No doubt you’ve heard someone complain that Occupy Melbourne lacks a clear aim. While advocates from many diverse causes are participating in the movement, they share a common concern. The Occupy Melbourne website states:
Our democracy is unwell. Our elected representatives no longer represent their constituents, instead their ears are turned by wealthy lobby groups, whilst the common interests of the people they were elected to represent, are ignored.
This grievance focuses on the lack of truly democratic representation. The passage could be taken as a call for what in democratic theory is known as a ‘delegate’ as opposed to a ‘trustee’ model of representation.
Though models of democratic representation go back much further, the particular distinction between the delegate and trustee models can be traced to conservative political philosopher and British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. As Burke proclaimed in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol, ‘Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’ (1999, p. 11). For a number of reasons, from the physical absence of constituents during parliamentary debate to what Burke considered the sheer idiocy of dogmatically adopting the position of his constituency before the parliamentary debate had been had, Burke thought it appropriate to represent as a trustee—that political power had been entrusted to him by his constituents.
A simple yet surprisingly familiar rationale led Burke to favour this model of representation. In his victory speech he declared of himself and his fellow representative that,
We are now Members [of parliament] for a rich commercial City; this City, however, is but a part of a rich commercial Nation, the Interests of which are various, multiform, and intricate. We are Members for that great Nation, which however is itself but part of a great Empire, extended by our Virtue and our Fortune to the farthest limits of the East and of the West. All these wide-spread Interests must be considered; must be compared; must be reconciled if possible.
(Burke 1999, p. 12)
A political representative must look out for the national interest, not just the interest of his or her constituents, Burke here claims. But as he equally recognises, the interests of the nation include its commercial interests. And a political representative, in serving the national interest, must give due consideration to those interests.
More than 30 years ago, Charles E Lindblom identified the fatal flaw of Burke’s favoured model—the very flaw to which the Occupy Melbourne protesters are drawing attention. When a representative swears to serve the national interest in a commercial society, commercial interests soon override the interests of the people.
Consider the following. ‘Suppose … that we faced the fanciful task of designing a political system or a political/economic system that would be highly resistant to change’. ‘How to do it?’ Lindblom asks in his 1982 essay The market as prison. Easy. Design institutions so that any attempt to diverge from the status quo produces an automatic adverse response. Even if the proposed changes are sound, the response should be the same: automatic and adverse, ‘like the tantrums of a spoiled child raging at even mild attempts at parental control’ (Lindblom 1982, p. 324). This is the politico-economic system in which we live, Lindblom argued. The spoiled child is business, the parent is government. In this dysfunctional relationship the child must be induced to do what its parent desires. Provide insufficient inducement or fail to convince the impetuous child beyond all doubt that change will be in its interest and the next tantrum begins. But when it’s business who’s throwing the conniption, the ensuing rage will contain threats of unemployment or a sluggish economy (Lindblom 1982, p. 327).
Lindblom was responding to a model of politics proposed by Robert Dahl (1961)—a model that dominated twentieth-century political science. According to Dahl’s pluralist model, various interest groups exist within civil society and, from a level playing field, compete for government’s attention. Government listens to their demands and gives priority to those who win the fair competition of policy ideas. However, Lindblom recognised that once the economy becomes a state’s central focus, business is no longer one interest group among many. In market societies, business organises the nation’s workforce, directs investment, distributes income and resources, produces goods and gets them to the consumer, builds homes. And because business plays such an integral role, politicians give commercial interests pride of place. For Lindblom, this is just how it is in market societies.
Occupy Melbourne shows less resignation. Protestors are claiming that it shouldn’t be this way. As part of its push for change, Occupy Melbourne seems to be calling for an alternative model of political representation—a model other than Burke’s trustee model, which due to the structure of market societies merely becomes a vehicle for business interests. On the alternative, delegate model (the model Burke warned against) politicians represent the express will of their constituents. The interests of constituents are not handed over or entrusted to politicians; rather, politicians have little or no scope for diverting from policies determined by their constituents. There’s no room for delegates to decide on a policy position once the parliamentary debate has been had nor to vote according to reason or conscience when either of those faculties has told the delegate which is the right course. The policy debate is had among constituents, not on their behalf. Occupy Melbourne may have this model in mind when it claims that politicians no longer represent their constituents.
But there may be an irresolvable tension in Occupy Melbourne’s demand for greater representation. The movement claims to represent the 99%. However, fewer than 99% of people support the movement. How, then, can they maintain the claim? There’s only one way. Occupy Melbourne has to claim to represent the interests of the 99% even if the 99% don’t know that those interests are their interests. But this is exactly what politicians do when acting on the trustee model. As Burke implied, the citizenry has imperfect information—they may be willfully ignorant, lack the capacity to take every relevant fact into consideration or not be privy to parliamentary debates. Their say is then entrusted to a political representative who is, supposedly, free of these limitations. If Occupy Melbourne claims to represent the 99% but doesn’t have the support of the 99% then they too are asking to be entrusted to serve the true interests of the 99%.
If Occupy Melbourne wants a true delegate-style democracy, they have to accept that citizens may vote against their best interests. It’s no good claiming to represent the interests of the 99% if the 99% don’t recognise those interests as their interests. Nor is it satisfactory to respond that if only citizens knew their true interests they’d vote for the policies defended by Occupy Melbourne. That’s the very pseudo, trustee-style democracy which Occupy Melbourne is against. A true delegate model of democracy, on the other hand, would treat citizens as truly autonomous—free to make their own political decisions, act against their own interests and stuff it up if they will.
Therefore, the question to Occupy Melbourne is which would you prefer: representatives who do as their constituents desire, or representatives who do what Occupy Melbourne desires?
Burke, Edmund 1999 , ‘Speech to the electors of Bristol’, in Selected works of Edmund Burke, vol. 4, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, pp. 3-13.
Dahl, Robert 1961, Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city, Yale University Press, New York.
Lindblom, Charles 1982, ‘The market as prison’, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 324-336.