Who do members of parliament represent?

Delegate - selected for perfect obedience

The theoretical literature on political representation focused on whether representatives should act as delegates or as trustees. James Madison articulated a delegate conception of representation. Representatives who are delegates simply follow the expressed preferences of their constituents.

The classical liberals of the 18th century were highly sceptical about the capability and willingness of politics and politicians to further the interests of the ordinary citizen, and thought the political direction of resource allocation retards rather than facilitates economic progress.

Governments were considered to be institutions to be protected from but made necessary by the elementary fact that all persons are not angels. Constitutions were a means to constrain collective authority. The problem of constitutional design was ensuring that government powers would be effectively limited.

  • Sovereignty was split among several levels of collective authority; federalism was designed to allow for a deconcentration or decentralization of coercive state power.
  • At each level of authority, separate branches of government were deliberately placed in continued tension, one with another.
  • The dominant legislative branch was further restricted by the constitutional establishment of two houses bodies, each of which was elected on a separate principle of representation.

These constitutions were designed and put in place by the classical liberals to check or constrain the power of the state over individuals. The motivating force was never one of making government work better or even of insuring that all interests were more fully represented.

Members of parliament as trustees are representatives who follow their own understanding of the best action to pursue in another view. As Edmund Burke wrote:

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.

You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. …

Our representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Burke does not seem to be a fan of federalism and vote trading to protect minorities. Madison liked conflict and tension as a constraint of power and the size of government.

Schumpeter disputed that democracy was a process by which the electorate identified the common good, and that politicians carried this out:

• The people’s ignorance and superficiality meant that they were manipulated by politicians who set the agenda.

• Democracy is the mechanism for competition between leaders.

• Although periodic votes legitimise governments and keep them accountable, the policy program is very much seen as their own and not that of the people, and the participatory role for individuals is usually severely limited.

Modern democracy is government subject to electoral checks. John Stuart Mill had sympathy for this view that parliaments are best suited to be places of public debate on the various opinions held by the population and to act as watchdogs of the professionals who create and administer laws and policy:

Their part is to indicate wants, to be an organ for popular demands, and a place of adverse discussion for all opinions relating to public matters, both great and small; and, along with this, to check by criticism, and eventually by withdrawing their support, those high public officers who really conduct the public business, or who appoint those by whom it is conducted

Representative democracy has the advantage of allowing the community to rely in its decision-making on the contributions of individuals with special qualifications of intelligence or character. Representative democracy makes a more effective use of resources within the citizenry to advance the common good.

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