The Indefensibility of Political Representation

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This talk
was given at the Austrian Scholars Conference on March 13, 2009.
It is available as an MP3
audio download

The Principles
of Legitimate Command

and Passepartout
are the only two human inhabitants of a Pacific island. Neither
is aware of the existence of the other until, one fateful day, they
meet. What happens next is a matter of some moment. Will they greet
each other politely and go about their respective businesses? Will
they agree to cooperate for their mutual benefit? Will they fight?
Who can tell? However, we can be reasonably sure in supposing that
if Hanks were to command Passepartout to “Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat
bale!” or demand that Passepartout give up his vile habit of drinking
coconut juice while eating fish, or insist that Passepartout cooperate
with him in his fishing and hunting ventures, or abstain from servile
work on a Sunday – in short, if Hanks were in any way to attempt
to require Passepartout to obey his commands, Passepartout would,
I believe, rightly resent, and probably resist, such injunctions.
The same, of course, applies if roles were to be reversed, and Passepartout
were to assume the position of would-be commander.

The Hanks-Passepartout
scenario can be replicated in any number of literary variations,
limited only by the fertility of one’s imagination. For example,
more people might be added to the island’s population and, while
this would result in there being more possible relationships, it
would not change the nature of those relationships. The essential
principles regarding the legitimacy of command can be established
by reflection on our insular drama:

  1. Adam may
    legitimately command Benjamin to refrain from action
    C if and only if C is a demonstrable initiation of aggression
    against the person or property of Adam or against the person
    or property of another innocent human being.[1]

  2. Adam may
    legitimately command Benjamin to perform action C if
    and only if C is an element of a freely (noncoercively) arrived-at
    binding agreement between Adam and Benjamin, and C does not
    violate condition 1.

  3. In no other
    case may Adam legitimately command Benjamin.

  4. If, in
    1, Benjamin refuses to refrain from the action C, then
    Adam may use proportionate force to restrain or punish him.

  5. If, in
    2, Benjamin refuses to perform action C, Adam may use
    proportionate force to elicit compensation.

  6. If, in
    3, Adam commands Benjamin, Benjamin may refuse to comply with
    such a command and, where appropriate, may resist that command
    with proportionate force.

What is true
of the one is true of the many so that if no one person has a right
so to command me, no two persons acting severally or in concert
have that right. They may, of course, combine to use their superior
force to coerce me into doing what they require, but that is a matter
of might, not right. Whether the number purporting to command me
be one, two, seven, 1223, or 10 million, it cannot, except under
the conditions sketched above, be a matter of right.

Rulers and

So, then, let
us consider the situation confronting all of us in our daily lives.
In every modern state, some group of people – usually a fairly
small group of people – purport to have the authority to command
the mass of the population to do this or that or to refrain from
doing this or that. They do not possess such a right by virtue of
some special divine gift, still less by virtue of their manifestly
superior intelligence or moral virtue since sad experience shows
that our erstwhile leaders, by and large, are no better in general
than the rest of us and are often, sadly, much worse. By what right,
then, do they claim the authority to command us, to make laws for
us that govern many, if not most, of the significant aspects of
our lives?

(as the systematic exercise of such command is commonly called)
requires a justification. This is not to raise the more fundamental
anarchic question of whether governance is at all justified –
in the context of this paper, we prescind from this question –
it is merely to ask why they are entitled to call upon
us to pay taxes or serve in the armed forces or to refrain
from taking government-nonapproved drugs or driving without a seat
belt. It is to ask why some are rulers and others are ruled.

In the not-so-distant
past, those who claimed the right to govern others did so because
they had, they claimed, a mandate from God (rather like the Blues
but with wider ambitions); or were better than the
common run of man by virtue of their outstanding intellects, sterling
characters, Nietzschean will, or distinguished family tree; or had
more money than the peasantry; or were simply more powerful than
most other people. Whatever persuasive character such justifications
may have had in the past, they have none now. Divine-rule theories
of government are at an all-time low ebb in the intellectual market,
aristocratic theories of government command no respect, oligarchic
theories even less, and “might is right” theories are now, as they
always have been, absolutely bankrupt. In the arena of governmental
justification, democracy is the only game in town, for if there
is a fundamental article of faith in the contemporary world, it
is not that God is dead or that soccer is the beautiful game; it
is, rather, that democracy is a good thing. So entrenched,
so widespread, so accepted is this belief that to call it into question
is to invite bafflement, bewilderment, bemusement and, when it becomes
apparent that one is not joking, dismay, disbelief, and derision.

and Representation

The key to
the justification and popular acceptance of democracy is the idea
of representation: those who are governed are thought to be governed
by those who represent them and thus, it is claimed, in being governed
by those who represent them they are, in effect, governing themselves.
This gets over the problem of why, in any political structure, some
rule and others are ruled. If rulers and ruled are, in effect, one
and the same, then the problem of one person or group of people
arbitrarily commanding another disappears. The justification of
political governance, then, rests upon democracy, and the justification
of democracy in turn rests upon representation. If the bough of
representation were to break, then down would come the cradle of
democracy, baby and all.

Somewhat less
metaphorically, if representation cannot be satisfactorily explicated,
then representative or indirect democracy, the last remaining contender
for the justification of political governance (in the sense of a
division of mankind into rulers and ruled) finds itself in no more
tenable a position than any of its discredited competitors.

Despite the
central importance of the concept of representation, not a huge
amount of work appears to have been done on it. The classic work
in this area is Hanna Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation,[2]
now over 40 years old. She supports my claim regarding the linkage
of democracy and representation, noting, “the contemporary popularity
of the concept [of representation] depends much upon its having
become linked with the idea of democracy” (p. 2), although, as she
points out correctly, “[i]nitially, neither the concept nor the
institutions to which it was applied were linked with elections
or democracy” (p. 3). The contingent connection of democracy with
representation is now of historical interest only. For the contemporary
mind, democracy and representation are so interlinked as almost
to be conceptually indistinguishable.

Given the contemporary
firm linkage between democracy and representation, a problem in
political philosophy is how best to conceive of political representation.
Is a political representative an agent of those whom he represents,
limited to the carrying out of their instructions? Or is he a trustee,
free to act in the interests of those whom he represents according
to his own best judgment of what those interests are? Or is he neither
an agent nor a delegate, being simply able to do more or less whatever
he likes once elected? Or are there other possibilities in addition
to these? Pitkin’s book is an extended analysis of the various options.

I believe that
the idea of political representation derives such rhetorical force
as it has from a set of loose analogies with nonproblematic, ordinary
instances of representation, some of which I will sketch below;
that none of the ordinary instances of representation translate
without loss into the political realm, and that ultimately there
is no coherent idea of political representation that can survive
rational scrutiny.

Pitkin alleges
that, in the 20th century, there was a tendency to

the representativeness of so-called indirect democracies as
mythical or illusory. Writers … argue that no government
really represents, that a truly representative government does
not exist. (p. 4)

I have not
been able to find much evidence of such disparagement apart from
the anarchic strain of libertarianism but, such as it is, I am happy
to add my little contribution to it.

What Is
It to Represent?

Are there any
constraints on representation? One could envisage a man standing
up at a shareholders’ meeting and saying “I represent the small
investor and I believe that the entire board of directors should
be removed” or, in a University, saying, “I represent the administrative
staff of the university and we want parity of treatment with the
academic staff.” One may question whether or not such alleged representatives
are in fact representative, but their claim to be representatives
of their constituencies seems in principle comprehensible even if
it turns out to be false. However, what would one make of a man
standing up to say “I represent myself and I believe the entire
board of directors should be removed” or “I represent myself and
I demand parity of treatment with the academic staff of the university.”
It would, I suggest, seem a trifle odd.

Of course,
one can imagine that in circumstances where it is customary or conventional
for one to be represented by another (for example, as a defendant
in a legal trial), one might answer the question “Who represents
you?” by saying “I am representing myself, my Lord” – clearly,
however, this is to be understood as equivalent to the perfectly
sensible denial that anyone else is representing me rather than
the dubiously meaningful claim that I am, in fact, representing
myself. It would seem, then, that a minimal constraint on representation
is that there should be a real distinction between the one doing
the representation and the one being represented.

Ruling out
the relevance of self-representation, let us test our intuitions
by examining some ordinary instances of representation:

  • I am unable
    to go to a meeting of the committee of my local residents’ association.
    It is an important meeting where decisions of some importance
    are going to be made so I ask my wife to go along in attendance,
    subject to the consent of the meeting. I inform her of my views
    of the important matter under discussion and when it comes up
    she puts these views forward as being mine. In these circumstances,
    she represents me.

  • An issue
    is coming up for decision in the higher echelons of the university.
    A discussion takes place at a meeting of the department of philosophy
    and a general consensus emerges. The chair of the department
    is mandated to make the department’s collective view known to
    the powers that be. In these circumstances, the department chair
    represents the department.

  • I want
    to buy something at an auction but I do not want to appear there
    myself for fear of raising the price. I hire a destitute and
    needy graduate student to purchase a painting for me. I give
    him explicit instructions on the price. He does exactly what
    I have commissioned him to do. He represents me for this specific

  • I grant
    power of attorney to my lawyers with general but not completely
    elastic instructions. As long as they remain within the remit
    of those instructions, they represent me.

  • Johnson
    is my local member of parliament. I did not vote for him. I
    do not agree with any of his views. Does he represent me?

  • Robinson
    is my local member of parliament. I did vote for him, not because
    I actively desired his election but because I wanted to prevent
    the election of an even more disagreeable candidate. As it happens,
    I agree with some but not all of his views. Does he represent
    me at all times, or only when his actions conform to my views?

In What
Way Are Political Representatives Supposed to Be Representative?

In what way
are our political representatives representative? What
does it mean for one man to represent another? Under normal circumstances,
as our examples show, those who represent us do so at our bidding
and cease to do so at our bidding. They act on our instructions
within the boundaries of a certain remit and we are responsible
for what they do as our agents. Furthermore, the central characteristic
of representation by agency is that the agent is responsible to
his principal and is bound to act in the principal’s interest. Is
this the situation with my so-called political representatives?
Political representatives are not (usually) legally answerable to
those whom they allegedly represent. In fact, in modern democratic
states, the majority of a representative’s putative principals are
in fact unknown to him. Can a political representative be the agent
of a multitude? This also seems unlikely. What if the principals
have interests that diverge from each other? A political representative
must then of necessity cease to represent one or more of his principals.
The best that can be done in these circumstances is for the politician
to serve the many and betray the few.[3]

Pitkin notes,

A political
representative – at least the typical member of an elected
legislature – has a constituency rather than a single principal;
and that raises problems about whether such an unorganized group
can even have an interest for him to pursue, let alone a will
to which he could be responsive, or an opinion before which
he could attempt to justify what he has done. …the political
representative has a constituency, not a principal. He is chosen
by a great number of people; and, while it may be difficult
to determine the interest or wishes of a single individual,
it is infinitely more difficult to do so for a constituency
of thousands. On many issues a constituency may not have any
interest, or its members may have several conflicting interests.
(pp. 215; 219–20)

In Pitkin’s
view, these passages establish the difficulty of representing a
constituency. However, she understates the problem. It is not that
it is difficult to represent a constituency – it is rather
that it is impossible, and she herself has given the clue why this
is so. There is no interest common to the constituency as a whole,
or, if there is, it is so rare as to be practically nonexistent.
That being the case, there is nothing to represent.

Some may take
issue with the notion of representation presented here and argue
that we are dealing with a considerably more complex phenomenon,
that political representation is just one instance of a variety
of types of representation, that representation can be symbolic,[4]
formal, religious, or iconic. Firstly, while my remarks apply primarily
to representation-as-agency, similar considerations can be brought
to bear, mutatis mutandis, on representation as trustee,
deputy or commissioner, and so on. Once again, as with our desert-island
drama, the basic conceptual point can be grasped from the single
example of representation-as-agency – there is little to be
gained, except a soothing tedium, from a rehearsal of the inapplicability
of the other paradigmatic types to political representation. Secondly,
one could agree that there are currently a variety of notions of
representation. I have mentioned symbolic, formal, religious, and
iconic as types of representation. A full treatment would require
a discussion of all these, and other, types of representation. Space
does not permit me to do this here, but I would like to make a few
remarks about just one of these types currently enjoying a wave
of popularity, namely iconic representation.

In iconic representation,
A is said to represent B if A is like B in some particular respect;
so, a woman, simply by virtue of being a woman, represents other
women; a person of a particular skin color, simply by virtue of
that fact, represents other people with the same skin color. But
there is a logical problem here. Everything is like everything else
in some respect or other, and so it comes about that, on this notion
of representation, anything or anybody represents any other thing
or anybody else. Such a notion of representation evacuates it of
any real significance. What sense can be made of claims sometimes
made that some group, say women, are “underrepresented” in particular
professions? In most contexts, there is simply no representation
at all going on. Suppose that I, a man, am employed in a particular
capacity in a particular firm – just by virtue of being a man
I do not represent men. By the same token, I don’t represent fathers,
philosophers, the middle-aged, the cranky, or any other group.

These are not
appropriate arenas for representation and so there can be no under-representation
simply because there can be no representation. (Oddly enough, one
rarely hears complaints of groups being underrepresented in such
nonglamorous occupations as trash collection or sewage works.)

Other kinds
of representation – religious, symbolic, etc – may well
play a role in human discourse and action but this sheds no particular
light on the central problem we are presently concerned with, which
is that of political representation. I cannot imagine anyone being
satisfied with an account of political representation that ultimately
reduces it to the symbolic, the religious, or the iconic.

It is, of course,
perfectly possible that the concept of representation is systematically
ambiguous and that there is at best a sort of family resemblance
between its various kinds. If this were so, it would leave the notion
of political representation as a more or less distant cousin of
other kinds of representation so that, as in the case of human relations,
while John resembles Howard, and Howard resembles Tim, and Tim resembles
Michael, it doesn’t follow that John resembles Michael in any way.
However, Pitkin adopts as a working assumption the position that

does have an identifiable meaning, applied in different but
controlled and discoverable ways in different contexts. It is
not vague and shifting, but a single, highly complex concept
that has not changed much in its basic meaning since the seventeenth
century. (p. 8)

Her attempt
at a definition is as follows: “representation, taken generally,
means the making present in some sense of something which
is nevertheless not present literally or in fact” (pp.
8–9). This is immediately followed by another attempt at definition
that may or may not be the same: “in representation something not
literally present is considered as present in a non-literal sense”
(p. 9). Pitkin admits that this/these simple definition/s may not
be particularly helpful. It is hard to disagree with that negative

Having exhaustively
examined the various instances of unproblematic representation –
agent, trustee, deputy, commissioner, and so on – Pitkin concludes,

None of
the analogies of acting for others on the individual level seems
satisfactory for explaining the relationship between a political
representative and his constituents. He is neither agent nor
trustee nor deputy nor commissioner; he acts for a group of
people without a single interest, most of who seem incapable
of forming an explicit will on political questions. (p. 221)

It is difficult
to see how this point could be made more clearly. One would think
that such a state of conceptual confusion would lead one to give
up any idea of discovering a coherent account of political representation.
But Pitkin ploughs on:

Must we
then abandon the idea of political representation in its most
common sense of “acting for”? This possibility has sometimes
been suggested; perhaps representation in politics is only a
fiction, a myth forming part of the folklore of our society.
Or perhaps representation must be redefined to fit our politics;
perhaps we must simply accept the fact that what we have been
calling representative government is in reality just party competition
for office. (p. 221)

One is tempted
to say, Yes! Yes! Alas, Pitkin says, No! No! She thinks that it
is, perhaps, “a mistake to approach political representation too
directly from the various individual-representation analogies –
agent and trustee and deputy” (p. 221).

She then proceeds
to suggest a kind of institutional or systemic account:

representation is primarily a public, institutionalized arrangement
involving many people and groups, and operating in the complex
ways of large-scale social arrangements. What makes it representation
is not any single action by any one participant, but the over-all
structure and functioning of the system, the patterns emerging
from the multiple activities of many people. It is representation
if the people (or a constituency) are present in governmental
action, even though they do not literally act for themselves.
(pp. 221–22)

She picks up
this idea again when she says,

we speak of political representation, we are almost always speaking
of individuals acting in an institutionalized representative
system, and it is against the background of that system as a
whole that their actions constitute representation, if they
do. (p. 225)

this is nonsense and, ultimately, a counsel of despair. It comes
to this. None of the paradigmatic uses of the term “representation,”
as instanced by the various examples Pitkin considers (deputy, agent,
etc.) suffices to make sense of the idea of political representation.
So, Pitkin invents a whole new unsubstantiated systemic account.
Instead of individuals representing, we have a system that
represents. We are to forget that we have been unable to make any
sense of individual political representation; we can kick the problem
upstairs by ignoring the individual and having the system itself
be representative. Let us risk committing the fallacy of composition
and assert that if the idea of explicating political representation
by means of the analysis of individual acts of agency, trusteeship,
and so on is unrealizable, the problem is hardly solved by simply
positing “the system” as the superagent of representation.

I would go
further: the systemic account is not only unhelpful; it is obfuscatory,
appearing to explain when in fact it simply sweeps the problem under
a pseudo-explanatory carpet, in a manner reminiscent of the postulation
of “dormitive power” by the doctor in Molière’s Le Malade
imaginaire as an explanation of the soporific qualities of
opium.[5] This,
of course, is to explain the obscure by the more obscure; it is
also a striking example of what Alfred North Whitehead called “the
fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

If it is to
be tenable, representative or indirect democracy requires a clear,
robust, and defensible conception of representation. No such conception
has been forthcoming, and it is doubtful if any ever will be forthcoming.
It used to be said that only three things were definitely true of
the Holy Roman Empire: it wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, and it wasn’t
an empire. Similarly, two things are definitely true of representative
democracy: it isn’t democracy and it isn’t representative.

In the end,
representation is a fig leaf that is insufficient to cover the naked
and brutal fact that even in our sophisticated modern states, however
elegant the rhetoric and however persuasive the propaganda, some
rule and others are ruled. The only question is, as Humpty-Dumpty
noted in Through the Looking-Glass, “which is to be master
– that’s all.”


This is a version of the basic axiom of libertarianism. Almost
any treatise on the subject contains an exposition and defense
of this axiom. See, for example, Boaz, D. (1997). Libertarianism:
A Primer. New York: The Free Press; Rothbard, M. N. (1982).
Ethics of Liberty
. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities
Press. [Reprinted (1998). New York: New York University Press.];
Rothbard, M. N. (2004). Man,
Economy and State
. [2nd edition (Scholar’s Edition)]
Auburn Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Pitkin, H.D. (1967). The Concept of Representation. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Those who know will, of course, recognize my debt here to the
writings of Lysander Spooner.

An instance of symbolic representation occurs when Elrond is choosing
the Company of the Ring in Tolkien’s (1969) Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Rings. He says: “For the rest, they
shall represent the other Free Peoples of the World: Elves, Dwarves,
and Men. Legolas shall be for the Elves; and Gimli, son of Gloin
for the Dwarves…. For men you shall have Aragorn…”
(London: Harper & Collins, p. 362).

Molière (1673) Le Malade imaginaire – “quiat
est in eo virtus dormitiva cujus est natura sensus assoupire.”
(“Because there is a dormitive virtue in it whose nature is to
cause the senses to become drowsy.”)

This article
first appeared on

1, 2009

Gerard Casey
[send him mail] is a member
of the School of Philosophy in University College Dublin. See his

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