Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Difference Between "Representative" and "Representation"

Do any of these sound familiar?
- "The people I represent..."
- "Those are the people you voted for..."
- "A government of the people, by the people, for the people..."

All these are related, as well as many other quotations, to the idea of a representative government system, where the people have "proxy" agents which represent, typically, large groups of individual people. Those agents, colloquially "representatives", then make decisions which govern the lives of the people they nominally represent. The idea being that such a system has a few benefits: a smaller group of people negotiating on policy, the ability to have more informed policy makers, the ability to more quickly make decisions, etc. I'm not going to talk about how well those theories match the reality; that's another discussion.

Rather, I'm going to address a per-peeve which has been bothering me recently: the difference between having a representative and having representation. People often confuse the two, intentionally and otherwise. The language is similar, probably because both words derive from the same general concept: having someone who represents your views (and possibly those of many others) in another capacity (organization, government, etc.). However, particularly with respect to the current state of US politics, they can mean very different things.

In general, a representative is just someone who claims to be a proxy for others. For example, a manager might be a representative for his subordinate employees during an organization's management meetings. A religious leader might claim to represent the group of followers which attend his services. A terrorist might claim to represent all the people of a religion, just as a government official might claim to represent anyone in his/her area. The idea is the same, regardless of how the person came to be in the position, and regardless of the feelings of the people nominally being represented.

On the other hand, representation is the idea that someone actually represents the views, opinions, or other aspects of the people being represented, regardless of official capacity. For example, most politicians give representation to their largest campaign donors, in thinly-disguised or overt quid-pro-quo arrangements. The suicide bomber might give representation to the murderous zealots directing his actions. Edward Snowden is giving representation to those who still think the government should respect the Constitution, and not just ignore it. The representation isn't necessarily associated with an official position; it just means you are representing the views of others, as a proxy to their voice(s).

This brings me back to the importance of the distinction, especially with respect to politics in the US. I have representatives in the US government, at various levels: various people claim to speak for me, and/or to derive additional weight for their opinions based on the magnitude of the people they "represent". However, they no more offer me representation than, say, charged criminals in exile, who have given up their lives in pursuit of the conceptual principles of the US. Indeed, the US representatives have done far more harm to me (my freedoms, liberty, rights, etc.) than anyone they claim to be "protecting" me from.

So, while I do have representatives in government, I just as certainly do not have representation in government, for my ideas, views, principles, opinions, or anything else. And when we're talking politics in a Representative Democracy, it's very important not to confuse the two, or be convinced that having one implies having the other, which is most certainly (and in practice, very often) does not.


  1. Is the core of the problem that elections are too easily swayed by advertising? Suppose, in this age of cheap access to social media, people were swayed more by blogs and their friends online who happen to be knowledgeable about the issues. Politicians would follow those people then, i.e. the people they're supposed to represent.

    In the recent past (not anymore?) all large contributions were public record. This makes me think people were asking for expensive ad campaigns. If they weren't, they would have counted large contributions against politicians.

    I am not saying we should do nothing to get money out of politics. I'd love for someone to work out how to do it.

    One dangerous idea is to institute some sort of test to vote. It's dangerous because the people who control the test might use it too disenfranchise their oppoents' voters. If it were done right, though, it would get rid of some swing voters who vote based on advertisements, many rightwing rednecks looking to feel better about themselves by hurting other people, and many leftwinger losers blindly looking for handouts. If that happened, the ads might not matter. My gut feeling is there are about equal numbers of rightwing rednecks and leftwing losers that would be eliminated by a test of basic knowledge of the candidates, issues, and history.

    If people were smarter, then if someone went to his representative and said "I can sway voters to vote for you if you do something (legal and open) to help me," it would be totally fair. The politician would be indirectly representing those people. It seems like the core of the problem is keeping out people who are patently ignorant and doing so in a way that's fair and not an excuse to oppress people.

  2. I think there are a few problems, at a meta-level:

    - Equal weight voting across all branches of government.

    I think it's absurd that government works on a majority-rules basis across all branches. You have this conceptually-good system of checks and balances, where government could balance various interests, and then it's ruined by handing everything over to the will of the idiot-masses. It would be much better, for example, if one section of one branch (say, the Senate) would be elected by popular vote weighted by actual taxes paid. That would force the populist political group to actually respect and compromise with the people who actually pay for government (effectively). That's just one obvious example.

    - Exclusion based on arbitrary districting.

    This mad way more sense when collecting voting information was distributed, manual, and hard, and makes little sense in a modern age. I live in California: I am always disenfranchised at a federal representation level, just due to the way elections work. Why is that necessary? There have to be better ways to get more directly accountable and representative people in government, rather than the current process.

    - Disconnect between people and officials.

    This is a big one: people can't tell who is actually doing what in government, and what effects it has on them. Politicians conceal and distort this information, and actively discredit those who would seek to simplify and publicize it. Improvements in this area alone would have massive benefits for the political system, IMHO.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts.

  3. Having Senate representation proportional to taxes paid would only help if we had a problem with people who don't pay taxes voting themselves money from the Treasury. The problem, though, is the half of citizens who do pay incomes taxes lobbying the gov't to give them some of it back in the form of grants, contracts, etc. They have an incentive to put time and effort to get one cent from all taxpayers. The one cent, though, isn't enough for all tax payers to get together to keep their one cent. So gov't grows.

    If the problem were poor people voting themselves money from the Treasury, wouldn't money in politics actually help that problem? The wealthy contributors would ask their representatives to stop spending on these people who don't make contributions.

    I do think there is some problem of people not considering the cost of policies either b/c the money will be borrowed or b/c they don't pay taxes anyway. I feel like any time they propose doing something, like stopping some evil dictator, locking up drug dealers, paying for grandma's medicine, there should be at least a small tax added to everyone's paycheck the first week the policy goes into effect. Even if it were not enough to cover the policy, I bet we'd have fewer new initiatives for the gov't to do.

  4. First, that's precisely one of the largest systemic problems we have in our system (although nobody likes to talk about it): the people who don't pay taxes are voting themselves money from the Treasury. They do so indirectly, of course (subsidized health care for everyone, ever-increasing public spending, "just tax the rich more", etc.). A large part of the reason the country is unable to make any progress addressing spending is that there's no representation in government for the people footing the bill, aside from...

    ... campaign spending. One of the largest reasons we have so much campaign spending is that it's the only way for the people paying for government to have an effective voice in it. Which sucks, cause money corrupts the entire process. However, if the people being taxed had an actual voice in government, perhaps the justification for spending on the other parts would be less, which could be a positive overall effect.

    On the "tax to do stuff" thing, I agree with the concept, but disagree with the implementation. I think the government should be fundamentally limited in the amount of money it takes, and be forced to make compromises on what it spends money on. There could be a special case to allow it to exceed the limit for emergencies, but only if all members of government were forfeiting all compensation and benefits during the emergency time (cause, if it's important enough to print money, it should be important enough to not take compensation). That would work far better at limiting government over-spending, I think, than just adding more taxation, which the government would do anyway.

  5. I don't see half the people who don't pay taxes voting themselves money from the Treasury. If that were the case, wouldn't we be reducing our enormous military and prison systems and channeling that money toward programs aimed at benefiting the poor directly? Keep in mind since we're saying "half don't pay" we're excluding Social Security and Medicare taxes, so we must exclude SS and Medicare benefits. That means half of us pay taxes, and not that much of that goes to programs aimed at helping the poor.

    A very simplistic view, with some truth to it, is the affluent make donations to buy ads to sway the poor to vote for people who will fund programs of interest to the affluent.