Political Representatives: Delegates or Trustees?


Well-known member
Jun 4, 2009
What is the point of an elected representative? Here are two possibilities:

Having well-functioning democratic institutions requires that we are able to hold our elected officials to account, but holding our elected officials to account requires that we have an understanding of how elected officials should behave.

For instance, when an elected representative chooses to support or oppose some particular policy, how should they come to a decision? One answer to this question is that they should act in accordance with the promises they made to the electorate before they were elected, but this answer is unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. First, important facts may have changed since the original promise was made, in which case it may be unwise or impossible to keep the original promise. Second, it isn’t practical to outline one’s position on every possible topic prior to an election, nor to hold a fresh election each time an unforeseen issue arises. Many important decisions that a politician is forced to make may never have been mentioned in his or her pre-election manifesto.

So, what we need is a more general account of how our elected officials should make decisions. Here are two possibilities:

The Delegate Model:

According to this model, elected representatives should try to act according to the preferences of their constituents, even if to do so would be contrary to the representative’s own best judgment. The effectiveness of a representative on this model depends on the ability of the representative to discern what it is that his or her constituents want and to advocate for those preferences on behalf of their constituents.

One reason you might find this view appealing is if you believe that a more direct form of democracy is the ideal. According to the delegate model, the role of the representative is merely to express the preferences of the people, and never to override those preferences with his or her individual judgment.

One reason you might find this view unappealing is if you believe that representatives should aim to pursue the common good, rather than the interests of those who elected them. Should a representative elected by the people of Cork, for example, aim to promote the interests of his constituents even if this would be to the detriment of the nation as a whole? For a more extreme example, consider the case of former Cork East TD Ned O’Keeffe, who infamously refused to advocate for new school facilities in an area of his constituency where he received few votes.

An alternative to the Delegate Model is the Trustee Model:

According to the trustee model, an elected official should follow his or her own best judgment, when making political decisions, even if a majority of constituents disagree, and even if it would not be in the best interests of a majority of constituents (for example, because the policy in question may be in the best interests of the nation as a whole). The rough idea behind this model is that when we vote in an election, we should aim to select someone we believe can be trusted to make the best decisions on behalf of us and the country, we should let them act with relative independence, and then we should decide at the next election whether we still trust their judgment.

One reason you might find this view appealing is if you believe that basing decisions on the preferences of the electorate would be impractical, or lead to unstable, or contradictory, or oppressive policies. To the extent that the delegate model represents “mob rule”, the trustee model may serve to limit such dangers.

One reason you might find this view unappealing is if you believe it looks paternalistic – if you think that people’s preferences should be trusted over the opinions of one politician, for example, you might think that it is arrogant or paternalistic for one man or woman to presume that they know better than the majority of those who elected them.

It’s worth emphasising that both these models seem to be mutually exclusive – while politicians in the real world may sometimes act more like trustees, and other times more like delegates, this is an inconsistency that should be worrying to those of us who want to know what sort of politicians we will be electing: will they abide by our preferences, even when they think we’re wrong? Will they place our interests first, or those of the nation as a whole?

So, which sort of politician would you prefer? Delegates, or trustees, or something else entirely?

For more on the issue of political representation, see here.

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