About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On What Should Politicians Base Their Decisions?

By Michael De Dora
Whom should lawmakers follow when making decisions? This question comes up in nearly every political debate, and cuts to the very root of an elected official's responsibilities in a constitutional democracy. The two most common answers pit the public’s opinions against a lawmaker’s conscience. For instance, in recent arguments over health care, same-sex marriage, and the proposed Ground Zero Islamic cultural center, many posited that lawmakers ought to listen to the American people, especially those responsible for placing them in office. Others responded that public opinion is not everything, and that a lawmaker must employ his or her own capacity to reason about what is right and wrong. Yet the resulting question – should lawmakers make decisions based on what the public thinks is right, or what they think is right? – results in a false dichotomy. As it often turns out, the answer is more complex than it might at first appear.
Considering its newsworthiness, the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan works well as an example. Most everyone believes the group responsible for the construction of the center has the legal right to have their own place of worship (to be sure, it is a cultural center). But many believe the government ought to step in and divert the building’s location elsewhere because of concerns for public feelings toward Islam. What is a lawmaker to do?
There is a strong case for politicians listening to the public. Of course, politicians have their own interest in listening, for they could be quickly voted out if the public perceives that they are not listening to, or even worse, going against their wishes. Moreover, the public elects representatives, and therefore ought to have some say in governmental affairs as they progress. The public might have an argument based on its living in a specific locale. People might know something the lawmaker is not aware of. In the case of the cultural center, some of those affected by the Sept. 11 attacks are letting the government know they do not want an Islamic building so close to the site of the terror attack.
Then again, the public cannot be followed all of the time. That would lead to terribly wrong and unconstitutional legislation. For example, if it were up to the public, gays would not have equal marriage rights, or for that matter, creationism or intelligent design would be taught alongside evolution – or exclusively – in public science classrooms. The issue gets less clear cut when it is not one of constitutionality. If it were up to the public, perhaps the health insurance reform package would not have gone through as written– but whether that is right or wrong is not a matter of what the Constitution says. For our purposes here, dependence on public opinion would surely put plans for the cultural center on ice. Or would they? Even public opinion is murky water, because “the public" is often more divided than we think. For example, most Manhattan residents are just fine with the Islamic cultural center. Compare that with polling data that suggests most Americans more broadly are against the idea. To which portion of the public should a lawmaker listen? Americans at large or the local residents who are actually affected more directly?
Here, we face a third and necessary consideration: the law. Indeed, in the case of the Islamic cultural center, if politicians listened to the broader public, they would be violating the Constitution.
There are two important points, then. One is making the distinction between listening and following. A lawmaker ought to listen to the public and to the law when making choices, but he or she need not follow either dogmatically. People have the right to lobby their lawmakers for the change they want. Lawmakers, however, have the right to go against the public’s wishes, though they should be doing so while being aware of the public’s views and the reasons for such views.
The second is that the lawmakers’ conscience and reasoning is not separate from public opinion and law, but rather, is informed by them and is the final line in the deciding process. A lawmaker does not exclusively choose public opinion or law. Rather, the lawmaker should consult the views of his or her constituents and the laws already on the books, and weigh them both against the lawmaker’s beliefs, as well as what sort of changes he or she thinks might foster a more just society. Essentially, the issue is not whom a lawmaker should follow, but to whom he or she should listen before making a decision – a determination that will ultimately be reached by way of the lawmaker's own conscience.
This level of deliberation should not bother citizens in this country. After all, we all admit that the people cannot be involved in every decision. Our system of governance, a representative democracy, is constructed to deal with this fact. We support and vote for lawmakers based on our shared ideas about governance, broadly speaking. We task them with having knowledge about politics and the issues, and trust their judgment to implement our shared ideas and make a better world – to represent our best interests and uphold the Constitution. We don’t expect them to follow us blindly.
President Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that he is “answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience.” That is, at the end of the day, he cannot merely follow the public’s desires. He must feel at ease with his own contemplation of what is right. This includes considerations such as public opinion and law, but it means not all his decisions will follow popular opinion. Unfortunately, we live in a world where many politicians have a tendency to pay obsessive attention to public opinion merely as an expedient way to stay in office, while others follow their consciences despite reasonable public opinion or the law. In a better world, neither of these extremes would be the appropriate conduct of a politician. Instead, elected representatives would listen to public opinion, law, and their consciences, and follow the resulting reasoning wherever it led.


  1. @Michael

    I pretty much agree with you across the board here, particularly within the confines of a representative democracy; however, I don't think it's the last word, but rather, a particular inclination, perhaps even the default inclination.

    A representative has an ethical responsibility to present themselves according to their means of deliberation, and to act according to those means throughout the tenure of their term in office. What this means is that if, for example, I was elected after making a particular statement regarding my means of decision making: "I, James, will never listen to the inane ramblings of citizens, nor consult any law, but will decide solely by means of consulting star charts. In the end, star charts are wiser than all of us combined. Vote for me." If that were to happen, wouldn't I have an ethical obligation to conduct myself according to star charts throughout the course of my term?

    Surprise, surprise, politicians don't always characterize their means of decision making, so, in those cases a follow-your-heart means is the default. But where a politician has detailed their decision process, they are ethically obligated to follow it.

  2. We should not go as far as to scream "todos ladrones, todos coruptos" of course, but it seems a tad naive to discuss this as essentially a dichotomy between populism and their own conscience. Many people on this planet would be happy if their governments would follow either of these, no matter which, instead of doing what brings in the most campaign contributions now and a cushy board of advisers job after retirement!

  3. During the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin made a thorough arguement to his fellow members as to why there should be no pay given to any member of high public office. Citing the need to attract only the most honorable of men driven by conscience and duty for his fellow man. He gave the obvious examples such as Washington who despite his own financial situation (at that time), refused any pay for office. He gave other fine examples as well. Unfortunatly his view was not shared by the majority, although it did effect the amount of compensation given.
    We are obviously well beyond that answer as a fix for our current level of corruption, but one can only wonder if we listened to Ben on not just this example, but prioritzed guarding against corruption in public office and made it of the utmost importance as a means to protect the Republic. What would our system look like?

    I agree with James and this is really the reason many want public opinion to be followed, because their elected officials misrepresented themselves while we were voting for them. Love or hate the tea party (I am sure the latter for many here), that is one answer. People will be pulling the reluctant politician into office (this is not the complete answer obviously). Political office attracts the exact opposite personality of the needed representitive. Giving power, popularity and money does not attract the nobel man. One of the reasons it is important for government to fear its people and not rule them, and the main reason our founders wanted a system set up that way.

    I actually agree with everything Obama says about the proposed cultural center, but I have to admit I find it disingenious when the same person that called our constitution a charter of negative liberties now uses it at his convienence when it makes sense to do so. I dont want it there personally. but that is why we have a constitution, so that my will (or anyones) does not supercede the absolute rights of men. It is a bigger problem when you follow the constitution when it serves your purpose and then say its an outdated document when it doesnt. We cant have it both ways gentlemen!

  4. I agree with this post. We elect politicians like we hire doctors: we expect them to act in our interest, but to be somewhat independent in precisely how they go about it. There is such a thing as a government that is too representative.

    In re: pay for office, I would say just the opposite. Low pay for civil servants like politicians and police tends to lead to corruption. This is borne out by empirical studies establishing a negative correlation between civil servants' pay and corruption; for example the IMF study (google "corruption and rate of temptation"). Of course one can go too far the other way, but in general public employees should be receiving a pretty decent living wage.

  5. >or for that matter, creationism or intelligent design would be taught alongside evolution

    it makes me sad that we cannot have both :(
    as it is schooling is fool of dogmatic perspectives on what should be known.

    i would like to see all religions to have space within the schooling system, so that children could have a wider perspective than any dogmatic view of either a particular religion, or against religion.

    science AND philosophy.

  6. Pollock,
    In his point on the matter, Dr Franklin was not referring to civil servants in general, but members of high political office. He was indeed speaking about congress and president.
    I (and I am sure Franklin) would agree that the police should not work without pay. It would be absurd to suggest we could somehow maintain integrity with all civil servants not being compensated for their work.
    When your talking about (and limiting to) congress and president, I stand my ground. I am not promoting the idea that we end pay for congress (although I think it would be worth considering debate on the subject of their compensation) today. The idea works best if that was the policy from the inception of our government.
    When it comes to the average civil service job, I believe compensation of public employees should be exactly equal to the average of its private sector counter parts that fund it (aligning similar positions and creating a fair formula to do so). Regardless if it(economy) is in disaray or is enjoying the most propserous of times.
    This would not only be a motivating factor, but I am not sure how one could argue it would not be fair.
    This is far from the current status, where the public positions far exceed the compensation of its private counterparts. Why is it that when the tax payers must suffer from the decisions of the government, while the ones responsible enjoy prosperity regardless. The private accountant that funds the public accountant does not enjoy the same success? The private clerk that funds the public clerk does not enjoy the same success?
    Compensation of the public servant is currently a huge burden and an unfunded liability to the private industry that pays his salary to the point that states like Illinois will now draw tax payer funds from their neighbors or else go bankrupt. How is it that I am not only responsible for paying Massachusettes public salaries that exceed my own, but I also must pay for Illinois inability to make rational decisions on compensation?

    But my larger point earlier was had we considered curruption the most probable undoing of our Republic from the get go as Franklin had warned, one could only wonder what our country and government would look like. That does not mean it is too late, just that the process will be different. Obviously the starting point would be to dive into the lobbying disaster that has over taken our legislative branch of the Republic.

  7. @Jim:
    It is indeed a tricky business to work out the right combination of compensation and incentives for public servants. I don't think the argument I previously made applies any less to candidates for high office, since corruption will be linked to perceived/relative prosperity rather than absolute prosperity (what matters isn't what percentile of income you're in, but how you're keeping up with the Joneses).

    I think "just award them the private-sector equivalent for their skill set," although it IS fair, is probably simplistic as policy.

    Basically, we have a tradeoff between (1) paying civil servants more, which will tend to decrease corruption and attract talent, and (2) the invisible but very real opportunity cost to society of taxation.

    Alas, policy decisions are never one-sided. I would submit that the best way to improve things would be to change the incentive structure somehow to better reward performance, but that's hard and depends on the specific public servant in question. Moreover you have to be careful that your incentives can't be easily 'gamed.'

  8. I think "just award them the private-sector equivalent for their skill set," although it IS fair, is probably simplistic as policy.

    Agreed its simplistic, but thats really not a good arguement against it. And I dont agree with your next statement that we have a trade off between paying public servants more than their private counterparts or we will have corruption. Especially since most of the uneven compensation comes in the form of benefits. I cant accept the idea that if public employees have a funded retirement plan instead of an unfunded one, then corruption is inevidable.
    If corruption is the best arguement as to why public employees deserve to have higher pay than their private counterparts, I am afraid I cant be pursuaded. Somehow I manage, and so I think my public employee counterparts can do the same without corruption.

    As to my high office without pay point. I will concede. I believe it could have been accomplished without corruption at that level, but my arguement is lengthy and not worth discussing since my time machine has a broken flux capacitor. I will not have the chance to impliment.




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