All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1960

Lawmakers or Robots?

Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin

Before me lies a copy of the August 1959 issue of The National Program Letter, a four-page jour­nal of conservative opinion pub­lished at Searcy, Arkansas. The opening paragraph of the leading editorial contains implications which may well arrest attention. Here it is:

Nearly all American citizens now agree that the present laws for the control of labor union bosses and racketeers have proved in recent years to be quite inadequate. But not enough citizens have said so to their representatives in Congress. There­fore we have the spectacle of a powerful labor boss and his gang of ex-convict goons openly defying the U. S. government and gravely jeop­ardizing the welfare of the people of the United States. We have the spec­tacle of union violence, of murder and property destruction under the eyes of local and state police forces held captive by fear or corrupt polit­ical power. We have the spectacle of labor bosses controlling local, state and national politics.

One implication is, either that our representatives in Congress are strangely unaware of a serious threat to our welfare recognized by “nearly all American citizens,” or that, though they are aware of it, they do nothing about it. An­other is that the responsibility for this dangerous state of things rests, not on our representatives in Congress, but on ourselves, the American people. It is because we have failed—note the “therefore”—that the lamentable spectacles listed have come into being.

Still another implication is (and this I wish to emphasize) that if “enough” of us present our views to our representatives they will carry them into action—what they themselves may happen to think being apparently a matter of no mentionable importance. Our rep­resentatives, in short, are not con­ceived as independent agents, act­ing in accordance with what they believe to be just, necessary, and desirable, but rather as automatic reflectors of the opinions of their constituents.

In this robot conception of our congressmen The National Pro­gram Letter does not stand alone. Only the other day President Eisenhower, concluding his radio-TV speech on labor legislation, said:

This business of government—in­cluding this question of labor reform—is your business. It is every citi­zen’s business.

Americans want reform legislation which will be truly effective. It is my earnest hope that the Congress will be fully responsive to an overwhelm­ing national demand.

A wished-for overwhelming na­tional demand (note the word), and, it is earnestly hoped, an af­firmative response—but, again, no suggestion that Congress need be convinced before it acts.’

Why is it a political common­place that in an election year Con­gress will pass no legislation sure to be widely unwelcome to voters, regardless of how important it may be to the public welfare? The answer is plain, the reasoning sim­plicity itself. If the people know (or think they know) what they want, they also know (or think they know) what they don’t want; Congress is expected to reflect the people’s current views; and it is the people, after all, that deter­mine who goes to Washington.

But illustrations are scarcely needed. So familiar is the idea that representative government is, to all intents and purposes, direct government by the people—the legendary New England town meeting at one physically neces­sary remove—that to most of us the fact that there ever was a dif­ferent idea is likely to come as a surprise. Yet according to James M. Beck, onetime Solicitor General of the United States, a sharply contrasting, concept was in the minds of the framers of our Con­stitution. The framers, he says, “believed that a representative held a judicial position of the most sacred character and that he should vote as his judgment and conscience dictated, without re­spect to the wishes of his con­stituents.”2 Certain it is that Edmund Burke, among the most outstanding of modern political thinkers, cherished a similar be­lief. It was in a speech to his Bristol constituents (referred to by Beck), which was delivered im­mediately after his election to a seat in Parliament, that he gave classic expression to a view of the representative principle which few can altogether fail, if not to ad­mire, at least to respect:


Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a rep­resentative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communica­tion with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high re­spect; their business, unremitted at­tention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satis­factions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitu­tion. They are a trust from Provi­dence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representa­tive owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, in­stead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.


It is not to be supposed, of course, that the Burkean and Con­stitutional conception operates without limit. On this theory a constituency selects its representa­tive and authorizes him to speak for it; but the relation is not that still sometimes associated with marriage—a solemn compact to continue binding “until death do us part.” Burke himself held his Bristol seat only six years, a dif­ference of opinion, apparently al­together creditable to him, putting an end to the connection. The people give their representative a distinctly free rein, but they keep their eye on the general direction in which he is moving, and when they are convinced he is headed toward destinations they disap­prove, they discharge him from their service and choose another—presumably with more circumspec­tion—in his place.

A Patient-Physician Relationship

The relation between constitu­ents and representative—on this theory—resembles that between a patient and his physician. The pa­tient knows well enough, in gen­eral terms, what he wants: he wants to be restored to health, or kept there; and he has, or in this literate age should have, some basic ideas regarding the laws of medical science. If he is intelligent he will make due effort to get a competent practitioner to serve him, but having made his choice he will not presume to instruct the supposed expert in the technique of his art. However, when he has reason to suspect quackery, or when a reasonable time passes and his health has obviously deterio­rated or obviously remains unim­proved, he is prompt to bid his physician adieu; and if he is wise and can learn from experience, he will select his second physician with even greater care than he did the first.

This selecting the right physi­cian, or, to return to our subject, this selecting the right political agent, is a task of enormous im­portance; and in a country in which the government is based on the true representative principle a main object of all education, pub­lic and private, formal and in­formal, should be to equip the citizen with the kind and amount of knowledge indispensable to per­forming it well.

Supporting Considerations

A number of considerations sup­port what I have just called the true representative principle.

It is reasonably conformable, for one thing, to the facts of human society as we know it today, and as it is likely to continue into the indefinite future. The point is basic, and if I dismiss it now, it is only to return to it later.

Again, it seems well calculated to reduce the disproportionate in­fluence on legislation of self-seek­ing minorities, whether aided or not by organized resident lobbies. So long as a representative is re­garded as, and primarily aims at being, the mere mouthpiece of his constituents, a minority of these can hope by making a big noise to give the illusion of a strong popu­lar demand and thus to gain its ends. But once the representative assumes his proper role of inde­pendent thinker and legislator, the big noise dwindles to silence, or, if it continues, it will have only such influence as is proper to the ideas, if any, to which it gives ex­pression.

Again, it unquestionably makes against sectionalism and group-ism in legislation, with such at­tendant phenomena as pork bar­rels, logrolling, and blocs. No longer hampered by the need of reflecting the immediate desires of his constituency—often, inevita­bly, selfish in their nature—a rep­resentative can freely cooperate with his fellows to make up the genuinely national legislature so nobly envisaged by Burke. In the speech to his Bristol electors quoted above he says—and for “parlia­ment” we may read “Congress”:

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hos­tile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and ad­vocate, against other agents and ad­vocates; but parliament is a delibera­tive assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the gen­eral reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of par­liament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently op­posite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far as any other from any endeavor to give it effect.”

Somehow it would seem an ex­cellent suggestion that the presid­ing officer read this passage, in a loud voice, at the beginning of every session of our House and of our Senate.

Legislative Specialists

Again, it is in perfect keeping with the modern theory and prac­tice of specialization. Classified knowledge and its applications have increased during the last cen­turies at so stupendous a rate that it is no longer possible for one to be expert, as a rule, in more than one field. The theory and practice of government is a field by itself, one of the most intricate and difficult, and one in which the difference between what is sound and what is unsound may often be exceedingly hard to discern.

I own that when I am solicited to write to my senator and con­gressman, in favor of or against some pending legislation, I am often inclined to protest, and ex­claim: Why come to me with this? True, I have tried to inform myself regarding the general nature of wise government, but I pretend to no competence in details. These I entrust to my representatives, men who I hear are well paid for their work, men whose profession is legislation. I, too, have a pro­fession: do you expect me to add their profession to mine? They have one profession; why, in heaven’s name, should I be called upon to have two? Moreover, is it reasonable to expect me, who have not sat in Congress and heard the debate upon this issue, to de­cide impromptu upon its merits, and direct my representatives how to vote? Government and legisla­tion, says Burke, in the speech al­ready twice invoked, “are matters of reason and judgment…; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another de­cide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant [in America perhaps five thousand] from those who hear the arguments?”3

Hire a Housekeeper

Again, it tends to free society as a whole from any necessity of devoting a disproportionate amount of its time to the ma­chinery of government. In this consideration, intimately related to the one just advanced, I have a vivid interest possibly more or less personal to myself. For the more I think of it, the more I agree with the teacher and friend who once remarked of politics that it is the housekeeping of the nation. Now we do not keep house in order to keep house, but in order to make possible many pleasures and satis­factions for which housekeeping is prerequisite. So with government. Despite the pomp and circum­stance by which heads of state are conventionally surrounded, gov­ernment too is an unfortunately necessary means, not an end. We do not set it up and conduct it for its own sake, but in order to as­sure conditions under which we can engage to advantage in what our Declaration of Independence calls the pursuit of happiness. The less time we are required to spend in mere housekeeping, or in mere governing, the better; and surely it is the part of wisdom that the details of governing, including the details of lawmaking, as opposed to principles, should be the con­cern, by no means of all of us, but of only a few especially fitted by nature for such responsibility, and especially trained to discharge it.

The Best None Too Good

And, finally, it undoubtedly makes for representatives and senators of superior quality. We want and need in Congress men of outstanding intellect and of up­right and forcible character—men highly competent both to think and to lead. What is there to at­tract such men in the idea of serving passively the popular will? Who can imagine them answering at roll call “Aye,” in obedience to a “demand” of their constitu­ents, when in reality they are deeply convinced, head and heart, that the only wise and honest vote is a thunderous “No”? Would they not feel that any such self-dis­avowal was an intolerable “flight from integrity”?4

Nor could the men I have in mind be moved by such specious reasoning as that described by John Morley in an interesting comment which I shall presently quote. Its subject is the conduct of Burke on the occasion, referred to above, of his conflict with his Bris­tol constituents. A bill that had been brought into Parliament relaxing some of the commercial re­strictions on Ireland was furiously opposed by Bristol and other Brit­ish mercantile centers. Burke not only spoke and voted in favor of the bill but urged that it did not offer nearly relief enough. Morley, from whom I take the story, ob­serves:

There was [in Burke's behavior] none of that too familiar casuistry, by which public men argue them­selves out of their consciences in a strange syllogism, that they can best serve the country in Parliament; that to keep their seats they must follow their electors; and that there­fore, in the long run, they serve the country best by acquiescing in ignor­ance and prejudice.

The three sentences which im­mediately follow this passage, though somewhat digressive in the present context, are after all so pertinent to my general theme, so certain to meet with cordial ap­proval, and so good to listen to in themselves, that I shall not for­bear to add them:

Anybody can denounce an abuse. It needs valor and integrity to stand forth against a wrong to which our best friends are most ardently com­mitted. It warms our hearts to think of the noble courage with which Burke faced the blind and vile self­ishness of his own supporters.5

It would seem, then, sufficiently obvious that distinguished men are not to be enticed into Congress, or long kept there, if it comes to be clearly understood that they must play, as regards any or all legisla­tion, a secondary, purely instru­mental, and morally questionable role. On the other hand, free them from such a role, ask of them only that they consecrate their uncom­mon abilities to the public good, and give them scope to make them­selves felt as creative and inde­pendent personalities, and it seems reasonable to suppose that soon more and more of them will oc­cupy Congressional seats.

Men of eminent capacity are seldom unaware of their value, and they do not knowingly and willingly condemn themselves to insignificance. Nor is it good for them that they should do so. It was Theodore Roosevelt who once said, in effect—if across many years I recall correctly a remark attributed to him—that nothing does a man so deeply regret, when he comes to die, as not to have made the most of the talents which he possessed.

Dangers of Direct Democracy

By means of all the preceding considerations I would urge the validity and desirability of what I like to call the true representa­tive principle—but easily the most important of them is the one I mentioned first: the principle is in accord with the facts of human nature and of human society. The people as a whole are simply not fitted to govern immediately and directly, either by disposition or by education. On the issue in­volved division of opinion is ulti­mate and irreconcilable. Either you believe that the people as a whole are fitted to govern imme­diately and directly—and many, perhaps in our time and country most, do so believe—or you do not. I happen to be among those who do not; and I should like to think that Lincoln, our democrat par ex­cellence, was demonstrably on our side.

You can fool all of the people some of the time, he said, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. The people that you can fool all of the time are the congenitally and irremediably gullible; these we may dismiss from consideration. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time—for the very good reason that not all people are hopelessly gullible, and sooner or later those who are not will realize, if only from the thrust of brute fact—from the manifold annoyances and suffer­ings to which they are subjected—that something is wrong. But you can, said Lincoln, fool all of the people some of the time: all of the people can, in short, be tempo­rarily lured down a false trail by superficial spellbinders or un­scrupulous demagogues. That such a lapse is less likely to lead to disaster when the popular will is slowly transmitted, through those whom Beck calls “true and tried representatives,” acting in respon­sible independence, than when by the opposite system it is applied instantly and directly, would seem a proposition to which Abraham Lincoln could hardly refuse his assent.

But what does it matter? Sup­pose it admitted that the true rep­resentative principle is sound and should prevail: what faintest chance has it of general accept­ance?

I hear the barren, immemorial query, and I reply: It has indeed no chance whatsoever at the pres­ent moment. Its acceptance must await a new birth of political wis­dom. Meanwhile, however, to hasten this new birth, there are things which all who desire it can do. They can make sure that they have themselves mastered the great issues involved and then seize every opportunity to share with others their insight and their knowledge.


1 Have here of course no concern with the President’s views on labor legislation.

²The Constitution of the United States (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1941), p. 183.

3This protest is not weakened by the re­flection that Congress is not the only lawmaking body in which I have repre­sentatives. There are in addition the state legislature and the city council. If it is my duty to keep perpetually alert as to what goes on in federal Washing­ton, and to press my opinions there, it is also my duty—the difference being at most in degree only—to do likewise at the lower levels.

? borrow the phrase from Leonard E. Read, who employed it as title of an article in The Freeman for December 1959.

?Burke (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1923), p. 76.

  • Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.