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Triumph of the Will

November 14th, 2007 · 8 Comments

Dave Weigel notes that John McCain has a rather idiosyncratic conception of “the will of the people,” which may turn out to be precisely the opposite of what a significant majority of the actual people wish to do. That’s not to say this idea is without pedigree. In fact, it mirrors quite closely Rousseau’s distinction between the “general will” and the “will of all”:

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter looks only to the common interest; the former considers private interest and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will. (Social Contract, Vol. IV, p. 146)

What this means in practice, of course, is that the legislator can simply do whatever he thinks is best, and still claim to be following “the will of the people” in some suitably abstract, hypothetical sense. Recall this the next time some pol or flack confidently declares what “the American People” want, demand, value, or won’t stand for. There’s a fair chance they’re referring to the ideal Platonic “American People” in their head—a population that, miraculously, seems always to hold the same views as the speaker.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 R. Totale // Nov 14, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Don’t leaders, by definition, represent the will of the people, since that is what we elected them to do, regardless of what the polling happens to be on a particular issue?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Nov 14, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    In a word? No.

  • 3 R. Totale // Nov 14, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Ha Ha. Alright. I mean, I’m on your side, I’m just trying to clarify what exactly it is we expect from politicians. This is still a representative democracy, right?

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Nov 14, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    I think this is just a question of ambiguity in the word “represent.” I can appoint an agent who “represents” me, in the sense of being formally authorized to act or speak on my behalf. But obviously, that person can misrepresent my views or interests. You might call these the “formal” and the “substantive” senses of “represent,” if you were looking for distinguishing labels.

  • 5 R. Totale // Nov 14, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    I understand what you are saying, Julian, but McCain isn’t “misrepresenting” anyone. His job is not to blow with the prevailing winds. He says, “there’s evidence, but no convincing evidence to me that medical marijuana relief of pain and suffering cannot be accomplished by prescriptions from doctors”. I happen to think that’s a ludicrous and heartless belief and will be one of many reasons that I won’t vote for him. However, didn’t the citizens of Arizona elect him to make that call?

  • 6 Rich Paul // Nov 14, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    (Mr or Ms) Totale:

    Actually, they did not. They elected him in America, to a Federal office, and his oath was to “protect and defend the constitution”. The Constitution gives no power to the Federal government to regulate, require, or forbid any medical procedure, the ingestion of any substance, any sexual act, or even any common crime (like robbery, rape, or murder) outside of the District of Colombia.

    All of these issues are reserved to the states implicitly by the failure to cite them in Article 1, Section 8 (which lists the 19 subjects the federal congress is authorized to legislate upon), and are the reserved to the states EXPLICITLY, by the 10th Amendment.

    Sadly, the federalization of law in America, and the centralization of power in the hands of the gang of 535, has rendered the Constitution almost forgotten since it started during the Depression (some would say the Civil War was the start).

    None the less, it’s none of the federal governments business what you do, unless what you do is:

    1) Treason
    2) Piracy
    3) Counterfeiting.

  • 7 William Newman // Nov 15, 2007 at 9:13 am

    There are any number of relationships where people choose specialists to make choices for them. Consider what we expect of them outside government. Sometimes the specialist really honestly knows best about overriding his client — perhaps a ship’s captain responding to a dangerous situation in one way when his client is calling for something different — but we still don’t think the specialist shouldn’t justify overriding his client’s will with language like “it was the will of my client.” In situations where overriding the client’s will is justified, you can usually explain the justification with a statement that’s literally true, right? What’s wrong with saying something like “it was not what my client wanted me to do, but my most important responsibility as a captain is to keep my passenger safe, not to follow my client’s rudder orders.” If instead of stating and defending a justification like that, the specialist instead says that he is guided by the true will of the client, that underlying essence of will which is so true and so deep and so independent from the usual superficial notion of will that of all the wannabe specialists in the world, that particular specialist is the one who sees it reliably clearly, it’s not reassuring.

  • 8 Julian Elson // Nov 15, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Even if you think that an elected politician can justly act in a manner in which the majority disapproves because he believes that following the majority’s wishes on such a matter would be wrong or, in spite of their own views, against their interests, that doesn’t mean he’s enacting the “will of the people.” Maybe sometimes it’s best to go against the will of the people, because the people are wrong, but if so, that doesn’t mean that some “higher” conception of a “pure” will of the people which agrees with you isn’t bullshit.

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