Sunday, March 06, 2011

Democracy, wisdom and interests: Federalist Papers #10

Can we ensure that the government acts in the national interest, instead of in the interest of only some subset (even the majority is just a subset) of the nation? This question was on the minds of the founders of the Constitution; their concerns run through the Federalist Papers. As "Publius" (probably James Madison) says in The Federalist Papers no. 10,
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. ... By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
Publius also mentions that
Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens... that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
Clearly Publius believes that there are such things as "the public good," "the rules of justice," the rights of the minority, and these things are distinct from the interests of some factions, even factions in the majority. Publius quite properly rejects the idea that we should eliminate the causes of factions. Although "liberty is to faction what air is to fire," we cannot eliminated liberty because it is "essential to political life." And the fallibility of human reason precludes the homogeneity of rational opinion that would eliminate factions. People of both good and ill will will disagree; we cannot and should not attempt to ensure that they never disagree.

Instead of eliminating destructive factionalism at its source, Publius proposes to mitigate the effects of factionalism. He asserts that we cannot rely on enlightened statesmen: "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." Nor can we rely on moral or religious motives: "They are not found to be [an adequate control] on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together." Instead, Publius proposes that a carefully constructed form of government will enable even a faction in the majority "to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens." Doing so will rescue popular government "from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored."

Publius rejects "pure democracy" as an appropriate form of government. Pure democracy, "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person," provides no cure for factionalism. According to Publius, "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." While it is not at all clear to me what specific democracies he refers to here, Publius clearly believes that pure democracy does not not merely fail to mitigate factionalism, but actually exacerbates it by providing any old majority direct, immediate control of the institutions of government.

Publius instead endorses the republican, representative government — "the delegation of the government ... to a small number of citizens elected by the rest" — that would be established by the proposed Constitution. According to Publius, representatives would "refine and enlarge the public views... [and] best discern the true interest of their country." Representatives, by virtue of their "wisdom... patriotism and love of justice" would be more likely to favor this true national interest over "temporary or partial" interests.

In the next installment, rather than argue about how to overcome factionalism, I want to examine more closely the fundamental premise: are there really such things as the "national interest" and related concepts? If so, how can we best discern it philosophically? Is it really true that factionalism indeed works against this national interest? How would we tell?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the wise critique. Me & my neighbour have been getting ready to do a little analysis about that. We received an excellent guide on that matter from our local library and most books where not as influensive as your information. I am very glad to see such information which I used to be searching for a protracted time.This made very glad! Anyway, in my language, there aren't a lot good source like this.


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