According to James Madison, the proper task of elected representatives—and by extension, any other body of leaders—is to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
How does our present “power elite” measure up to this criterion?
Robert Dahl, writing in the mid-50s and early 60s, attempts to reassure us that the massive concentration of power characteristic of modern regulatory states is fully compatible with Madisonian statesmanship.
It is true, he admits, that a handful of top officials make decisions for the rest of us. And also true, lamentably, that a combination of restricted access to political channels, and apathy, prevents most of us from engaging in meaningful deliberation about key political and cultural issues.
Never fear, however. For the general freedoms of our society permit any of us to cultivate expertise in, and organize our fellow citizens in furtherance of, causes to which we are profoundly committed.
Meanwhile, the pluralistic background and professional mindset of contemporary elites make them reliably open to weighing the opinions and interests of anyone who can impress them with feats of knowledge, skill, and numbers.
In sum, Dahl contends, our power elite, though no longer compelled to serve the people’s interests by meaningful institutional checks on their authority, can be trusted to formulate policies that reasonably respect the rights and needs of all citizens.
No doubt there is some truth in this account, but, to paraphrase our first president, let us indulge with caution the supposition that the morality of our leaders can be maintained without effective supervision on the part of a free and virtuous citizenry.
For our parts, let’s plan on investigating further the question of how Dahl’s reassurances measure up to a sober assessment of our subsequent political and cultural experiences.
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