Voters must be wary of contracts notion for candidates

After all, power lies with the people themselves in any democracy. The actual word is Greek for government by the demos, or the people. So members of a Parliament, elected members of an executive and local government councilors can be regarded as agents of the people, there to do the bidding of those who voted for them.

But further reflection suggests such contracts are either not worth the paper they are written on or could, if rigidly adhered to, be highly destructive.

The crucial point is what exactly is the status of elected officials ‘ whether they hold elective executive offices, such as a president or a mayor, or whether they hold law-making and money-voting offices, such as members of a Parliament or municipal councilors.

We hold that they are more than mere agents, in place to do the bidding of those who vote for them.

They have, in fact, being given a temporary power of attorney, valid until the next election, to act as they think is best in the interests of their constituents, and not just those who voted for them. And just like anyone going on a long trip will think long and hard about the sort of person he wants to manage his affairs while he is away, so a voter must think long and hard about who he or she wants to give this temporary power to between elections.

The reason for giving a power of attorney, limited only by a constitution or local government law, is because no one can predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone next month or next year. Difficult decisions have to be made frequently to cope with ever more complex situations and someone has to make these, someone prepared to devote the time and effort necessary to try and understand what is at stake, develop possible options and then decide which are the best options to choose. There is rarely a “right” answer and all too often decision makers might have only a choice of evils.

It is, of course, possible to have what is known as direct democracy, the whole citizen body making decisions on every issue from whether to declare war to how much should be spent on tea in every day in a small rural police station.

This is effect makes every citizen his or her own member of parliament.

It has been tried but only in very small states such as ancient Athens (and even that city excluded women, slaves, those born out of wedlock, those who did not have children of citizens for both parents, and resident foreigners) or medieval Iceland, where the few score landowners met.

Even in tiny societies such a system frequently broke down. Most people did not have the leisure to sit around talking about problems and thinking about them; they had livings to earn. So there was a tendency to vote along with those who could make very simplistic analyses. Athenian democracy in fact collapsed when fast-talking demagogues persuaded the citizen body to go into a disastrous war.

In a representative democracy voters choose a small fraction of their total number, usually from a group who actually wish to devote time and energy to analysing issues and coming up with the best option in the circumstances.

Of course some of those wanting elected office are dishonest, stupid or lazy. Others see the world very differently from a particular group of voters, and set very different priorities.

So those who want better and more responsive democracy need to do a lot more than simply call for “social contracts”, which are little different in effect from the sort of glib manifesto that all too many political parties dish out at election time.

Voters need to think quite a lot about the sort of person they are going to give their power of attorney to, just as they must think who they would trust with their own property if they were going on a long trip or who would be their children’s trustee if they died.

Obviously a qualified candidate should be honest, should care about the interests of his or her constituents, have some ability, and, perhaps most important, should share the priorities, dreams and outlook of the voters.

It can be quite difficult to recognise such paragons. No candidate, after all, announces in advance that he is stupid, or wants to feather his own nest, or wants to lord it over all imposing his will on a reluctant people.

In other words, the quality of the person supported with a vote is more important than what he says, writes or signs. Voters need to look at candidates very seriously, try and assess what sort of person they are, examine their track records in office and private life and then come to an informed decision.

Candidates can obviously help this process by being as open as possible, explain the sort of thing they would like to do, but more importantly show by what they have already done, in some lesser office or in their own life, just what sort of person they are.

If all the idea of a social contract means is that there must be better accountability, that is fine. But if the idea is to bind a candidate then such contracts are not worth the paper they are written on.

Those wanting to make democracy better would be better advised to help voters ask the right sort of question, rather than seek gimmicks.

September 2006
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