Edmund Burke & His Views on Representative Government

Aug 27 08:28 2010 Nick DAlleva Print This Article

Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and political theorist, is viewed as the founder of conservativism. Burke believed that government should be representative of its people by serving their common good.

The notion of the value of popular opinion in government has long remained one of the most hotly debated issues of public representation since the inception of representative government.  Though the representatives in a governmental body are undoubtedly there to serve the people they govern,Guest Posting the question remains whether they serve their people better by voting in the pursuit of the common good or rather they vote toward the opinions of their immediate constituents.  Edmund Burke argues in favor of a representative government that serves its people through the pursuit of the common good rather their constituent opinions, and furthermore, argues that the latter philosophy on representative government is not only harmful to the effectiveness of a the government as a whole, but is destructive to the entire governmental system.  In his Speech to the Electors of Bristol, Burke claims that the representatives in a government maintain the distinct responsibility to serve the government and the country, and not be swayed by the whims of the people that elected them but rather serve them through service to the country as a whole.  This idea stands in direct contrast to the concept of populism, and downright debunks this ideology to an extent.  Burke is correct in his claim that a representative does hold the responsibility to serve his or her country rather than just a small group of interests, however, in a practical sense, this form of representative government often alienates the people’s interests entirely.  The national interest is a very vague concept however, and is more readily defined by the majority opinion, rather than through contrary foresight.  Burke’s argument practically falls apart if one defines the national interest as a concept determined by the people as a whole.  The current system of government in the United States has undoubtedly deviated from Burke’s original opinions, centering much more on the opinions of the people rather than the judgment of the elected officials themselves.  This has surely limited the freedom of the representatives and forever chained them to their electorate.  Through an analysis of Burke’s ideologies, it becomes incredibly clear the intention of representative democracy as a whole and the original intent of the United States governmental system.

Edmund Burke argues that the representatives elected to a government have the responsibility to vote according to their own judgments in the pursuit of the common good, rather than the judgments of the people that elected them.  This is surely the ideal manner in which the government should conduct itself.  It stands to sound reason that the government should be impartial in all decisions regarding things that would be good for the country as a whole, or the national interest.  However, having said this, it is also undeniable that this form of government can easily lead to the alienation of the people as whole, rather than the alienation of public opinion.  It is true that public opinion is incredible volatile in determining policies that would benefit the country, the absence of the people from the government could lead to an incredible disaster.  The government must be familiar with the desires of the people in order to maintain an accurate definition of what the national interest is.  Numbers and facts often do not tell the entire story on the state of the nation as a whole.  When the people are eliminated completely from the decision making process of government, the government itself ceases to become a representative body of legislature, and rather becomes a governing body completely out of touch and unfamiliar with the people it controls.  If the government is unfamiliar with the people it governs entirely, it cannot effectively serve those people in any kind of a meaningful way, and thus, on this level, Burke’s theories on representative government are rather impractical.  While it would be incredibly ideal to have representatives in government who know exactly what their people need and serve that, rather than what they want, this is not how Burke’s system of government functions in a large reality such as the United States government.  Such a system often leads to not only unhappy people, but an unhappy, unstable, and ineffective country as a whole.
The national interest is an inseparable part of representative democracy, and remains at the very heart of Burke’s philosophy regarding governmental responsibility.  Though the government truly exists to serve the national interest, the question remains whether the national interest exists, or if it is just an ideal concept intended to illustrate the way government is supposed to work, rather than how it does work.  Burke claims that the national interest takes precedence over all kinds of local interests and public opinion.  However, it is debatable whether any representative is truly aware of the national interest in general.  The national interest is the policies and laws that the country requires to function effectively and to please its people.  By this definition however, it stands to reason that anyone who has knowledge of the national interest possesses incredible foresight regarding the state of the country.  Edmund Burke distinguishes between the national interest and the opinion of the people as two separate entities.  Interestingly enough, if one defines the national interest as the majority opinion of the nation, then the two concepts of national interest and public opinion become virtually the same in nature.  If one holds the opinion that national interest is defined by the people, then Burke’s argument promptly falls to pieces.  One cannot separate national interest from personal opinions if they are defined by one another and thus, ignoring, or rather selectively absorbing public opinion actually deprives legislatures of the pertinent information they need regarding the needs of their country.  Through this analysis, one can see that Burke’s argument is rather idealistic in nature, and requires the representatives to rely on a higher power in order to glean an effective strategy for government.  Where does this wisdom truly come from?  If there is no higher power to guide the representatives, are they not simply avoiding the obvious truth that they are there to serve the people, and as a result must listen to them?  As Burke bases his argument on this idealistic notion of a higher power, his argument falls apart at the definition of national interest.
When one applies Edmund Burke’s political and governmental theory to the modern United States government, one is undoubtedly going to find a significant different between the two political philosophies.  Though Burke argued that representative government that pandered to its constituents is destructive and ineffective, the United States government does exactly this.  Representatives of the United States government often are forced to pander to their constituents in order to get reelected.  Through the institution of term limits, the United States has allowed representatives to be checked by their constituents.  This virtually limits the freedom of decision that a legislature would have if it did not have to worry about its job depending on the opinion of the people it represented.  Unfortunately, in the United States, the people define the government as good when it serves them directly.  This requires the government to serve the interests of a variety of political philosophies and social ideologies.  In doing so, the government not only grossly overextends itself, but it often divides over politically sensitive issues such as taxes.  The people of the United States do not care whether the government is serving the national interest, in the short term or the long term.  The government has become an entirely results driven institution.  If the people do not approve of the decisions of a representative, he or she will lose their job.  Through this system, the government has become incredibly ineffective, as Burke predicted that it would.   The system in action prevents representatives from serving the country first, and rather forces them to pander to the minor whims and desires of those who elected them.  In doing so, this has greatly reduced the capacity for action in the Federal government, with the debate over petty social issues such as abortion ruling the legislative capabilities of Congress.  With a two party system, the government is divided between two entirely different sets of interests and goals intended to please the very people that put them in office.  This system has done exactly what Burke predicted that it would, and in doing so, vindicates Burke to some extent in his political philosophy. 

Regardless of the methods involved, representative government is intended to serve the people, whether through the pursuit of the national interest or through the placation of a representative’s constituents.   As long as man has walked the earth, he has searched for a way to modify his surroundings in order to better live.  This is precisely the purpose of representative government.  However, as Edmund Burke describes in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol, representative government should ideally not be placed entirely subject to the fickle and often selfish whims of the general population.  These ideas greatly influenced the political philosophies of the founding fathers as they created a new government and a new country, the United States of America.  Unfortunately, though Burke is correct in theory, the practice of his political ideology often leads to a total alienation of the people from the governmental process that control them, resulting in an unhappy populace.  Additionally, if one considers the national interest to be defined by the majority of opinion in a country, then Burke’s argument promptly falls apart due to the combination of the two distinctions he makes, the national interest and the opinions of the constituents.  When applied to the modern governmental system of the United States, one can barely see remnants of Burke’s political ideology in Congress.  Representatives are often slaves and workhorses of the people they represent, living in constant fear that they may lose their job if they fail to produce what their base considers progress.  This governmental system prevents legislatures from acting freely in their decisions, and somewhat vindicates Burke’s political theories.  However, when examined from a realistic perspective, one must understand that people must play an active role in their government, not to prevent their representatives from acting free, but to ensure that those representing them are connected with a relevant common good for all.

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Nick DAlleva
Nick DAlleva

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