We talk a lot about how government is “too big” or “too small”, but one thing we rarely talk about is how it isn’t very representative anymore. You’ll hear “we need to get money out of politics”, but all of the talk is focused on how to get that legislated. I think the problem is a little bit different, and they are related. Specifically, our government doesn’t do a great job of representing the population anymore.
The first census was in 1790, and there were just under 4 million people counted. Even just before the civil war, back in 1860, the population was only counted around 31.5 million with 183 seats (or about 172,000 people per representative). There was a major change around 1930, where the number of members in the house was capped at 435 (mostly for administrative purposes, because trying to hold meetings with more people than that was becoming unwieldy) which has caused the number of people that each member represents to increase substantially. As of today, there are over 700,000 people per representative in the House, and that number is continuing to grow. This is a bit part of why your voice is not heard, because your part of government has been hobbled. The President represents our country, and the Senate represents the states, but the House is supposed to represent the people.
The Federalist Papers originally suggested that 30,000 persons per representative would be the target ratio for representation in the house. With 30,000 people per representative, it is possible for people to know, on a personal level, who their representative is and what they stand for. Campaigning for around 30,000 people is also possible as just one person, and with the population density we have now and the travel that is possible, it is reasonable that everyone interested within an area could travel to see their rep when he was campaigning. If we had a house that was that representative today, it would have 10,292 people, because that is how many of us there are.
That is a lot of people to try to administer as one group, but it does have a number of advantages. There has been much talk about “money in government”, and arguments for how we might legislate the money out of government. That sounds like a lot of wishful thinking to me, that people who have succeeded within the system would undermine their own security. I’m of a mind that we ought to take the approach that the Greeks did. When they held a jury, in order to prevent bribery, they made their juries large. Instead of explicitly preventing bribes (which realistically isn’t going to happen), they made the group so large that it was unreasonable for any wealthy person to bribe them for profit. I think having a more representative government would provide the same kind of protection – reducing (if not eliminating) the effect of the wealthy on politicians, at least within the House of Representatives.
Failing that, the only other option I see to correct our problems is to make some major adjustments to the way that we govern to make the administration of our government more American. In the first census, we counted just under 4 million people in the country; that is less than currently lives in South Carolina. In 1860, our census counted 31.4 million people; California currently holds 38.8 million. Although I do have some concern that our country may have outgrown the specific numbers that we have fixed in our government, I have no doubt that we can make the necessary adjustments. Our government has always been done in layers, with city, county, state, and federal governance playing roles.
I’m not sure whether we need to tweak the numbers representing us, or add another layer of representation somewhere, but I am confident that lack of representation is one of the biggest problems facing our country.
Many thanks to Google.com for their search feature finding population data quickly.