Should government do what people want or what's effective governance?
January 7, 2019 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in discussions, papers, theory, etc. about whether the proper role of government is to do what people want (which may not be useful) or what's advantageous for the country (which may not be popular).

Although my question has been motivated by recent border wall discussions, I see the trade happening regularly in politics. I am looking for academic or pseudo-academic discussion about what the proper role of government is here. Although I am very interested in differing views on this, I am more interested in substantive views than Metafilter comments, so links to papers, chapters, books, articles, etc would be preferred over a quick opinion response.
posted by saeculorum to Law & Government (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
“A democracy … can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.”
- Alexis de Tocqueville
posted by H21 at 3:50 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]

Looks like you want to jump into the field of Political Philosophy.

Thinking back to the course I took in college--we read selections from Hobbes (from Leviathon), Locke (something from Two Treatises of Government ) and Rawls (from a Theory of Justice; veil of ignorance) among others, which seem pretty standard, if you take a look at various syllabi available online if you search for "Introduction to Political Philosophy course".
posted by damayanti at 4:02 PM on January 7

Edmund Burke, Speech to the Electors of Bristol
November 3, 1774

"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 unbiassed 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.


"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 endeavour to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for."
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 11:41 AM on January 8

From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

This quotation is probably apocryphal and does not seem to be found anywhere in de Tocqueville's published works. Fortunately, those published works are in the public domain.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:26 AM on January 18

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