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An Elective Despotism

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Before American politicians lecture others on the virtues of representative government, perhaps some self-examination would be in order.

The United States unquestionably has the trappings of representative government. Americans vote for officeholders on a regular basis, and these officeholders, in theory, vote on issues with their constituents’ interests in mind. From the outside it sure looks like representative democracy.

But looks can be deceiving, and in this case they are. Big government cannot be truly representative because it is beyond the ability of the people to monitor it.

It is well documented, for example, that the powers of congressional incumbency have produced a turnover rate that the members of the old Soviet Politburo would have envied. This is a serious indictment. Representation without an effective method of recall is an empty idea. One vote, in all but the smallest jurisdiction, is impotent, and the cost of mounting a campaign against an incumbent is beyond the means of the average person, who is additionally hampered by campaign-finance restrictions.

But that may not be the most serious blemish on the theory of representation.

The concept of representation implies that people know what to expect from the person they are voting for. Yet this is usually not the case. A congressman will vote on a vast variety of issues. How can a voter know what a candidate thinks? Broken campaign promises are so commonplace they no longer attract attention. Even when a member of Congress breaks his promise to serve only a few terms, it’s considered no big deal. Sometimes violation of a campaign pledge, say to cut taxes or spending, is taken as a sign of growth, at least according to some editorial writers. Moreover, in today’s political system, there is no way for someone to truly represent hundreds of thousands or millions of people with widely diverse and even conflicting interests. Words have lost their meaning. In what sense is “my” congressman my representative?

This brings up another problem: members of Congress often don’t know what they are voting on. They admit they don’t read the bills. And government has taken into its grip so many areas of life that no congressman could possibly understand even a small fraction of the subjects dealt with in legislation. Since they can’t make up their own minds on these matters, members of Congress rely on information from vested interests. It is unsurprising that even congressmen who begin their careers promising to shrink government turn into big spenders. The unelected quasi-legislative regulatory agencies Congress has created also make a mockery of representation.

President Bush’s budget proposal illustrates the problem. No representative will read the entire 2,000-page budget. Each may be familiar with a few parts that are of specific interest to him and a well-organized constituency, but he will have no detailed knowledge of most of the particulars or the overall picture. Yet he will vote up or down on it. In what sense does he represent the voters?

What makes this worse is that no concerned individual can check up on his representative, for that would require time and expertise few people could possess. Have you ever tried to read the federal budget? If you rely on newspaper accounts, you’re apt to be confused by the contradictory reports describing it as both austere and extravagant. Which is true? How would you find out?

If the government is beyond the control of the legislators as well as the people they theoretically work for, in what sense is the system representative? In truth, we have ended up with what Jefferson feared, an elective despotism. Let’s not be too quick to export it.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.