Representative Government

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Since the object of your efforts seems to be involving more people in “The Great Conversation,” here is a philosophical question that pertains to our elected officials: in our Republic, we as citizens elect our representatives. Should those representatives enact policies that reflect the opinions of their constituents or their own conscience?

Response: This vexing question has been the concern of citizens and philosophers alike. Due to the growth in size and population of our Republic, the direct participation by citizens has become too cumbrous. These historical and political developments have given rise to this issue, which as your letter indicates, is still with us.

On the one hand, it has been suggested that elected representatives should use their own judgment in voting on the issues. On the other hand, it has been thought that they should follow the will of the majority of their constituents.

Neither view seems satisfactory — one gives them total independence from their constituents and the other makes them mere emissaries.

A compromise between these two extremes seems in order: representatives should exercise their own judgment, as their election to office ought to be based on their competence, their ability to get things done and their understanding of the issues, while at the same time taking the views held by their constituents into consideration. While the representatives have the freedom of choice in deciding what is best under the circumstances, they must remain aware that their constituents are ultimately empowered to remove them from office if their grievances are persistently ignored.

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