Should elected representatives generally vote based on their opinions, or the opinions of the district they represent? Imagine you're an elected representative facing this dilemma.
First of all, sometimes public opinion is unclear. For instance, let's say:
1/3 of people want to increase taxes to pay for Medicaid.
1/3 of people want to cut defense spending to pay for Medicaid.
1/3 of people don't want Medicaid.
So, we find that a 2/3 majority of people want to enact Medicaid. But wait! A 2/3 majority of people don't want to raise taxes. And a 2/3 majority of people don't want to cut spending. Oh no! How can we listen to the majority when it contradicts itself!* Here, since public opinion is too equivocal, it's not clear that there's a way to listen to the public. So you might as well vote your conscience.
But what about when public opinion is unequivocal? Or let's say you don't know what the public thinks, but one choice is good for your district but the other is good generally? What do you do?
Normally, if I wrote a blog post with that hook, I would present to you My Opinion, with no pretense of legitimacy on both sides.** But today, I'm writing an actual Debate Piece, where I present both sides. You can make up your own mind.***
I just realized Wix has this feature where you can quote cool things from your post, and from here on out, I promise I'll use it like that.
NIMBY and YIMBY
Before I get into the arguments, there's a philosophical debate about NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) vs. YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard).**** NIMBYs typically oppose housing, power plants, etc. near their house (or backyard) since it is net detrimental to them. YIMBYs support these services since they are net beneficial to the community. The NIMBY/YIMBY debate is closely linked with what I'll be talking about today, but it won't be the focal point.
Let's start the spice show with the argument that representatives of a district should represent that district.
Representatives of a District Should Represent That District (NIMBY)
Let's get back to Representative You. You've been elected to, say, the U.S. House of Representatives from District 1 in the state of Roberta, and a vote comes up that would support a major industry of your district, but it hurts a major industry of another district, say District 2. Well, you're representing District 1, and someone else is representing District 2. So you're free to vote for what helps your district, keeping in mind that the other district is also represented.
The point of a representative government is that everyone is represented. Let's say you vote against the bill, looking out for everyone. Additionally, the representative of District 2 nixes the bill, looking out for only District 2. You've abandoned your own district, which you were elected to protect.
Remember, you're elected to speak for the needs of your citizens. No one else elected you! Your duty is to be beholden to no one outside your district. It may sound selfish, but as mentioned above, other districts have other people to represent them.
Your duty is to be beholden to no one outside your district.
What if a motion comes up that would support your country at the expense of another country? One argument would be that, since that country is not at the table, you should represent them too. But that country does have someone at the table: the government of that country.
Perhaps it's a dictatorship and they have no voice. Then what? You need to work towards creating a voice for them, but it should be separate from you, because you are upholding your duty to represent. A representative represents, and you should sculpt that for everyone, but not at the expense of your own representation of your people.
This Isn't Inherently Selfish
Again, this isn't to say that you should never help out other countries, or other districts. Often, assisting other people can be good for you in the long run; you've made an ally and you've made people's lives better. All this says is that, as on an airplane, you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.*****
All this says is that, on an airplane, you should put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
Was that convincing enough? Time for the counterpoint, that public servants should serve the public.
Public Servants Should Serve the Public (YIMBY)
Looking back at the bill that helps District 1 at the expense of District 2, there's also a clear argument for opposing the bill, which is that the bill is just bad. Forget who you're representing, and use your own good judgement as a human being. It doesn't matter how District 2's representative votes, you're your own person, and you have the power to make the vote better.
Everyone matters. We have to speak up for everyone, from District 1 to District 2 to the entire world. For instance, there's this idea that America is first, that losing American lives is the ultimate cost. Losing human lives is the ultimate cost. (This isn't to say that we should be in more or fewer wars, just that we shouldn't think about American casualties, we should think about casualties, period.) Again, we should consider everyone's lives in making decisions.
For instance, there's this idea that America is first, that losing Americans lives is the ultimate cost. Losing human lives is the ultimate cost.
Think of the Children
Imagine a theoretical law that would strip Republicans of their voting rights. (Imagine that you're a Democrat.) Looking at just who elected you, this is favorable, since a Democrat would continue to be elected time after time. But of course this is absurd, since Republicans are just as much citizens as everyone else.
Additionally, children are not allowed to vote, and so therefore are not technically represented in government. Therefore, as an elected official, should you ignore the interests of youth, since they won't ultimately elect you? Of course not. Just because these people don't vote doesn't mean they aren't important.
Just because these people don't vote doesn't mean they aren't important.
It's similar with the residents of District 2. They don't vote in your district–but that's irrelevant. They are people with brains and hearts, and they matter.
Ron Swanson, from Parks and Recreation, is a fierce libertarian who despises government, feelings, and other people. While I disagree with his philosophy, I admire his ability to put his money where his mouth is and live the way he professes to want. While there are strong arguments on both sides, my goal is for you to decide for yourself which argument you agree with and use that to inform your thoughts.
My goal is for you to decide for yourself which argument you agree with and use that to inform your thoughts.
So which of these arguments do you buy? Let me know in the comments, or use the chat feature.
*This example is paraphrased from my favorite nonfiction book, How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg. A mathematical sojourn through the world, I could not recommend it more.
**Perhaps legitimacy, but not correctness. I'm trying.
***In practice, I'll probably end up making the second argument, which I believe in more, a bit more persuasive, so I'm sorry.
****There's a less philosophical debate about whether it's inconsistent that for two supposed opposite acronyms in NIMBY and YIMBY, whereas the IMBYs stand for the same words, the N stands for Not and the Y stands for Yes, which aren't opposites. The opposite of Not isn't really anything, suggesting that it should be NIMBY and IMBY. One counterpoint is that the Y in YIMBY is less of a counterpart to the N and more of a tacked-on show of enthusiasm for things being in my backyard. An alternate counterpoint is that since N and Y are traditional opposite letters (think no and yes), it is more visually pleasing to see those letters at odds as opposed to the less traditional N and no letters. A third counterpoint is that nobody cares, but hey, you're reading this irrelevant footnote, so you signed up.
A third counterpoint is that nobody cares, but hey, you're reading this irrelevant footnote, so you signed up.
There's a second debate about whether it should be NIMB and (Y)IMB as opposed to NIMBY and (Y)IMBY, since backyard is one word, not two, but there's a legitimate flow issue in saying NIMB and (Y)IMB with the B pronounced (as opposed to silently, like the word limb) so I defend NIMBY and (Y)IMBY over NIMB and (Y)IMB.
In other news, keep in mind few people are openly NIMBY, because it sounds selfish. It's something of an insult. NIMBY is a legitimate philosophy that I'll explore in this post.
*****I've used this line in so many debate rounds.