The problem of delegation

January 7, 2008

Democracy in large groups relies on delegation of power. Delegation is the formal concentration of significant political power in the hands of a small subset of members in such a way that it is difficult to strip those members of that power at least over a certain time period. It is an interesting theoretical question whether there may be a way to run a large group in a democratic manner without delegation (such as some pure form of direct democracy). However, it is a fact that all known forms of government that are democratic, or that claim to be democratic, rely on delegation.

On the face of it, delegation is an anti-democratic act. Once power has been concentrated in the hands of the delegates, political equality has been lost. Formal concentration of power, however, may not imply real concentration of power. As long as a body wielding the power is constrained to use it in a pre-specified way – specified by the group empowering the body – then the body may be seen as a tool of the group rather than as an independent powerful actor. Therefore, as long as the delegates apply their power in accordance with the enlightened views of the group members, it may be said that the political power, although formally concentrated in the hands of the delegates, is in effect maintained by the entire group and merely carried out by the delegates. In this sense, when delegates serve the interests of the group, the delegates can be said to be representatives of the group.

The problem of delegation is therefore reduced to the problem of constructing a body of delegates in such a way that it is constrained to serve the interests of the group. Since delegates can be expected to serve their own interests, the issue is finding a way to make sure that the interests of the delegates are aligned with those of the public.

The interests of the delegates can be classified into two types: The first type is those interests that the delegates have due to them being delegates. The second type is all other interests that the delegates may have – due to their personal preferences and situations, to their ideologies and group memberships, etc.

The first type of interests may move the delegates to try to use their political power to award themselves various coveted privileges or material possessions and to try to expand their own political powers. Such interests run directly against those of the public and therefore must be checked if the body of delegates is to be constrained to serve the interests of the people. Common methods of checking those interests are limiting the time of delegation, granting each delegate body limited political power, and allowing some other empowered body to examine and punish delegates that are deemed to have abused their power.

The second type of interests are those interests that are expected to drive the political decision of the delegates. Only as long as those are aligned with the interests of the public, the process is democratic. The question of democratic delegation is therefore – is there a way to align the (non-delegate-specific) interests of delegates with those of the public, and if so, how?

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