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Edmund Burke, We Need You

By Donald E. Knebel on October 17, 2013 in Civic Blog
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An October 16, 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center reports th03303aat 76 percent of Tea Party Republicans say members of Congress should vote against a bill they believe is in the national interest if the people who elected them oppose it. Only 22 percent say their elected representatives should be guided by their own evaluation of the national interest. Almost 240 years ago, Edmund Burke flatly rejected this idea. His thoughts on the subject should be required reading for anyone claiming to be conservative.

Burke was a renowned 18th century member of the English Parliament, famous for his skills as an orator and for his political writings. He favored the American colonies in their disputes with King George III, but opposed the French Revolution because it ignored French history and traditions. Because of his respect for the lessons of history, he famously said: “”People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” His writings have made him a hero among people trying to preserve traditional institutions against radical change. He has rightly been called the father of modern conservatism.

After winning a close election to Parliament in 1774, Burke gave a speech to his constituents that articulated the duty of an elected representative to do the bidding of those who elected him:

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 unbiased 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.

My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

Burke understood that following his conscience could have political consequences. During his first term in Parliament, he did what he said he would do – he voted on a matter that history shows to have been correct but which disappointed his constituents. Seeing that he could not win the next election, he withdrew. Because of his political courage, he was later appointed to a safe seat.

We elect representatives for their judgment and their abilities to lead, not for how well they can parrot the views of their constituents. That is why we at least sometimes take into account their problems with alcohol, their marital indiscretions, their criminal records and similar matters reflecting their judgment and their wisdom. When they vote in ways that we disagree with, we should trust that their vote reflects that judgment and that wisdom and praise their courage. As Edmund Burke said: “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.” Amen.

Donald E. Knebel is a partner in Barnes & Thornburg LLP, resident in the Indianapolis, Indiana office. He is a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Law Department. Mr. Knebel serves as adjunct professor and senior advisor to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He frequently posts his observations here at Civic Blog. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Barnes & Thornburg LLP or the IU Maurer School of Law.