The Indispensability of Practical Wisdom

Jonathan Bernstein rebuts William Saletan's latest column:

Yes, the Constitution does create a system of representative democracy, not direct democracy.  But how are those representatives supposed to decide?   The Constitution is silent about that.  We can suppose (and here I'm following Hanna Pitkin) that Saletan is correct at one extreme; if Members simply take a poll about everything and do whatever the poll tells them, then they're not really "representing" them.  But, Pitkin argues, the other extreme -- in which the elected official does whatever she wants, regardless of what the people say they want -- isn't really "representation" either.  For her, representation is a way of making present someone (the constituents) who aren't actually present.  And so they have to be with the politician, in some sense, but not completely overwhelming him.

Bernstein's second criticism:

Saletan and others would have politicians do what's right.  What I'm saying is that politicians have no way of knowing what's right. They aren't trained for it. They aren't selected for it.  And that's true whether one thinks of it in terms of policy that works, or in terms of what's ethically correct.  If you want the former, get rid of democracy and hire some technocratic experts; if you want the latter, go find yourself a philosopher-king, I suppose.

The entire job of a politician is to discern what he or she thinks is right at any particular moment on any particular question. And of course they have a way of knowing what's right: it's called judgment and practical wisdom. For Jonathan to say that this is somehow not part of their role seems to miss a core part of human conduct and nature. He adds:

Now, in my view, a Democratic Member of Congress who is trying to get re-elected will want the health care bill to pass, because that's going to help her win re-election.

I remain with Burke.