Government and Democracy
Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 3
the first essay of this series, I mentioned that the idea
and institution of democracy have four sources affecting its
development: the classical Greek democracy, the republican
tradition, the theory and practice of representative government,
and the logic of political equality. The focus of this essay
is on the theory and practice of representative government
and its relations with democracy.
more than two thousand years before the 17th century, the
idea of a representative democracy was never explored by students
and practitioners of politics. In the ancient Greek polis,
there was no need to worry about representation because, given
the small size of the polity, every citizen could in principle
participate directly in public debate and decision-making.
Indeed, the Greek democrats would have hated representation
because it probably would have violated their understanding
of democracy. A more puzzling case is the Roman empire. Although
the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman
republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political
participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where
the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the
Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the
situation created a random and skewed system of representation
--- those living close to Rome became de facto "representatives"
of other citizens of the Roman empire. Later, the Renaissance
Italian city-states, again of small size, also failed to see
the need for a system of representative government.
is surprising, however, given the existence of large democratic
or republican regimes (such as the Roman empire) in human
history, that the idea and institution of representative government
completely escaped the minds of politicians and political
philosophers. Indeed, not only was there a lack of understanding
on the institution of representative government, there was
also a sentiment among students of democracy that a representative
system of government is undemocratic and is therefore not
a good political arrangement. Even in the 18th century, there
were radical arguments against representative government.
For example, Rousseau argues in the "Social Contract"
that representation is impermissible because "[s]overeignty
cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be
alienated." To Rousseau, the English people were "mistaken"
when they believed themselves to be free. They were free "only
during the election of the members of Parliament. Once they
are elected, the populace is enslaved; it is nothing"
(Book 3, Chapter 15).
English Civil War started to change the intellectual and political
landscape in Europe. In their search for a republican alternative
to the monarchical structure of the government, the Puritans,
particularly the Levellers, foresaw the modern institution
of representative government. However, the general acceptance
of representative government as a necessary and desirable
institution of democracy was still one century away. Even
Locke, the father of liberalism who agrees to the legitimacy
of representative government, had little to say about representation
in his two treatises on government.
representation was not initially developed as a democratic
institution. Instead, it was initially used by monarchs and
aristocrats in the Middle Ages. According to Professor Robert
Dahl, the beginnings of representative government "are
to be found, notably in England and Sweden, in the assemblies
summoned by monarchs, or sometimes the nobles themselves,
to deal with important matters of state: revenues, wars, royal
succession, and the like. In the typical pattern, those summoned
were drawn from and were intended to represent the various
estates, with the representatives from each estate meeting
separately. Over time, the estates diminished to two, lords
and commoners, who were of course represented in separate
houses" (Dahl, 1989, p. 29).
the eighteenth century, political philosophers as well as
politicians started to appreciate what Levellers had seen
earlier: by marrying the institution of representative government
with democracy, nations could eliminate "the practical
limits that a sizeable citizentry imposes on democracy, which
had been the focus of so much critical (anti-democratic) attention...
Representative democracy could [then] be celebrated as both
accountable and feasible government, potentially stable over
great territories and time spans" (Held, 1996, p. 119).
In other words, the "theory of representative liberal
democracy fundamentally shifted the terms of reference of
democratic thought" (Held, 1996, p. 119). In 1820, James
Mill (father of John Stuart Mill) claims that the institution
of representative government is "the grand discovery
of modern times" in which "the solution of all difficulties,
both speculative and practical, would be found" (quoted
in Held, 1996, p. 119).
Madison, one of the key architects of the American constitution,
regards the system of representation as a cure for the problem
of faction. By a faction, Madison means "a number of
citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the
whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse
of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other
citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the
community" (Federalist Papers, No. 10). Obviously, it
would not be a problem if the faction forms only a minority
of the political community because the democratic procedure
of equal voting will allow the majority to defeat the "sinister
views" of the faction. A problem arises, however, if
there is a majority faction. In this case, the very form of
popular government will enable the majority faction to "sacrifice
to its ruling passions or interests both the public good and
the rights of other citizens." This problem is generally
referred to as the "tyranny of the majority."
solve the problem of majority tyranny, Madison continues,
a particular set of constitutional arrangements, among which
are the system of representative government and a large electorate,
are needed. One advantage of the system of representation
is that it provides a mechanism "to refine and enlarge
the public views, by passing them through the medium of a
chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the
true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love
of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary
or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may
well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives
of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than
if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose"
(Federalist Papers, No. 10).
system of representation, however, could produce its own problems.
The class of representatives itself can become an entrenched
faction and work against the public interest. To solve this
problem, Madison offers a novel solution (contrary to the
traditional understanding of democracy): a large electorate
body. A large republic, in contrast to a small one, has several
advantages. First, in a large country, it is easier to find
fit characters to become representatives for public administration
because there are more potential candidates, but "the
number of representatives in the two cases [is] not in proportion
to that of the two constituents, and [is] proportionally greater
in the small republic." Second, "as each representative
will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large
than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for
unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts
by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages
of the people being more free, will be more likely to center
in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most
diffusive and established character."
James Madison is mainly concerned with the problem of faction,
John Stuart Mill, writing in England two generations later,
is definitely more worried about the inexperience and instability
of the general electorate. In "Considerations on Representative
Government," Mill, who "largely set the course of
modern liberal democratic thought" (Held, 1996, p. 100),
sees representative democracy as the only desirable system
to accommodate the need for professionalism and expertise
in administration, on the one hand, and public accountability
on the other. To Mill, the ancient Greek ideal of direct democracy
is pure folly for modern nation states, whose sheer size makes
it impossible for a meaningful number of people to participate
directly in the day-to-day administration of the state. The
institution of representative government, together with the
right to free speech, free press and popularly elected assembly,
has distinct advantages: it provides popular control of the
government without sacrificing the professionalism and leadership
qualities that an effective government requires.
is a "radical distinction," according to Mill, "between
controlling the business of government and actually doing
it" (Mill, 1951, pp. 229-30). In a democracy, the general
electorate have the ultimate check on the business of the
government. However, this does not imply that the demos should
actually run the government. The actual running of the government
should bedone by professionals with the necessary knowledge
and skills. If the general public does not get involved in
the details of the governmental administration, not only will
efficiency increase, the actual decisions made also tend to
be better. Importantly, and fortunately, the justifications
for democracy do not require that the business of the government
be conducted directly by the general electorate. One key justification
for democracy, says Mill, is that it provides a prime mechanism
for moral self-development and the "highest and harmonious"
expansion of individual capacities. This justification can
be fulfilled during the election process when the general
public chooses their representatives in the government. When
the general electorate becomes involved in the business of
running the government, the benefits of any self-development
are far outweighed by the costs of inefficiency, confusion,
and diffusion of responsibilities.
be sure, John Stuart Mill does not have much faith in the
judgment of the electorate and the elected. Although Mill
champions a plural system of election, regrettably he also
proposes unequal voting rights: more votes, according to Mill,
should be allocated to those wiser and more talented. Mill's
distrust in the general public's judgment and sentiment is
one important reason leading him to propose a representative
form of government in which important public decisions are
made by qualified leaders with knowledge, expertise and wisdom.
the early 20th century, the idea of representative government
had become a self-evident truth for most students of democracy.
For Joseph Schumpeter, for example, it is impossible for an
empirically minded observer to define democracy without reference
to a representative system of government. In fact, Schumpeter
goes even further. In his classic "Capitalism, Socialism
and Democracy," Schumpeter defines "the democratic
method" as "that institutional arrangement for arriving
at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power
to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's
vote" (p. 269). Schumpeter then goes on to criticize
the classical understanding of democracy: "[D]emocracy
does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule
in any obvious sense of the terms 'people' and 'rule.' Democracy
means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting
or refusing the men who are to rule them. But since they might
decide this also in entirely undemocratic ways, we have had
to narrow our definition by adding a further criterion identifying
the democratic method, viz., free competition among would-be
leaders for the vote of the electorate." From this definition
of democracy, we see clearly that in the mind of Schumpeter
there is no way to organize democracy other than by having
a representative system.
is the historical significance of the theory of representative
government? Clearly, as Professor Dahl and Professor Held
have observed, the theory of representative liberal democracy
brought democratic thought to a completely new stage: democracy
is no longer thought to be applicable only to small city-states.
In fact, according to Professor Dahl, this new stage marked
the second major transformation in political life. Professor
Dahl regards the shift from the "rule by the few"
to the "rule by the many" in ancient Greece and
Rome as the first major transformation in the political history
of human society. The locus of the first democratic transformation
was in the city-states. In contrast, the mark of the second
democratic transformation is the shift of the locus of political
life from small city-states to large national states. One
key intellectual and institutional innovation that enabled
this shift is the theory and practice of representative democracy.
In addition, with the introduction of representative government,
the traditional understanding of democracy as direct popular
participation in the ruling of a country became obsolete.
The ancient sovereign assembly was replaced by a highly complex
system of government. In fact, the "institutions of representative
democracy removed government so far from the direct reach
of the demos that one could reasonably wonder, as some critics
have, whether the new system was entitled to call itself by
the venerable name of democracy" (Dahl, 1989, p. 30).
the separation between "controlling the government"
and "running the government" creates its own problems,
one of which is the danger of creating an entrenched class
of social and political elites that can easily abuse its power
and self-serve. To solve this problem, representative democracy
needs liberalism: a set of liberal institutions to ensure
that there is real political competition, free speech and
free press. If the system of representative government, unchecked
and unbalanced, tends to result in concentration of power,
liberalism then works to the opposite: liberal institutions,
including a constitutional state and a system of checks and
balances, disperse political power across various interest
groups and throughout the society. "Where in the older
view factionalism and conflict were believed to be destructive,
political conflict came to be regarded as a normal, inevitable,
even desirable part of a democratic order. Consequently the
ancient belief that citizens both could and should pursue
the public good rather than their private ends became more
difficult to sustain, and even impossible, as 'the public
good' fragmented into individual and group interests"
(Dahl, 1989, p. 30). In addition, in order to prevent the
formation of an entrenched class of self-serving elites, representative
democracy also needs to create an array of egalitarian institutions
to ensure, to the extent justifiable, equal start for all,
equal opportunity for all, and a high degree of social mobility.
potential problem of representative democracy is the detachment
and alienation felt by many "small" people because
there seems to be no way for them to influence public policy.
Here, again, representative democracy needs liberal institutions:
autonomous associations, civil society, and ample room for
political mobilization and individual participation. "[T]he
older idea of monistic democracy, in which autonomous political
associations were thought to be unnecessary and illegitimate,
was transformed into a pluralist political system in which
autonomous associations were held to be not only legitimate
but actually necessary to democracy on a large scale"
(Dahl, 1989, p. 30). We will discuss the relationship between
liberalism and democracy in later parts of this series.
summary, the theory and practice of representative government
transformed the way in which democracy is understood and organized.
Representative government enabled a shift of the democratic
stage from small city-states to large nation-states, and it
has been viewed by many as a desirable solution to the competing
needs of an effective but also accountable government. The
emergence of representative democracy also called for a whole
set of liberal institutions to make democracy work better.
This last point probably explains the historical coincidence
of the appearance of representative democracy and the intellectual
birth of liberalism.
author is an associate at the New York law firm of Davis Polk
Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critiques. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989.
Held, David. Models of Democracy (2nd Edition). Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1996.
Madison, James. The Federalist Papers, No. 10. London: Everyman,
Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government.
In Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government,
ed. H. B. Acton. London: Dent, 1951.
Rousseau, J. J. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.
New York: Harper & Row, 1976.