The virtue-based and the rewards-based theories of elective delegation

November 28, 2007

There appear to be two main theories justifying elective delegation. These are the virtue-based theory and the rewards-based theory. Federalist Paper no. 57 presents both. It asks,

Who are to be the objects of popular choice?

and answers, first, with virtue-based arguments:

In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.

Those delegates will serve the interests of the people since they are virtuous and act at they perceive is right. Also, the paper argues, the delegates would feel gratitude toward their electors and honor-bound to serve them.

The paper then moves to a rewards-based argument – the desire to be re-elected:

All these securities, however, would be found very insufficient without the restraint of frequent elections. Hence, in the fourth place, the House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.

The two theories present different models of the delegate: According to the virtue-based theory, the quality of a delegate is an inherent characteristic. Some people are better than others – on the moral scale, and on the competence scale. The electorate is to find among the public those people who score highly on those scales and place them in positions of power. Having been put there, little supervision should be necessary since the inherent nature of those people would guarantee favorable policies.

According to the rewards-based theory, on the other hand, delegates are character-free. They are utility maximizing agents, doing their best to win re-election by pleasing the electorate. This theory explains delegation in much the same way as standard economic theory, or Adam Smith’s invisible hand, explains production: the delegate [producer] wishes only to maximize his own benefit (power, wealth), but since to do so he must win the support of the electorate [please the consumers of his products], he works hard to do what is best for them. The electorate are thus the consumers of delegates and both the electors and the delegates act within the free market of delegation to maximize their utility.

It is interesting to find out how well those two theories hold in practice.

As far as the public can tell, the theory of virtue does not do too well. Clearly, when voting, the public tries to select the candidate they believe would be faithful to them. However, Congresspeople do not enjoy a high levels of approval or confidence (see 1, 2, 3). Also, “men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running for public officeenjoy lower trust and confidence than “American people as a whole” (55%-65% vs. 70%-80% in the “great deal” or “fair amount” brackets). A possible resolution to this state of affairs is that virtue is hard to ascertain (either because it simply does not exist as an inherent characteristic, or because the public does not have enough information about candidates and politicians).

As for the rewards-based theory, it would be hard to doubt that most elected officials wish to get reelected. The question would be whether the desire to be reelected produces policy decisions that serve the electorate. Or put another way, would the inability to run for re-election produce worse public policy? If so, then we can expect second-term U.S. presidents to be noticeably worse than first-term ones, and Congresspeople who are about to retire should be noticeably worse than Congresspeople running for reelection. Is there any indication that this is how things are?


In his book “The Commonwealth of Oceana” (1656) James Harrington provides a distilled exposition of the virtue based theory of elective delegation:

A commonwealth is but a civil society of men: let us take any number of men (as twenty) and immediately make a commonwealth. Twenty men (if they be not all idiots, perhaps if they be) can never come so together but there will be such a difference in them that about a third will be wiser, or at least less foolish than all the rest; these upon acquaintance, though it be but small, will be discovered, and, as stags that have the largest heads, lead the herd; for while the six, discoursing and arguing one with another, show the eminence of their parts, the fourteen discover things that they never thought on; or are cleared in divers truths which had formerly perplexed them. Wherefore, in matter of common concernment, difficulty, or danger, they hang upon their lips, as children upon their fathers; and the influence thus acquired by the six, the eminence of whose parts are found to be a stay and comfort to the fourteen, is the authority of the fathers. Wherefore this can be no other than a natural aristocracy diffused by God throughout the whole body of mankind to this end and purpose; and therefore such as the people have not only a natural but a positive obligation to make use of as their guides; as where the people of Israel are commanded to “take wise men, and understanding, and known among their tribes, to be made rulers over them.” The six then approved of, as in the present case, are the senate, not by hereditary right, or in regard of the greatness of their estates only, which would tend to such power as might force or draw the people, but by election for their excellent parts, which tends to the advancement of the influence of their virtue or authority that leads the people.


3 Responses to “The virtue-based and the rewards-based theories of elective delegation”

  1. […] is interesting to note that the author does not propose either the virtue-based or the rewards-based theories of electoral delegation of power. It seems that to him, competitive elections have some innate power to confer legitimacy on […]

  2. […] that may collected by a re-elected delegate. These are the possible rewards that, according to the rewards-based theory of electoral delegation, may be motivating a delegate to be responsive to the interests of the electorate, by having the […]

  3. Yoram Gat Says:

    Potentially relevant paper: A “Selection Model” of Political Representation by Jane Mansbridge.

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