The Trump era has created a new dilemma for Republican congresspersons, now forced to reconcile the preferences of their base with their potentially contradictory personal beliefs. This highlights an under-examined question in political theory. Namely, what should democratically-elected representatives do when their own moral compass points North, while their constituents’ points South? Can representatives ever be forgiven for betraying the democratic will in favor of their own pet morality? Or conversely, can they ever be forgiven for blindly obeying Trump’s newly formed base at the expense of doing what’s right? It’s tempting to answer these questions on a caseby-case basis; it’s easy to argue that the public will can never justify draconian measures like Trump’s travel ban. But it’s just as easy to argue that a Massachusetts representative shouldn’t vote to repeal Obamacare. Focusing only on the extreme circumstances won’t do. A comprehensive answer to the broadest version of the question must be sought after and adhered to, especially in the era of Trump. We must answer the question, “What are the ethical responsibilities of a democratically elected representative?”
Conventional political science conceives two answers to this question. The first, the delegate model, decrees that representatives are essentially mouthpieces for the public responsibly only for enacting the policies desired by their constituents. The trustee model, on the other hand, envisions representatives as highly esteemed individuals entrusted to make decisions on difficult matters according to their best judgement of what’s best for their constituents.
In any delegate system, delegates must decide what it means to represent the will of their constituents. The most obvious means of doing so would be strict majoritarianism, probably determined through direct polling. This system of decision-making creates a serious problem for the delegate model because it almost inevitably leads to a tyranny of the majority. For example, a government in a society of ten individuals may be considering use eminent domain to pave a new road that would give seven individuals the ability to drive to work more directly. However, the other three individuals would be uprooted from their homes, which lie in the path of the proposed road. A delegate conducting a poll would conclude that the road should be built, even though the three other members of society would almost certainly collectively be harmed more than the other seven would collectively benefit. This example illustrates the problem with strict majoritarianism: a simple majority vote has no means of dealing with relative differences in utility gained or lost. Many policies would have a minor positive effect on the majority and a severe negative effect on the minority. In these cases where the relative utility for each individual affected by a policy differs substantially, majoritarian policies do more harm than good.
In theory, the delegate model has the ability to cope with this problem. In a theoretical scenario in which every single constituent was polled on their preferred policy option on a given issue as well as the degree to which they cared about it from 1-10, a delegate could create a formula for choosing. In reality, delegates have only simple polls to work with, in addition to calls, letters, and other lobbying efforts from their constituents. One might argue that delegates should use these forms of lobbying to determine the degree to which constituents support a policy position. However, there’s a response bias that ensures all concerned citizens express their demands as a 10. If I contact a representative with the goal to persuade the representative to support my preference, I’m incentivized to present my case as strongly as possible regardless of my actual interests. And if I don’t care that much, I simply won’t make the effort to call in the first place. Delegates evaluating lobbying would be forced to decide for themselves which constituents receive varying amounts of utility lost or gained from a certain policy. Because these decisions could only be personal judgments about the policy, the delegate making them would be adopting the role of a trustee. A true delegate can only look to serve the majority and all its tyranny.
On the other hand, the trustee model easily deals with the problem of the tyranny of the majority. A trustee can simply analyze a policy context and determine what solution would be best for their constituents instead of looking to their particular desires; a trustee would simply decide that the use of eminent domain to destroy three peoples’ homes would be net harmful. While many laud the delegate model as more purely democratic, the problem of the tyranny of the majority demonstrates the danger of a direct democracy. A representative trustee system satisfies the core principles of democratic theory by giving the people control of government without sacrificing the minority at democracy’s alter.
A representative trustee system satisfies the core principles of democratic theory by giving the people control of government without sacrificing the minority at democracy’s alter.
The trustee model has another advantage over the delegate model in that its implementation typically results in better policy outcomes. Representatives may not be any more enlightened or policy-savvy than the average voter, but they do have far better tools available to make decisions. Representatives have access to classified government information that provides details that may be crucial to policy decisions. Further, most have huge support staffs to analyze research and access to policy reports from institutions like the Congressional Budget Office. These resources ensure that trustees occupy a far better position to make decisions about policy than delegates who rely on the opinion of relatively uninformed voters.
Representatives may not be any more enlightened or policy-savvy than the average voter, but they do have far better tools available to make decisions.
One might object that even if trustees can make better decisions than individual voters, voters collectively reach better decisions. James Surokiecki has presented strong evidence that the aggregate predictions and decisions of crowds of individuals working separately were far better than even the best prepared individuals and research think tanks. For example, he points to the ability of betting markets to predict election results far more accurately than even the best polling analysts. There are two problems with this argument, as it applies to the delegate model. First, the nature of informational asymmetry between trustees and voters. While crowds may perform better than think tanks, the degree of differences of information in these contexts was relatively small compared to certain policy contexts. A policymaker making decisions about NSA surveillance may have access to classified information about thwarted terrorist plots that would be totally unpredictable for the average voter. In cases like these, no amount of aggregation of voters will be able to make as effective decisions as a fully informed trustee.
More importantly, Surokiecki’s argument only applies when individuals work toward the same objective. In betting markets, all the gamblers use different methods and strategies to accomplish the same goal: predicting the election correctly. Crowds’ wisdom derives directly from their identical objectives; crowds do better than individuals because they consider all possibilities and methods to achieve a particular objective, while individuals are limited by their own biases.
Voters, however, have very different objectives in voting. Many voters cast their ballot according to their self-interest, according Jason Weeden and Robert Kuzban. They point to data that suggests, for instance, that three-quarters of the unemployed believe the government should provide a decent living for the unemployed, while less than half of employed people agree. Voters who act in self-interest have different objectives. Bob’s objective is maximizing Bob’s utility, but Jerry’s objective is maximizing Jerry’s utility. Even selfless voters, however, have different objectives. Voters have a plurality of value systems that they use to determine policy preferences. Many vote for the policies that maximize freedom, while others vote to maximize equality or utility. These varying objectives also dilute crowd wisdom, and prevent the majority policy opinions from being particularly wise. As such, an extremely well-informed trustee with a single value system has a better chance of producing good decisions than a crowd of differently valued and often selfish uninformed individuals.
While the plurality of value systems creates an advantage for the trustee model in terms of producing high-quality decisions, it also forms the grounds for a compelling case for the delegate model. Given the plurality of value systems, it’s arguably impossible for a trustee to truly act on behalf of all her constituents. The trustee model presumes that “what’s best” for the constituents can be objectively determined, but different constituents have different goals in mind when making policy decisions. Since a trustee can only have one value system, what she thinks best for her constituents totally excludes some from being represented. The delegate system, on the other hand, allows each constituent to use their own value system to reach their conclusions and simply aggregates the ultimate decisions of voters.
This admittedly presents a definite problem for the trustee system. I would argue, however, that the ability to elect a trustee of choice sufficiently resolves this objection. In any democracy, the policy outcomes will not align with certain voters preferences, largely due to differences in value systems. A legitimate democracy must offer voters an equal voice in the value system and policies ultimately implemented. While a delegate system accommodates this requirement more transparently, by allowing voters to support policies which align with their value systems, the trustee system also accommodates it by giving citizens an equal opportunity to choose a delegate who will support their values. Given the inevitability of outcomes not preferred by all parties, this more oblique version of accommodating this requirement doesn’t actually meaningfully dilute any voters’ voices.
Only the trustee model can avoid the tyranny of the majority and produce better decisions – and free Republicans to do the right thing even in the age of Trump.
There’s certainly a particular attractiveness in the delegate model’s direct democratic approach. However, upon rigorous examination, only the trustee model can avoid the tyranny of the majority and produce better decisions—and free Republicans to do the right thing even in the age of Trump.
Connor Warshauer ‘21 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.