons creates an institutional obstacle to doing so effectively. The question is whether factional interests can be better represented in a way which serves real factional long-term interests by representing their position in bargaining over national level action, rather than undermining their real long-term interests by devolving into a competition over spoils.
Most of those who vigorously oppose a candidate do not consider that candidate, should he or she win the election, to be their representative. And many of those who most vigorously support a candidate do not consider that candidate to be their representative either, should the candidate win the election and fail to fulfil all of the often impossible demands of those who supported him or her in the election. That leaves only some few among the moderate and the indifferent, along with the recipients of political favors, who end up feeling that their representative represents their interests.
Traditionally, we have sought to peg representation to geographic locale, with competing polarized ideologies simply being a winner-take-all luck of the draw. But we decry some of the more dysfunctional aspects of geographic representation, which drives representatives to try to “bring home the pork,” to divert as large a portion of federal revenues to their constituents, creating a distributional competition which often undermines the efficiency of federal government to act in the overall national interest. The handful of residents in rural Alaska are glad to get the influx of federal money involved in building “a bridge to nowhere,” but few elsewhere believe it is the best investment of their shared resources.
One much discussed incarnation of this problem comes in the form of “earmarks,” by which Congressional representatives (including senators, who represent individual states) stick bills which divert funds to their districts into other bills which may be completely unrelated. The Colorado Constitution prohibits this practice in our state legislature (and includes other anti-pork provisions, such as a line-item veto for the Governor, and a prohibition against “log-rolling,” or vote trading among representatives), but it is rampant in Congress.
The Denver Post reported that Senator Udall, once again, has declared his opposition to airmarks, and also that he has indulged in them in the past (http://blogs.denverpost.com/thespot/2010/11/15/udall-calls-for-an-end-to-earmarks/18617/). The latter fact is a function of a collective action problem rather than of hypocrisy: Opposition to earmarks does not imply that it is rational for a representative to unilateral refuse to utilize them. Giving the president the line-item veto, however, raises separation of powers issues (giving the president too large a hand in legislation), and has already been ruled unconstitutional.
There are alternatives to geographic representation, such as proportional representation, in which candidates in nationwide or expanded regional elections receive seats by political party, according to how many votes their party receives. Alternatively, seats in nationwide or expanded regional elections can be given to several of the top vote getters, so that parties can run more than one candidate if they think they are particularly strong in the region, and smaller parties can get a seat if they have enough support, even if far less than candidates from larger parties have.
Some revolutions have foundered on the assumption of class representation, relying on the notion that those who were historically or nominally members of a particular class will represent the interests of that class once in power. Unfortunately, once they obtain power, they become members of the ruling class, and tend to represent the interests of the ruling class most faithfully, rather than of the class to which they nominally belonged.
However we deal with the challenge of ensuring that our representatives represent our interests, we will always have two interrelated challenges to address: 1) Making sure that our agents acts in our (the principal’s) interests, and 2) Enabling them to do so effectively. Those populists, scattered across the political ideological spectrum, who focus almost exclusively on the first challenge, and aspire to micromanage the way in which our representatives perform their job, undermine our ability to address the second challenge, by removing any ability to mobilize specialized training, experience, skill, knowledge, and expertise in the act of governance. It is “arm-chair quarterbacking” by those who sincerely believe that they are as good a quarterback as anyone else. But governance is an information intensive activity, requiring some knowledge of law and economics, as well as a variety of relevant familiarity with technological and natural systems implicated in public policy decisions. We need to combine accountability with professionalism.
Understanding the complexity of the challenge of “representation” is a first step toward addressing it systematically and rationally. In the end, the real goal is to mobilize our collective genius in service to humanity, so that our interests are systemically represented by the processes of government, whether or not any individual agent within that government represents our particular regional or ideological interests. Within the framework we have created, we should focus on that goal: Activating and channeling our collective genius in service to human welfare, all things considered. Everything else is merely a means to that end.