Cool and Sedate Reflection

There are two traditional models for political representation: that of  a “delegate” or a  “trustee.”

A delegate is sent to a representative body to vote the way he believes his constituents would want him to. Such a delegate aligns his views directly with the collective views of the people he represents. He embodies his constituency. The delegate theory of representation is favored by populists and some early founders.  In the extreme limit, the delegate theory reduces to a more efficient way to implement a plebiscite democracy — the kind of democracy that through referenda has made California almost ungovernable.

The trustee model of representation holds that a constituency votes for a representative whose judgment they trust and rely upon. A trustee has the time to consider legislation in detail, and pursues legislation that would balance the benefits of the whole polity and the local constituency – even if the constituency disagrees with a particular position. In the extreme limit, a trustee model of the representation can degenerate to rule by the elite.

Some Congressional and Senatorial representatives subscribe to a hybrid of the above models. They believe they are sent to Washington to vote a certain way on one or two conspicuous issues  (e.g., gun control, abortion, farm legislation), while they are free to exercise their judgment in most other areas.

Conservatives, at least those who have not surrendered to populist temptations, subscribe to the trustee theory of representation, as advocated by William Burke and articulated by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 71:

“The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they entrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse… When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”

How should the trustee model of representation apply to the current debate about health care “reform?” A clear majority of Americans are doubtful of and opposed to the current version(s) of health care reform as they understand it (them) . Nonetheless, if in its  best deliberative judgment, Congress believes the reform is in the best interests of the country, then  the trustee model of representation would suggest that they vote in accordance with their best judgment.

There remain, however, several mitigating factors. The current health care reform proposal represents very radical adjustments of present arrangements,  and prudence suggests that we can expect comparably large unintended consequences. The results of truly “cool and sedate” deliberation rarely result in abrupt or radical changes.  Moreover, the ultimate success of such a complicated enterprise depends in part on its acceptance by the polity. Even if one believes that health care reform could theoretically produce better results, if the country does not subscribe to the same conclusion, it may reduce the probability of success. Strong public animosity to legislation is not an irrelevant consideration to someone entrusted as a representative.

It would be disingenuous for Democrats to argue that they are modulating the passing whims of the people with “cool and sedate  reflection,” while negotiating behind closed doors and buying  off special interests with targeted deals for Louisiana, Nebraska, and the unions. Rather than reducing volatility, Congress seems to be rushing headlong to pass a bill before popular sentiment makes it more difficult for representatives concerned about re-election to support the bill.

Liberal Democrats would be understandably disappointed if they cannot manage health care reform. However, the compromises  being agreed to (and supported by large pharmaceutical and  insurance companies) will likely create a system far different from the one they originally envisioned. Indeed, if presented with the current proposal a year ago, they would likely be embarrassed by it. The drive to get something — anything — rather than calm consideration is the driving ethos. Part of the discipline of a democracy is to maintain the good judgment not to push the polity too far from the direction they can be persuaded to travel. This political discipline and respect for the governed has been trampled in the stampede to health care. It is time for Congress to step back, pause, and reflect coolly and sedately about appropriate changes to current health insurance arrangements.

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