Thursday, 24 April 2014

Federalist No. 10, Part III: the Republican Solution

Though Madison’s discussion of the weaknesses of human nature, the inevitability of faction, and the failure of democracy to account for either are intriguing in their own right, the reputation of Federalist No. 10 as one of the most significant documents in American political history is based more on its explanation of the genius of republican government and its ability to alleviate the excesses of partisanship. This explanation, which runs roughly from paragraph fifteen to paragraph twenty-two, is rather simply and concisely laid out, and though parts of it may now seem to be quaint or naïve, it represented at the time of its publication a revolutionary reimagining of the concept of representative government.

    The basis of Madison’s arguments runs thusly:

1.      Unlike in a democracy, in which a small number of citizens conduct the business of government themselves, authority in a republic is delegated by the citizens to their chosen representatives

2.      Because the government of a republic does not need to be conducted by all of the assembled citizens, this government can be allowed to extend over a larger geographical area and encompass a larger population than that of a pure democracy

3.      As each representative in an extensive republic will be chosen by a larger number of citizens than typically exist in a small democracy, a greater number of issues will need to be considered and the choice of election will more likely fall to one who can be shown to exercise sound judgement, prudence and a firm grasp of the principles of government, rather than those that promise to uphold the wishes of the faction to which they belong

4.      By ensuring the proper ratio between the voters and their delegates, a well-constructed republic can ensure that representatives are neither unacquainted with the local issues that concern their constituents, nor too personally attached to them and thus blinded to matters of national significance

Simple enough; a series of logical assertions building to the logical conclusion that republican government, as embodied in the proposed Constitution, has the ability to control the existence of factions by ensuring that no one of them could dominate any other in the selection of the people’s representative, or their day-to-day deliberations. Again I concede that this must seem like a rather naïve construction of government considering how much parties have come to dominate the American political process. Nevertheless, in 1787 it was a truly radical notion that a larger state could ever be considered more stable than a smaller one, and represented a uniquely American inversion of accepted political theory.

The theory in question was that of Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, French Enlightenment philosopher, and contemporary to Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1748, Montesquieu published a political treatise called The Spirit of the Laws in which he advocated for constitutional government, the separation of powers, the abolition of slavery, and the protection of civil liberties. The culmination of twenty years of research into law, sociology, anthropology, and political theory, The Spirit of the Laws proved to be extremely influential, both in France, where it originated, and in Great Britain and its colonies. Among the arguments that Montesquieu put forth, one was that the ideal republic must exist over only a small expanse of territory. Specifically, he contended that the larger the state, and the more wealth and power it accumulated, the greater the temptation would be for abuse on the part of its elected administrators. Furthermore he believed that,

"In a large republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses are of less extent, and of course are less protected.”

Madison’s reversal of Montesquieu’s argument, which was based in established political theory and drew on the examples of Ancient Greece, the Roman Republic and the city-states of Renaissance Italy, was a radical tactic. Yet in some ways it was typical of the American approach to republicanism, history, and political thought.

However they came to disagree in later years, Madison and his compatriots were united by a profound sense of optimism about the significance of their Revolution and the place their country would occupy in the history of Western Civilization. In their eyes, the United States of America was a truly exceptional entity; the culmination of Enlightenment political theory; the perfection of republicanism and of liberal government. In time, they were confident their nation would rise to a pre-eminence never seen before in the history of the world, and along the way defy expectations and shatter precedents. Though, in 1787, these visions might have seemed a long way from being realized, Madison was confident that the adoption of the Constitution was the next step in the process. To that end, he stated in paragraph eleven of Federalist No. 10 that the matter being considered was, “the great desideratum, by which this form of Government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.” With such weighty matters at stake, I doubt there were many established political theories that Madison wouldn’t have found a way to defy. 

And though his efforts were ultimately successful, the rigidly structured “republic of virtue” that Madison first envisioned in 1787 arguably existed, only for a brief period in the 1790s. By the time Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the 3rd President of the United States in 1801, America was beginning one of a series of slow transformations that would occur over the course of the next fifty-or-so years. As I mentioned during my discussion of Washington and his departure from public life, the America of the 18th century, of the Enlightenment, was exceedingly short-lived. The diplomatic pressures of the 1790s, the growth of manufacturing, a second war against Britain; these things pushed and pull the country in at times contradictory directions, and Americans’ ideas about the purpose, size, and scope of their government changed accordingly. And so I must admit that the theory of republican government showcased by Federalist No. 10, which would have seemed antiquated to many as early as the 1820s, must seem hopelessly out of step in the modern era, when parties have become so ingrained in the way the American political system functions.

In deference to Madison and the other supporters of the Constitution, I think that they knew this might someday be the case, and sought to furnish subsequent generations with the tools they would need to confront new and different challenges. Their America was from the beginning an experiment, and one that was apt to evolve over time. Having said that, and considering the way politicians and pundits continue to attach significance to the words and deeds of the founding generation, I do think there are elements of Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 10 worthy of consideration, here and now.

The first is Madison’s belief that the people’s elected representatives need to be of a certain quality, and that part of their job is to exercise their judgement when deciding which policies best address a particular issue. In his own word, the purpose of representative government is to “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 their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” He also seemed to believe that representatives should be chosen, not because they seem sympathetic, share the views of the electorate, or come from the same place, but because they are competent, experienced and trustworthy. It is now considered, I think, a matter of opinion whether an elected representative’s purpose it to directly transmit the wants, needs, and desires of their constituents onto the national political stage, or if they are instead supposed to think of their election as an endorsement of their competence, and approach issues with the freedom to exercise their discretion and expertise. Whichever view seems to predominate in the American political tradition, I think it worth noting that Madison seemed to favor the former.  

The second, and perhaps most interesting, is Madison’s apparent conviction that differences of opinion among elected representatives are not a weakness in a republic, but a strength. The larger the electorate, he argues, the larger number of representatives will be required, and the greater variety of perspectives and opinions will be present in the assembled legislature. In so doing, it becomes, “less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motives exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.” At the same time, since no majority of opinion is likely to prevail, laws must be debated on their merits and will only be ratified if they satisfy the convictions of more than just one faction or another. Considering the view evidently shared by Democrats and Republicans alike that the only thing stopping them from solving every problem under the sun are their opponents across the aisle, Madison’s belief that a diversity of opinion is central to a republic’s strength and stability seems worthy of consideration. If nothing else it begs the question: is it entirely constructive to have public policy in the most powerful nation in the world decided via two massive political factions continuously thrashing each other with no end in sight? Is it not preferable that 70% of the population think a statute is reasonably good than 51% think it perfection and 49% disclaim it as the downfall of civilization?

But I do go on. As always, I encourage you to read and think on these questions for yourself:

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