Monday, July 4, 2011

American Aristocracy

I've been reading/listening to a number of important documents in American history lately. This has given me a growing sense of disappointment in my grade school classes, though I suppose I might not have been as interested back then if they had taught these topics. Today's remedial history lesson will be on Federalist #10 by James Madison (Wikisource Text).

Historical Context

1774 — First Continental Congress meets to complain about the British Parliament
1775 — Revolutionary War begins; Second Continental Congress convenes
1776 — Declaration of Independence approved by Congress on July 4
1781 — Articles of the Confederation ratified; War effectively ends
1783 — Treaty of Paris officially ends the war
1787 — Constitution ready; Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers begun
1788 — Constitution ratified

The Federalists argued for ratifying the Constitution; Anti-Federalists against ratification.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States of America was a 'league' of sovereign governments. The new Constitution would create a new federal government over the state governments. Those opposed to this mainly did so because they were afraid the federal government would become too powerful (hard to argue against that one in hindsight!) and because the Constitution lacked a bill of rights (later corrected, thankfully). However, the federalists made very persuasive points about the benefits of making the United States into one nation (many of those predictions came true as well).

Protecting Rights and the Public Good

People aren't always interested in doing what's best for the whole group. A shocking truth, I know! Madison wasn't so much worried about individuals as groups or factions with interests detrimental to other groups of citizens, or the nation as a whole. So he considers the options:

1. Removing the causes of factions.
2. Mitigating the negative effects of factions.

Madison rejects (1) by further breaking it down into two fixes: either destroying liberty or giving everyone the same desires. He calls the first a remedy 'worse than the disease.' The second simply ignores human nature. We will disagree over practically anything if given the chance.

This leaves (2) as the only realistic option. If a faction is in the minority, the majority can keep it under control. The really tough question is how to keep the majority from oppressing the minority or harming the nation as a whole.
To secure the public good, and private rights, against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular Government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
Again, he breaks the solution down into two fixes (call him James 'Binary' Madison). The first is to make sure there is never a majority of people interested in the same thing. Unrealistic. So the answer is to somehow keep the majority from being able to 'concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.'

A Democracy or a Republic?

You'll never guess how many forms of government Madison considers for the task of keeping the majority reigned in. That's right: two!

A pure democracy — or 'direct democracy' — features citizens making all government decisions directly. Imagine if all laws were passed by ballot initiatives.

A republic — or a 'representative democracy' — features elected representatives who stand between the people and the governing process.

Madison believed direct democracies are dangerous to rights and the public good:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such 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.
A republic is therefore the cure to the ailment of factions. Hopefully, the process of having elected officials run the government will be 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 their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

Elected officials are intended to be wiser and overall more fit for governing than the average citizen. Hence the word 'aristocracy' in this thread's title, which means rule of the best [people]. An elected aristocracy (periodically) answerable to the people is no doubt better than a hereditary aristocracy, but there's still a risk of officials gaining power under false pretenses then 'betray[ing] the interests of the people.'

Big Nation or Small Nations?

Madison argued that a larger, more diverse federal government could guard against this risk more effectively than could independent state governments. ...and gave two reasons:

I. Representatives from a larger, more diverse nation are are less likely to share interests — or, conversely, more likely to represent all interests — than smaller, less diverse nations. In contemporary terms, this is Blue State and Red State elected representatives keeping the country as a whole somewhere between Red and Blue ideals.

II. Representatives drawn from a larger nation are more likely to be fit for the duty. Same reason why large countries win more Olympic medals.

So there you have it, folks. The United States was intended to be run by a diverse group of elite citizens drawn from a large population to make better decisions for everyone than everyone would make as a group. How is it working out?


  1. Interesting. However -

    1. How is the 'meritocracy' supposed to emerge? Isn't leaving elections to popular vote more likely to lead to the election of populists and charlatans than to wise statesmen?

    2. Since elections for the Senate are on a state-wide basis, doesn't this distract from the pool of applicants, mooting point II?

  2. 1. Well, the Founding Fathers never intended to have a political system like the one we have today, where the people more or less have direct say on things. Back then, a lot of offices (and certainly those for Federal positions) weren't elected by the people at all but by prominent aristocrats who would then select who they chose was the best candidate. In the minds of most of the Fathers, it would work something as follows:

    There is a pool of 15 very smart, intelligent and honorable men to choose from. The masses would elect 5 of those men who may or may not have alluded to their particular leanings. The 5 elected men would then discuss the candidates and then cast their votes. In this way, meritocracy arises from having those who actually get the final say have some merit to their character.

    Of course, with so much political pressure, power left unchecked and pompousness, what inevitably ended up happening was rampant corruption and political machines, hence all the Progressive reforms to give more power to the people to keep the so-called aristocrats (at this point more like political puppets and middle-men) in check.

    2. I don't remember what context Madison talked about Big Nations. I'll have to check that.

    I'm actually really surprised that they didn't teach you any of this in grade school. I went over the Federalist debate in World History, even if it was just a few sentences and some quotes. My American History class even had a debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. And, most recently, my American Government (and even Comparative Government) class had us review the most important Federalist papers. I really can't imagine NOT going over these documents seeing how they outline many central debates. How else are you going to understand the conflict of the Civil War without even understanding the Constitutional debate behind it?

    Yet I keep hearing from various other High School graduates that their history classes consisted merely of memorization. I guess I got lucky and had teachers who actually cared to explain the conflicts.

    Out of curiosity Garren, how much do you agree with Madison's arguments and do you favor smaller or bigger government?

  3. I should add for my response to 1. that the Founding Fathers expected that the aristocrats would put aside their political leanings and do what is best in the interest of the nation. Heh.

  4. Esteban,

    I didn't know that elections were supposed to be even more indirect. Maybe that's coming up in later papers.

    As for why I missed out on a lot of these things, it might have had something to do with the tiny Christian school I attended. We did cover some things in detail, but just to give another example: I had never heard of the Incorporation Doctrine until last month (thanks Wikipedia). Some of my teachers seemed more interested in telling me that the US was founded on Christian principles than teaching much about how the US government actually worked/works.

    And as far as the Civil War goes, I did learn about the argument over the status of slavery in new territories. I just didn't know about the long history of contending the idea of a federal government in power over the states.

    .."Out of curiosity Garren, how much do you agree with Madison's arguments and do you favor smaller or bigger government?"

    The argument I felt was the strongest was that the Constitution's arrangement would do much to keep the states from fighting each other, either by local dispute or by foreign alliances (might have been an earlier paper). Granted, that broke down during the Civil War but overall I think it's been successful. Compare with Europe.

    I don't know about the rest. I often wish I could vote on national issues directly because my values are split across party lines. And the kind of merit the system actually rewards is surely not the merit Madison had in mind.