Public opinion must be prioritized

uppose for a moment that you are a financial advisor. A recently married husband and wife consult your services and ultimately decide to trust you to allocate their assets. They only spent a little time researching investment options using the limited resources at their disposal. Nevertheless, they feel confident that they know exactly what you should do with their money in order to safeguard their wealth and provide them with the best possible return. After listening to what they would like, you agree to manage their finances for them.

A few weeks later you become privy to some “insider” knowledge suggesting that the future outlook for the couple’s current investments looks bleak. You call the clients, but they never answer. You must decide whether to move their wealth or keep it where it is. In essence, you must choose between two options. Either use your greater knowledge to act in their best interest, or maintain their trust and your position as a reliable advisor by strictly adhering to their wishes even at the cost of their benefit.

Although an imperfect metaphor, the choice you encounter in this scenario resembles the type of decisions government officials struggle with on a daily basis. Should government officials always follow public sentiment, or should they be trusted to make individual judgment calls about what would be best for the country?

The answer might depend on whom you ask. Political scientists at John Hopkins University conducted a survey of America’s unelected governing elites and found that federal bureaucrats, think tank leaders and Congressional staff members “think Americans are stupid and should do what they are told.” Furthermore, “these political insiders believe they should ignore public opinion” because the public has little to no knowledge about public policy.

There are indications that this lack of trust extends both ways. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that “only 19 percent of Americans trust the government to always or almost always do the right thing.” The public’s trust in government remains incredibly low.

The debate over this question is analogous to the differences between the delegate model and the trustee model of representation in a representative democracy. According to the delegate model of representation, elected representatives should constantly act in accordance with the wishes of their constituencies and not on behalf of their own consciences. Conversely, the trustee model of representation holds that representatives should act in favor of the greater common good and the national interest even if this means going against the short-term interest of their own constituencies.

All government officials in a representative democracy, even those who are unelected, have an obligation to follow the desires of the general public. Even though the public isn’t always well-informed, I sincerely believe that one of the fundamental tenants of a representative democracy is that government officials must reflect the desires of the people they serve while working in a public capacity.

Imagine the potential for abuse if government officials were encouraged to act against the desires of the people, claiming that their conscience demanded it or that they have more knowledge on particular issues. They are perfectly free to act as their conscience dictates in their personal lives, but they should restrain themselves while serving in the public realm of a representative government.

Many government officials likely have a better grasp on the many issues facing our country than the average citizen. However, this is a natural result of the tendency for individual workers within a capitalist society to specialize. Is it really surprising that a government official who spends most of their day studying public policy is more knowledgeable of these issues than the average citizen?

Instead of encouraging government officials to behave in opposition to the public, trust should be cultivated between the government and the public. The government should be more transparent and provide readily accessible and current information on policy. In turn, the public should accept personal responsibility for seeking out information and becoming informed before taking a position. Cultivating trust on both sides will encourage government officials to act on behalf of their constituencies, and increase the public’s faith in their government. We must work to bridge the gap which currently causes both sides to vilify the other.

Danny Vojcak ’19 (vojcak1@stolaf.edu) is from Naperville, Ill. His major is undecided.

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