“Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
That famous phrase was credited to colonial lawyer and pamphleteer James Otis, speaking of the injustice of having to pay taxes to the British crown while the American colonists received no representation in Parliament.
Contained within the phrase is an implicit philosophy of government; a philosophy that is still popular today. That philosophy is that humans should, to the extent possible, be allowed to govern themselves. In practice, this means that the people affected by a law should play some role in forming that law. In representative democracies, this means having the right to select a person who acts in your stead when it comes time to write, interpret and enforce laws.
While I share the underlying philosophy of self-government, I see a few problems with how to put it into practice:
1) We’re going to have to define what it means to be “affected” by a law (or a government or another individual), which is trickier than you might think.
2) If we can prove that someone is affected by a law, does that mean that we should grant them political power to change the law?
Let’s start with the first problem. According to the dictionary, “to affect” means “To have an influence on or effect a change in.” Thus, when I go to the grocery store and purchase food, I am, to some small degree, raising the demand for all of the products that I purchase. That will, in the short run, make those products more expensive for everyone else who wants to buy them. I am effecting a change in the price of those goods. Therefore, we could say that I am making other people’s lives (slightly) worse, in the short term, every time I go to HyVee. Does it follow that those people who have to pay higher prices should have some control over whether or not I purchase groceries?
I think most reasonable people would say “no” (perhaps some would make exceptions for when I’m purchasing more than my share of a scarce commodity). I suspect that many libertarians would say I’m using the word “affect” too liberally, and that what is really meant in the case of our political philosophy is something closer to “coercion” on the part of a government or individual. “You should have control over laws or acts that coerce you to do something,” they might say.
Coercion is defined as, “To force to act or think in a certain way by use of pressure, threats, or intimidation.” Maybe that’s closer to what we have in mind, but even if we use this definition, problems remain.
If I am a foreigner attempting to immigrate to the United States without a visa, the American government will find me and physically transport me out of the country. Rightly or wrongly, I am clearly being coerced.
Now suppose that I learn of U.S. immigration laws in advance and decide to stay in my home country rather than be deported or apply for a visa. Are U.S. immigration laws coercing me since they have an effect on my behavior? After all, isn’t the country threatening to coerce me if I don’t comply with its laws, and isn’t that good enough?
It would seem so. But if it is the case that I am coerced by U.S. immigration laws, then so is everyone else who has ever gotten a visa to come here or thought of doing so and decided not to. This leads to the second problem with self-government, and that is the problem of who gets to be counted among the governed.
The reason I brought up immigration is because I think it is a good case study of the limits of self-government. The Americans I talk to may disagree about what level of immigration control the country should have, but nearly all of them agree that the people deciding on the controls should be American citizens. The problem with this, as you can now see for yourself, is that the Americans are not the only ones affected by immigration laws. Immigrants, both actual and potencial, are coerced in some sense but receive no representation in Congress.
The answer to this problem is not obvious, but there are a few solutions I can think of:
1) Allow everyone who is affected by the law to vote on it. If this were done, I don’t see how you could exclude anyone in the world from voting because they could all lay claim to being coerced by having the option of immigration taken away from them or at least made difficult by the law.
2) Have immigration policy set at the international level by a body such as the United Nations, which works if you think everyone in the world is represented at the United Nations.
3) Eliminate laws that affect people who can’t vote on them, which would mean eliminating immigration controls altogether.
The fact that none of these solutions seems practical (and some of them undesirable) underscores the difficulty of consistently applying the principles of self-government. Perhaps it also underscores the difficulty of trying to solve problems through representative democracy.