The Need for Representatives

There is a need for representatives in politics: people have neither the time nor expertise to take all the decisions affecting their lives.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, contended that every person needed to be personally active in politics and that it was inappropriate to rely upon representation:

“Sovereignty, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, cannot be represented; it lies essentially in the general will, and will does not admit of representation…..  The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts.  Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law.” (Book 3, chap. 15)

Whilst a direct personal involvement would appear to be logically better than relying upon representatives (i.e. professional politicians), it depends upon an unrealistic view of human nature.  Most people don’t want to spend a lot of time on politics – they are naturally more interested in their own affairs than in public administration.

Those who are very interested in politics either become politicians themselves or they can play an active part, as described later (6.6.1).  Everybody else has a need for representatives who are more motivated, who can devote more time, and who are perhaps more knowledgeable than themselves.

People who rely upon others to represent them have not wholly given up their freedom if they can appoint politicians of their own choosing, if they have a voice during the latter’s tenure, and if they can ultimately dismiss those who turn out to be unsatisfactory.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6511.htm