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Political Representation

Representing The Rights And Interests Of Individuals

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) contains a theory of authorization and consent that produces a conception of representation that straddles the corporatist-individualist divide. Individuals, in becoming party to the social contract, authorize the sovereign, who then becomes their representative. It is only after they enter into the contract that individuals are merged into the body politic. Once constituted, the state is conceived of in the medieval corporatist fashion, with all political rights of individuals being alienated unto it, with the single exception of the right to life of the individual, which, not being properly political, cannot be alienated. The individualist elements of Hobbes's theory begin the process that results in the individualization of the theory of political representation, laying the way for the development of modern democratic representation.

John Locke makes representation central to his theory of government in The Second Treatise of Government (1690), stating that the consent of the majority (primarily to taxation) must be given "either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them" (p. 362). He also introduces a fairly robust conception of the accountability of the representative organ to the people. The government is entrusted with the "right of making laws … for the public good," that is, in the interest and for the benefit of those represented, and if it breaches that trust, the people may rescind their authority and place it in another government. The mechanism of election is only imperfectly integrated into this theory, and is inadequate to attain the required degree of accountability, however, so Locke must include the "appeal … to Heaven," namely, the force of arms, as an alternate mechanism for the selection of representatives (p. 427)

The idea of the representation of individuals, and not corporations, paved the way for the theory of governmental accountability. This in turn paved the way for a democratic conception of representation, as all that was left at this point was to extend the franchise to the whole people. Montesquieu, in his discussion of the constitution of England, praises the institution of representative legislatures in a clear foreshadowing of the democratic revolution in representative practice: "As, in a free state, every man, considered to have a free soul, should be governed by himself, the people as a body should have legislative power; but, as this is impossible in large states and is subject to many drawbacks in small ones, the people must have their representatives do all that they themselves cannot do" (p. 159). However the democratization of representation faced two challenges in the years preceding the advent of representative democracy.

In his attack on political representation in Of the Social Contract (1762), Rousseau equates it with the use of mercenary solders, and then asserts that it is literally impossible: "Sovereignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be alienated; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will does not admit of being represented" (p. 114). The essential moral capacity of persons, the very soul of politics for Rousseau, cannot be delegated. It requires the direct, unmediated participation of the individual. Against this background, it is clear that representative democracy itself symbolizes the triumph of the liberal view of the appropriate sphere of politics: that the state should be limited in its enforcement of comprehensive moral or religious doctrines. It also heralds the triumph of an instrumental view of politics, as opposed to the classical view that direct participation in politics is a distinct endeavor essential to or necessary for the fullest expression of human being.

While affirming the centrality of representation to legitimate government, Edmund Burke revives the corporatist view that the interests and rights of the community are "unattached" to any concrete entities such as population, territory, and tax contribution. His view of parliament is that it is "the express image of the feelings of the nation," (Thoughts, p. 292) and as such is "not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests … but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole" (Speech, p. 69). For this reason, representatives need not be tied directly to the constituencies they represent. Constituencies need not have direct representation, as they still enjoyed "virtual representation" deriving from a "communion of interests and sympathy in feelings and desires between those who act in the name of any description of people and the people in whose name they act, though the trustees are not actually chosen by them" (Letter, p. 629). Rather than viewing the representative as a delegate, authorized to do only what the constituency wills, and limited by the expressed interests and preferences, Burke saw the representative as a trustee authorized to judge and act independently of the constituency's "opinions."

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolitical Representation - Classical Consent, Medieval Corporatism And The Origin Of Political Representation, Representing The Rights And Interests Of Individuals