Bo Li, Representative Government and Democracy

Bo Li, Representative Government and Democracy



In the first essay of this series, I mentioned that the idea and institution of democracy have four sources affecting its development: the classical Greek democracy, the republican tradition, the theory and practice of representative government, and the logic of political equality. The focus of this essay is on the theory and practice of representative government and its relations with democracy.

For more than two thousand years before the 17th century, the idea of a representative democracy was never explored by students and practitioners of politics. In the ancient Greek polis, there was no need to worry about representation because, given the small size of the polity, every citizen could in principle participate directly in public debate and decision-making. Indeed, the Greek democrats would have hated representation because it probably would have violated their understanding of democracy. A more puzzling case is the Roman empire. Although the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the situation created a random and skewed system of representation — those living close to Rome became de facto “representatives” of other citizens of the Roman empire. Later, the Renaissance Italian city-states, again of small size, also failed to see the need for a system of representative government.

It is surprising, however, given the existence of large democratic or republican regimes (such as the Roman empire) in human history, that the idea and institution of representative government completely escaped the minds of politicians and political philosophers. Indeed, not only was there a lack of understanding on the institution of representative government, there was also a sentiment among students of democracy that a representative system of government is undemocratic and is therefore not a good political arrangement. Even in the 18th century, there were radical arguments against representative government. For example, Rousseau argues in the “Social Contract” that representation is impermissible because “overeignty cannot be represented for the same reason that it cannot be alienated.” To Rousseau, the English people were “mistaken” when they believed themselves to be free. They were free “only during the election of the members of Parliament. Once they are elected, the populace is enslaved; it is nothing” (Book 3, Chapter 15).

The English Civil War started to change the intellectual and political landscape in Europe. In their search for a republican alternative to the monarchical structure of the government, the Puritans, particularly the Levellers, foresaw the modern institution of representative government. However, the general acceptance of representative government as a necessary and desirable institution of democracy was still one century away. Even Locke, the father of liberalism who agrees to the legitimacy of representative government, had little to say about representation in his two treatises on government.

Interestingly, representation was not initially developed as a democratic institution. Instead, it was initially used by monarchs and aristocrats in the Middle Ages. According to Professor Robert Dahl, the beginnings of representative government “are to be found, notably in England and Sweden, in the assemblies summoned by monarchs, or sometimes the nobles themselves, to deal with important matters of state: revenues, wars, royal succession, and the like. In the typical pattern, those summoned were drawn from and were intended to represent the various estates, with the representatives from each estate meeting separately. Over time, the estates diminished to two, lords and commoners, who were of course represented in separate houses” (Dahl, 1989, p. 29).

By the eighteenth century, political philosophers as well as politicians started to appreciate what Levellers had seen earlier: by marrying the institution of representative government with democracy, nations could eliminate “the practical limits that a sizeable citizentry imposes on democracy, which had been the focus of so much critical (anti-democratic) attention… Representative democracy could be celebrated as both accountable and feasible government, potentially stable over great territories and time spans” (Held, 1996, p. 119). In other words, the “theory of representative liberal democracy fundamentally shifted the terms of reference of democratic thought” (Held, 1996, p. 119). In 1820, James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill) claims that the institution of representative government is “the grand discovery of modern times” in which “the solution of all difficulties, both speculative and practical, would be found” (quoted in Held, 1996, p. 119).

James Madison, one of the key architects of the American constitution, regards the system of representation as a cure for the problem of faction. By a faction, Madison means “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (Federalist Papers, No. 10). Obviously, it would not be a problem if the faction forms only a minority of the political community because the democratic procedure of equal voting will allow the majority to defeat the “sinister views” of the faction. A problem arises, however, if there is a majority faction. In this case, the very form of popular government will enable the majority faction to “sacrifice to its ruling passions or interests both the public good and the rights of other citizens.” This problem is generally referred to as the “tyranny of the majority.”

To solve the problem of majority tyranny, Madison continues, a particular set of constitutional arrangements, among which are the system of representative government and a large electorate, are needed. One advantage of the system of representation is that it provides a mechanism “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose” (Federalist Papers, No. 10).

The system of representation, however, could produce its own problems. The class of representatives itself can become an entrenched faction and work against the public interest. To solve this problem, Madison offers a novel solution (contrary to the traditional understanding of democracy): a large electorate body. A large republic, in contrast to a small one, has several advantages. First, in a large country, it is easier to find fit characters to become representatives for public administration because there are more potential candidates, but “the number of representatives in the two cases not in proportion to that of the two constituents, and proportionally greater in the small republic.” Second, “as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to center in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established character.”
If James Madison is mainly concerned with the problem of faction, John Stuart Mill, writing in England two generations later, is definitely more worried about the inexperience and instability of the general electorate. In “Considerations on Representative Government,” Mill, who “largely set the course of modern liberal democratic thought” (Held, 1996, p. 100), sees representative democracy as the only desirable system to accommodate the need for professionalism and expertise in administration, on the one hand, and public accountability on the other. To Mill, the ancient Greek ideal of direct democracy is pure folly for modern nation states, whose sheer size makes it impossible for a meaningful number of people to participate directly in the day-to-day administration of the state. The institution of representative government, together with the right to free speech, free press and popularly elected assembly, has distinct advantages: it provides popular control of the government without sacrificing the professionalism and leadership qualities that an effective government requires.

There is a “radical distinction,” according to Mill, “between controlling the business of government and actually doing it” (Mill, 1951, pp. 229-30). In a democracy, the general electorate have the ultimate check on the business of the government. However, this does not imply that the demos should actually run the government. The actual running of the government should bedone by professionals with the necessary knowledge and skills. If the general public does not get involved in the details of the governmental administration, not only will efficiency increase, the actual decisions made also tend to be better. Importantly, and fortunately, the justifications for democracy do not require that the business of the government be conducted directly by the general electorate. One key justification for democracy, says Mill, is that it provides a prime mechanism for moral self-development and the “highest and harmonious” expansion of individual capacities. This justification can be fulfilled during the election process when the general public chooses their representatives in the government. When the general electorate becomes involved in the business of running the government, the benefits of any self-development are far outweighed by the costs of inefficiency, confusion, and diffusion of responsibilities.

To be sure, John Stuart Mill does not have much faith in the judgment of the electorate and the elected. Although Mill champions a plural system of election, regrettably he also proposes unequal voting rights: more votes, according to Mill, should be allocated to those wiser and more talented. Mill’s distrust in the general public’s judgment and sentiment is one important reason leading him to propose a representative form of government in which important public decisions are made by qualified leaders with knowledge, expertise and wisdom.

By the early 20th century, the idea of representative government had become a self-evident truth for most students of democracy. For Joseph Schumpeter, for example, it is impossible for an empirically minded observer to define democracy without reference to a representative system of government. In fact, Schumpeter goes even further. In his classic “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” Schumpeter defines “the democratic method” as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (p. 269). Schumpeter then goes on to criticize the classical understanding of democracy: “emocracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule.’ Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them. But since they might decide this also in entirely undemocratic ways, we have had to narrow our definition by adding a further criterion identifying the democratic method, viz., free competition among would-be leaders for the vote of the electorate.” From this definition of democracy, we see clearly that in the mind of Schumpeter there is no way to organize democracy other than by having a representative system.

What is the historical significance of the theory of representative government? Clearly, as Professor Dahl and Professor Held have observed, the theory of representative liberal democracy brought democratic thought to a completely new stage: democracy is no longer thought to be applicable only to small city-states. In fact, according to Professor Dahl, this new stage marked the second major transformation in political life. Professor Dahl regards the shift from the “rule by the few” to the “rule by the many” in ancient Greece and Rome as the first major transformation in the political history of human society. The locus of the first democratic transformation was in the city-states. In contrast, the mark of the second democratic transformation is the shift of the locus of political life from small city-states to large national states. One key intellectual and institutional innovation that enabled this shift is the theory and practice of representative democracy. In addition, with the introduction of representative government, the traditional understanding of democracy as direct popular participation in the ruling of a country became obsolete. The ancient sovereign assembly was replaced by a highly complex system of government. In fact, the “institutions of representative democracy removed government so far from the direct reach of the demos that one could reasonably wonder, as some critics have, whether the new system was entitled to call itself by the venerable name of democracy” (Dahl, 1989, p. 30).

Obviously, the separation between “controlling the government” and “running the government” creates its own problems, one of which is the danger of creating an entrenched class of social and political elites that can easily abuse its power and self-serve. To solve this problem, representative democracy needs liberalism: a set of liberal institutions to ensure that there is real political competition, free speech and free press. If the system of representative government, unchecked and unbalanced, tends to result in concentration of power, liberalism then works to the opposite: liberal institutions, including a constitutional state and a system of checks and balances, disperse political power across various interest groups and throughout the society. “Where in the older view factionalism and conflict were believed to be destructive, political conflict came to be regarded as a normal, inevitable, even desirable part of a democratic order. Consequently the ancient belief that citizens both could and should pursue the public good rather than their private ends became more difficult to sustain, and even impossible, as ’the public good’ fragmented into individual and group interests” (Dahl, 1989, p. 30). In addition, in order to prevent the formation of an entrenched class of self-serving elites, representative democracy also needs to create an array of egalitarian institutions to ensure, to the extent justifiable, equal start for all, equal opportunity for all, and a high degree of social mobility.

Another potential problem of representative democracy is the detachment and alienation felt by many “small” people because there seems to be no way for them to influence public policy. Here, again, representative democracy needs liberal institutions: autonomous associations, civil society, and ample room for political mobilization and individual participation. “he older idea of monistic democracy, in which autonomous political associations were thought to be unnecessary and illegitimate, was transformed into a pluralist political system in which autonomous associations were held to be not only legitimate but actually necessary to democracy on a large scale” (Dahl, 1989, p. 30). We will discuss the relationship between liberalism and democracy in later parts of this series.

In summary, the theory and practice of representative government transformed the way in which democracy is understood and organized. Representative government enabled a shift of the democratic stage from small city-states to large nation-states, and it has been viewed by many as a desirable solution to the competing needs of an effective but also accountable government. The emergence of representative democracy also called for a whole set of liberal institutions to make democracy work better. This last point probably explains the historical coincidence of the appearance of representative democracy and the intellectual birth of liberalism.

(The author Bo Li is an associate at the New York law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell.)


1. Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critiques. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
2. Held, David. Models of Democracy (2nd Edition). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
3. Madison, James. The Federalist Papers, No. 10. London: Everyman, 1996.
4. Mill, John Stuart. Considerations on Representative Government. In Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government, ed. H. B. Acton. London: Dent, 1951.
5. Rousseau, J. J. The Social Contract. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
6. Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.


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