The American Political Mythos: Madisonian Psychology and the Foundation of American Politics
The American Political Mythos is a series of essays that explores the facts and factions operative in modern American discourse. To read the introduction, click here. To read the first chapter, on idealism, click here. To read the second chapter, on the state of nature, click here. To read the third chapter, on the connection between justice and personal relationships, click here.
I. The Myth: The Empiricism of Bureaucrats
Man, Aristotle decreed in The Politics, is by nature a political animal. In completeness, he asserts, the nature of a thing can be found. Man’s telos, or end, is in the city, the political organism that is self-sufficient and exists for the sake of living well. (I.2.1252b28–1253a1) Effectively, man is a political animal because it is political arrangements that hold the best hope for man’s quality of life: the city can command and organize resources at a capacity that far exceeds that of a solitary being.
But the American political ethos has an unfortunate tendency to read the benefits of the system into the characters of those individuals whose energies direct the system. Bureaucrats, so goes the conventional thinking, are given positions of authority because of their vast wealth of knowledge. The polis is filled with everyday people too busy and involved in the running of their personal lives to pay close attention to the nuances of dry policy debates. They may be qualified to express an opinion over what form of taxation they find most fair, but they lack the requisite knowledge base to express any useful opinion over topics such as whether a lower marginal tax rate will increase the federal deficit. Representative systems of government, says one school of democratic theory, exists so that those with credentials make decisions for the constituents with whose interests they have been entrusted. Credentialism — the trust placed in those who can produce qualifications that demonstrate their authority to speak on a particular topic — gives to bureaucrats a certain credulity denied the average citizen. Too easily, this credentialism is equated with empiricism: the belief that bureaucrats, whose conclusions carry the ivory tower stamp of approval belonging to institutions, are empiric in their judgment. They are dispassionate analysts of black and white facts; their public policy decisions are in no way touched by personal agendas. The credibility bias in public discourse is tilted away from the average citizen, whose gauge of political efficacy is his personal affairs, a topic in which he is very much emotionally invested. Thus, individuals become untrustworthy representatives of their own opinions. They lack both the knowledge of bureaucrats and the ability to dispassionately analyze policy outcomes. And so arises the conclusion that man, blinkered by his own selfish interests, cannot be a credible arbiter of his own affairs.
This view, though,is not only logically absurd but contradictory to the foundations of American government. Power — for such is knowledge — does not imbue greater integrity of character on man. To the contrary, it insulates men from the consequences of their actions and by doing so removes all the impediments nature places upon them. Knowledge has no direct bearing upon the character of a person; it merely serves as a magnifier for whatever pre-existing faults exist. And this is an idea at the heart of the foundation of American government. James Madison famously quipped, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” (Federalist 51) But internal restraints upon government do exist. What’s more, the restraints Madison designed respond to a very particular view of human psychology.
II. Natural Law as the Cornerstone of Lawmaking
The Federalist Papers, in parts, reads more like a work of psychology than it does a treatise on politics. It recognizes a fundamental limitation of nature: that government is shaped by men. It is given energy and purpose by the actions of men and no plan of perfect conception can escape this. There are no perfect systems because they require men to implement them, or, as Madison noted, “the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused.” (Federalist 41) The greatest difficulty of government, then, is in its dual task: “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” (Federalist 51) But if men are self-interested, this would seem to be something of a Sisyphean task.
For this reason, as much as any other, the legislature is the first among equals in a republican government such as the United States. The branches of government are coequal in the sense that neither can command greater authority than the other. Each has autonomy over the tasks delegated to it by the Constitution, for, according to Madison, “each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of members to the other.” (federalist 51) But this does not mean the distribution of the power commanded by the government stands at parity. The legislature wields the lion’s share of federal power, for it is here a multiplicity of factions, which more often than not stand at natural loggerheads, can be found. Here, self-interest is turned against itself and rather brilliantly utilized as a means for obliging the government to control itself. The legislature functions so long as its representatives are self-interested. When they faithfully represent the interests of their constituents, a natural divergence of opinion emerges. Legislation is passed when factions whose opinions happen to overlap come together to find common ground in a political end and form a majority, able of taking action on public policy.
It is when the self-interested man is insulated from others that problems begin to arise. When the self-interest of others is not a check upon the individual’s actions, he comes unbounded from the limitations of nature. His personal will is married to the might of the federal government. He can command the resources of the nation and invoke the force of law all in service of his ends. The power to rule is the power to make discretionary judgments. Madison speaks of the will of government as if it were the will of a conscience being because this is precisely what it is. But when that will is not controlled, the characteristics of a conscience being begin to emerge. With the power to discern particular political ends and courses of actions come other aspects of being. The power of discretion is not just the power to reason: it is the power to feel and, perhaps, most importantly, to feel threatened. The survival instinct is the most fundamental influence over man. When man is freed of the limitations of nature, he has unalloyed power to pursue his own survival and to weaponize the entire apparatus of the federal government in service of that end, which bodes ill for any citizens who happen to run up against it. Rights in such a system are not endemic to the individual by nature of the sovereignty of his being, but exist at the tolerance of the state. It is with this in mind that Hamilton, writing in Federalist 76, remarks:
“It will readily be comprehended that a man who had himself the sole disposition of offices would be governed much more by his private inclinations and interests than when he was bound to submit the propriety of his choice to the discussion and determination of a different and independent body, and that body an entire branch of the legislature. The possibility of rejection would be a strong motive to care in proposing. The danger to his own reputation, and, in the case of an elective magistrate, to his political existence, from betraying a spirit of favoritism or an unbecoming pursuit of popularity to the observation of a body whose opinion would have great weight in forming that of the public could not fail to operate as a barrier to the one and to the other. He would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure.”
With rationales such as these, Madison and Hamilton are invoking natural law, wherein self-interest is the ultimate rationale. A politician who serves at the tolerance of the opinion of his constituents has tied his personal wellbeing to securing the desires of those he represents. His career is dependent upon pleasing others, both his colleagues in the legislature and the portion of the polity he serves. This is less true of an executive or a bureaucrat, neither of whom is directly elected and whose job is dependent primarily upon individual reasoning and not on compromising with others to come to an agreement that results in amenable political action.
Yet, somewhat inexplicably, the authors of The Federalist Papers see the primary threat to the proper function of government coming not from the executive, but from the legislature. They also predict the greatest threat to federal power will come not from one branch encroaching upon another’s but from the states. This latter claim makes some sense within the context of the times in which the documents were written: the Articles of Confederation lacked an enforcement mechanism, which allowed the states to flout the laws passed by the Confederate Congress. Yet, there are key differences between the two documents: the Articles created a national rather than a federal government; the Constitution creates three branches of government and a bicameral legislature, whereas the Articles created only a judiciary and unicameral legislature. But these predictions about the threat to federal power are still rooted in a particular understanding of human psychology. The states, Hamilton suggests in Federalist 17, are a greater threat to the carefully crafted balance of political powers, because of the same federalist principles that influenced their design. “It is a known fact of human nature that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. Upon the same principle that a man is more attached to his family than to his neighborhood, to the neighborhood than to the community at large, the people of each State would be apt to feel a stronger bias towards their local governments than towards the government of the Union; unless the force of that principle should be destroyed by a much better administration of the latter.”
This principle is certainly true. Self-interest, it must be remembered, keeps men honest, for men who have a vested interest in their security are careful to behave with respect towards their fellows, fearful of some rash action that might alienate those on whom their welfare hinges. This principle integrates nicely with federalism: at local levels, men are more intimately familiar with those whom their actions affect. The local business owner is more likely to be conscientious about raising his prices, for he knows his customers and the economic bind this may put him in, than is the owner of a big business store, who is removed from the people who patronize his establishment. So too is the local politician more likely to govern with circumspection than is the federal politician. The local politician has his neighbors as his constituents; he knows the people whom his policies will affect. He is better able to empathize with the fundamental realities of their day-to-day life. He also lives in the constituency affected by his decisions; he must face the consequences of his actions too. This is not necessarily true of the federal politician.
Given the soundness, of this principle, why were Hamilton and Madison so wrong? For history has shown them to be so. It is not the legislature that dominates a federal politics that now subsumes all issues of American life, but the executive. It is not the states that have undermined federal power, but the federal government that has utterly demolished the voice of states at the highest levels of power. By eradicating the appointment of Senators, the Seventeenth Amendment took away the voice of the states at the federal level; executive agencies regulate a broad swathe of issues that, by strict interpretation of the Constitution, fall well within the purview of state power. Hamilton suggests such a result might have been brought about by the superior power of the federal government to manage these affairs, but public opinion suggests this is not the case. The federal government is far and away more unfavorably viewed than are state governments. Could j be that the authors of the Federalist Papers fundamentally misunderstood human nature? To be sure, given his role in authoring a document rooted in respect for personal liberty, Madison expresses a disturbing lack of faith in the judiciousness of the individual left to manage his own affairs. But there is no proof his personal views prejudiced the government he designed, for he makes self-interest its own regulator in the branch of government he viewed as most important to the success of republican government.
The federal government’s subsummation of political affairs seems to indicate a certain degree of dispassion for self-rule. And this raises a question: does the federal power vacuum say more about the character of the polity or the legislators? Is the current political landscape the fault of an indolent civic polity, which has shrugged off the responsibility to jealously guard its liberties and, rather than accept the burden of engaging in local politics, chosen to be a passive actor in its own affairs? Or, is the current political landscape the product of a more classical problem of government: powerlust? There are too many variable to say for certain, but it would be folly to absolve the citizenry of all responsibility. A strange sense of alienation pervades modern political discourse. Doubtless, blame in part falls upon those who have championed bureaucratic credentialism and decreed people are unqualified to act in their own interest. But, while American citizens bitterly descry the fecklessness of their politicians, they show little initiative in doing anything to rectify growing political inefficacy. In our next chapter, we will discuss the role of the citizenry in government.