A major issue that must be considered when we think about the way we want the people who we choose to represent us to behave is whether they should act as trustees or as delegates. These two styles of representation are radically different, and the choice of one or the other could mean radically different legislative outcomes for a representative’s constituents. First off, let’s define both terms; a delegate is a representative who listens to his constituents, records their views and then regurgitates their opinions in whatever legislative body he is a part of. In contrast, a trustee listens to his constituents’ ideas, takes them into consideration and then formulates an opinion of his own and acts upon that opinion. Both styles have merit, but John Mill’s views on liberty provide a strong and compelling argument for trusteeship.
These diametrically opposed methods of representation have the capacity to drastically impact the way people are represented in their legislatures and can put the US style of government anywhere on the spectrum from true democracy to oligarchy. It is debatable which style is preferable, but judging by his views on individual opinions, John Stuart Mill clearly prefers a trustee to a delegate. Mill writes, “A person whose desires and impulses are his own…is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character” (Mill, pg. 622). Mill denigrates the delegate by implying that he has about as much character as a steam engine and is in fact just as much of a human being as a steam engine. In chapter 12 of his writings on representative government, Mill makes a more specific argument. Talking about the general populace he says, “they cannot be expected to postpone their particular opinions, unless in order that they may be served by a person of superior knowledge to their own.” This showcases Mill’s view that if a representative is more knowledgeable than his constituents, he has the right and the responsibility to use his own judgment and opinions when representing the voters.
Despite Mill’s insistence, there are in fact reasonable arguments for both delegates and trustees. A delegate is better able to accurately represent his constituency and convey their wishes to the legislative body. Mill, however, might argue that the constituents elected this particular representative because they thought he was smarter and better informed than they were, and by merely regurgitating their uninformed opinions he is actually doing them a disservice. On the other hand, while a trustee is better informed than his constituents, he is willing to ignore peoples’ opinions in order to do what he thinks is best for his district and the country as a whole. This can be a positive, but what if, for example, the trustee is an old white man who represents a primarily Hispanic community? Ideally it wouldn’t matter, but in reality an old white man might have very different views about, say, immigration or abortion, than a young Hispanic woman. If the Hispanic woman entrusts her representative to make her decisions for her and expects him to simply transmit her wishes to the legislature and he acts as a trustee and makes his own decisions, she will be extremely angry if he votes against her wishes. Even if his votes are for the good of the country or the district, she will be frustrated that the representative she voted for has not adhered to her wishes and will be unlikely to vote for him in the next election.
John Mill is a vehement defender of the trustee style of representation, and it appears that this style is generally advantageous to the legislature as a whole, but if you are a representative, it might not help you get reelected.
Note: Excerpt from Mill’s Representative Government taken from <http://www.constitution.org/jsm/rep_gov.htm>