Representative Democracy

The theory of representative democracy derives mainly from the British parliament. This began in the 13th century when the English king called for representatives of his feudal vassals (the Knights of the Shires), the townsmen (Burgesses) and his Great Men (Dukes, Earls, Abbots, Bishops). He needed them to agree to taxes. Unlike most other kings he was unable to force people to pay taxes without their agreement. From this power to control taxation all other powers grew. In time only the Commons (Knights and Burgesses) could vote taxes. Until 1832 in Britain the Commons represented only the voters, people with property. From 1920 the Commons has represented all adults.

Are the elected representatives free to express their own wills (that is, are they chosen for their good judgement) or should they always vote according to the wishes of their electors (are they merely delegates)?

In Britain they are usually regarded as representatives.

The main question now is whether the powers of the assemblies of representatives are the best forum for debate on national and international questions. Television coverage of the assemblies tends to reveal the poor quality of debate. At the same time television, radio and newspapers provide a wider forum of debate among other citizens. But the general will of the people as revealed in the media is not necessarily reflected in the assemblies. Moreover, in many countries with representative assemblies the media are restricted, either by formal censorship (Official Secrets Acts) or by concentrated monopolistic ownership, or by the advertisers.

Methods of voting also affect the representative nature of the assembly. In some countries the membership is restricted to very few parties, sometimes to the exclusion of a range of ideas or opinions.

The Greek theory of democracy was that all (male) citizens (not slaves) could participate in a General Assembly. Some New England towns practice this still with a Town Meeting. So do English Parish Councils.

An extension of this may be the referendum .

The coming of electronic media may have implications for decision making in modern society, but no obvious practical examples can yet be cited. Parliaments are now usually seen on television. The behavior of the representatives may help to discourage voters' enthusiasm for politicians.

Last revised 10/12/08


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