We the People—Part 3 (Who Speaks for “The People?”)
Politicians are fond of talking about “the people.” In Part 1 of this series I ended with two questions that must be answered before we can reasonably expect politicians to address the needs of “the people”: Namely, who, exactly, are “the people”? And who speaks on their behalf? I attempted to answer that first question in Part 2. Now we’ll explore the second.
One ought to be suspect of any political system which defines who speaks on behalf of “the people” either too narrowly or too broadly. Circumstance coupled with prudence dictates whether the polling of the majority, or the voice of the perceived “leaders” within each faction, or some truck driver who happened to call into a local radio talk show to weigh in on the matter, or some other means of discerning what “the people” have to say best represents what “the people” have to say. In practice, this means we should be suspect of the politician who seems wholly disinterested in “the people” just as we should be suspect of the politician who seems absolutely and consistently convinced they speak on behalf of “the people.”
Conservative politics is firmly rooted in prudence and circumstance, not ideology. That is one of the chief distinctions between libertarianism and conservatism: the libertarian seeks a political ideology derived from abstract reasoning; the conservative seeks to free humanity from any ideology, viewing “reason” as an essential, yet insufficient, means of discovering truth and ensuring justice. The conservative worldview accounts for the soul, which reason alone does not.
Conservative politics is not a formula whereby we realize the deepest yearnings and needs of our fellow citizens, for the conservative recognizes the deepest yearnings and needs of our fellow citizens are not found in politics. That which is sacred is permanent and demands our unquestioning submission; that which is political is circumstantial and derives its authority from the consent of the governed. That is why the conservative at times appeals to unyielding, timeless principles—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”—and at times refuses the simplistic, dogmatic solution without first giving consideration to circumstance.
So how might we employ circumstance to answer the question who speaks on behalf of “the people”?
It may be simpler to describe who speaks on behalf of “the people” by describing who doesn’t have exclusive rights to speak on their behalf: pollsters. I don’t mean that polling is irrelevant or unable to offer any insight into what “the people” have to say; I only mean that we should be wary of any political system that seeks to govern by popular sentiment, because governing by popular sentiment is like nailing Jell-O to a tree: what one generation calls progress the next may call folly. What one group considers vital to their interests may be unthinkable to another. And the voices of the various factions and interest groups we discussed in Part 2 are often drowned out in a majority response.
In my home state of Oklahoma legislators have been called into a lengthy special session after failing to pass a budget. In the ensuing debate a legislator advocated a specific tax policy because polling showed that the majority of Oklahomans were now in favor of that policy; which begs the question: has any polling been done to show whether Oklahomans favor legislators base the complexities of tax policy on polling data?
In what other occupation would this method of decision making be acceptable? If you scheduled an appointment with your doctor because you were concerned you showed warning signs of heart problems, how would you feel if your doctor said he’d polled the general public and concluded you weren’t likely to have a heart attack? If you entrusted your life savings with a financial advisor, would you want him basing his decisions on where to invest your money on his years of experience and consultations with his peers, or would you rather he stand on a busy street corner—clipboard in hand—and ask passers-by what they would do?
The efficacy and appropriateness of the majority vote is directly proportional to the level of expertise warranted in arriving at a desired outcome. Which is why polling is an effective tool for answering questions like who should win America’s Got Talent? or which new flavor of ice cream will sell best?; but it’s an ineffective tool for answering questions like should you have a heart transplant? or should you invest in gold? And much of our political endeavors fall into this latter category. From the nuances of tax policy to the intricacies of foreign affairs, what “the people” need to best represent their interests and protect their rights isn’t a pollster, but an unbiased representative with expertise on the subject matter. “What men really are seeking, or ought to seek, is not the right to govern, but the right to be governed well,” wrote Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. The complexities of governing were never intended to be decided by majority vote, but by representatives elected by majority consent.
Some may object to this idea by pointing to websites such as Wikipedia to show that the collective knowledge of all of us is greater than the individual knowledge of any expert. And, indeed, that statement is true so far as it goes—the collective knowledge of all of us far surpasses the expert knowledge of only a select few. But examples such as Wikipedia only prove the point that the complete democratization isn’t the surest route to pragmatic knowledge. The reason we have faith that Wikipedia has something knowledgeable to contribute is because we presume that the responses were written by people with knowledge of the subject matter, and not the simple majority vote of all possible contributors. For example, when we read a Wikipedia article on obsessive-compulsive disorder we don’t assume the contributors were comprised of all the left-handed redheads from Topeka, Kansas, but rather psychiatrists, psychologists, and mental health professionals.
And perhaps all this sounds uncontroversial enough that you’d think it odd I’d even venture to say it, but it cuts at the heart of the sort of populism that runs rampant in the Right today. The cult of populism implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—holds that political challenges today stem from the supposed incompetencies or corruptness of our politicians—the idea that if we simply had enough “Mr. Smiths” going to Washington, all would be well. And, while there may be some truth to that idea, radical populism ignores the truth that the average Joe can be just as corrupt and incompetent as any politician. Trump couldn’t have run a successful campaign of calling our leaders losers and morons unless a sizeable percentage of the electorate was inclined to agree with him.
But beyond the simple efficacy of providing qualified representatives to speak on behalf of “the people,” there is a far greater concern that simple polling of the majority fails to address: the rights of the minority. It may be the desire of the majority to confiscate the assets of the wealthiest 1% and spread them across the other 99%, but that would violate the rights of the 1%. And this balance between desires and rights is where majority rule fails us, for it often fails to make a distinction. Liberty herself is dependent upon the idea that humans have certain inalienable rights that cannot be infringed upon by the desires of others—no matter how big a group the “others” may be.
It’s not just about what “the people” desire; it’s about what they ought to desire. As Kirk said above, it’s not about the right to govern but the right to be governed well. And, while that may be viewed as too pretentious for a politician to say, it ought to be said nonetheless. You shouldn’t have to tax your imagination much to envision a scenario in which the desire of the majority could become depraved, unjust, or dangerous. In some societies what the majority desired was genocide
So, if we were to endeavor to create a society in which those who spoke on behalf of “the people” were qualified to represent their respective interest groups, and to respect the distinction between desires and rights, what might this look like put into practice? What is the prudent, conservative response? That is something we’ll discuss in Part 3.