Mini-Federalist #10 – The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection

This is a continuation of a series of posts that are intended to be shorter, more understandable versions of the Federalist Papers. This post deals with Federalist #10, the original text of which can be read here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_10.html

Originally published November 22, 1787 by “Publius” – who was in this case, James Madison.

One of the things that a well-constructed Union will do is mitigate the effects of “special interests“. Fans of democracy find the emergence of these special interests to be the most troubling part of the system, so any efforts to control these are critical. Many democracies have been killed off by these special interests because they are one of the first things that critics bring up as a weakness. In America, we’ve made some improvements to pure democracy in an effort to fix some of these problems, but we haven’t gotten it totally perfect yet. Unfortunately, it is true that a lot of the time the weak get preyed-upon by the strong and that the government actually helps this happen.

When I’m talking about special interests what I mean is a group of citizens (whether a majority or minority) that is united by some specific passion, or temporary swell of emotion. They generally don’t care about how they affect the rights of others, or about the permanent effects of the policies they want put in place. We have a choice: we can either get rid of the causes of, or try to limit the effects of, these special interests.

The causes could be controlled by making sure that either: A) no one has any freedom; or B) everyone thinks, feels, and acts the same way. Clearly we can’t get rid of our liberty – that would defeat the whole purpose of our government. You could eliminate fires by getting rid of all the oxygen in the world, but you’d also kill all the people. What would be the point of that? The second option is just impossible to enforce. As long as there are different people, there will be different opinions. No one is perfect, and no one is all-knowing. People will continue to get things wrong. Part of the job of the government is to protect what we’ve built in our own lives, and since that will be different for everyone (and inherently un-equal as a result of that difference) there will naturally be different groups coalescing around the protection of their own interests. Simply put, the cause of these “special interests” is human nature itself.

Even when people have no real differences, they seem to make conflict out of the smallest things, but most of the time they fight about who has the most stuff (or even who is perceived to have the most stuff). The special interests duke it out, and the government spends a lot of time acting (largely unsuccessfully) as the referee.

People are naturally biased toward themselves – we wouldn’t let anyone be the judge at his own trial, right? Why should we allow anyone to make laws that can affect EVERYONE in the service of the lawmaker’s own interests? In our system, if there is a dispute between creditors and debtors for example, whichever side has the most political influence is the side that will win. Shouldn’t justice prevail rather than merely raw power? Another example: should we protect our own industries by taxing imports? The manufacturers in this country may have one answer and the people as a whole probably another. What about the distribution of taxes? If the lawmakers can make the “other guy” (whoever they perceive that to be) pay, that’s money they’ve saved “their guys”.

It is naive to think that our government officials will stay above the fray and only care about the public good. Despite our best efforts, we’re going to end up electing some shady characters. Even if all our politicians are good-natured and intelligent, they may not foresee all the consequences of the laws they make.

Clearly, we can’t get rid of the causes of special interests. So we need to try to limit the damage they can do.

If the special interest is a minority, then they can be defeated with a simple vote – dealing with every interest may waste a lot of time, but at least the damage will be prevented. But what if the majority holds such a destructive special interest – wielding it against the rights of the minority? This is the big question, and I see only two ways that we can deal with it.

We have to either A) make sure that no majorities form around the same special interest, or B) we have to put systems in place to prevent them from becoming oppressive. We can’t rely on moral codes to prevent people from oppressing each other – they do it at the individual level all the time already, and would only be worse with the backing of the entire society.

Obviously, this issue is impossible to prevent in a pure democracy. When the majority rules absolutely, there is nothing to stop them from stepping all over the minority. Because of this, democracies are inherently unstable and don’t really protect property and other rights. In practice, they don’t last for very long, and their deaths are explosive. Political scientists who favor democracy assume that if everyone has an equal vote, they’ll all end up with equal property, and a unified thought-process. This is plainly untrue.

A republic is the cure. By “republic”, I mean a system in which there is representation rather than direct votes on each issue. This delegation of authority also has the benefit that it can be applied to a larger society than a democracy could effectively be.

The representatives can help smooth things by being a buffer that the people have to pass through to get things done. Being elected by the people, they will most likely be the most patriotic, just and wise among the people. They may realize that what the public says they want, isn’t really in their best interests. Of course this could work the other way, too. If we get politicians who are in it for their own interests and those of their friends, they can easily double-cross the people. So would a large or small republic be better at preventing this scenario?

Obviously, the larger one. Regardless of how small your republic is, you need to have enough legislators to ensure that the people are well-represented, but not so many as to essentially result in a democracy. The smaller your legislative talent pool, the worse your legislators will be, so a larger republic should produce better politicians. A larger voter base should also be able to figure out which politicians are the shady ones, and keep them out. Of course, if the ratio of electors to politicians is too high, the lawmakers will be too disconnected from the people. A ratio that is too low will produce politicians who can’t get out of local issues to focus on the national ones. The proposed Constitution solves this by giving the power for local issues to the people or the States, and the national issues to the Federal government.

Returning to the size and scope of the government, a republic can cover a larger area than a democracy can hope to – this is a natural defense against special interests. Smaller societies will produce smaller interest groups that will gain (and use) majority support easier. A larger country will have a more diverse citizenry, with a larger group of people to organize and unite, so it will be less likely that majorities will form around specific special interests. For another thing, the more people who need to agree to the special interest’s plan, the more likely that people will be critical of it.

It is apparent that just as a republic is better than a democracy, a larger republic is better than a smaller one – a Union (like the one proposed in the Constitution) would be better than the individual States. And for all the reasons we’ve listed.

Special interest leaders may be able to cause trouble in one State. An overly-political religion may influence a region, but won’t get very far. Calls for paper money, for debt forgiveness, for redistribution of wealth, and other horrible things will be much less likely to spread across an entire country our size.

The proposed Constitution holds a solution to the problem of special interests. If we all can believe in the principles of a republic, we can all be Federalists and support the Constitution.

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