The evolving debate over personality versus structure in government failure

Anyone who’s ever taken a basic civics class is familiar with the idea that the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution in response to the systemic weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The lies vaunted leaders such as George Washington and James Madison told the public at the time about the Philadelphia Committee simply reforming, rather than replacing, the Articles are justified by the supposed exigency which existed in the federal government’s ability to respond to crises, especially where finances were concerned.

Historians can quibble over the intent and comportment of the soon-to-be Federalist figures who somewhat dishonestly marshaled America from a loosely-tied federation of states into a constitutional republic with much more centralized authority, but lost in the partisan bickering of the time is a question, still relevant today, over where responsibility for government failure lies.

Just as modern progressives argue that it is not government itself which threatens freedom but management by the wrong officials, for several of the Founders there is a distinct concern that the crises of the time hinged upon the ability of states pursuing their own interests to cripple national policy.

In his pamphlet “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison descried the selfish interests of states particularly as they derailed the ability of Congress under the Articles to collect revenue and maintain the nation’s solvency: “The practice of many States in restricting the commercial intercourse with other States, and putting their productions and manufactures on the same footing with those of foreign nations, though not contrary to the federal articles, is certainly adverse to the spirit of the Union, and tends to beget retaliating regulations, not less expensive and vexatious in themselves, than they are destructive of the general harmony.”

Of particular significance is the notation that this pursuit is not illegal in practice, but is contrary to the spirit under which the nation’s laws were written. Madison’s desire to strengthen the federal government, even wishing to give the office of the executive veto power over legislation passed by the states, is to some degree an attempt to govern esoteric spiritual motives and desires. The emphasis is not solely on the structural weaknesses on the Articles, but on the character of state and federal electors.

This is somewhat troubling given the foundation of American civics in equal justice and a respect for personal liberty. A government that has the ability to not only distinguish between “good” and “bad” actors and punish those it believes works against the common good is not a limited government. Its powers transcend retributive justice, which responds to actions that violate the detailed statutes of duly enacted law, and give government a level of cognizance and discretion that allow it to proactively stamp out what it believes goes against its interests.

This perverts the natural law philosophy which underlies the American experiment by making the intentions of elected officials subject to government oversight. Madison conflates the structural weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation with the characters of men who work on behalf of their governments, be they state or federal.

The tensions between structure and personality in government have been preserved in the modern progressive-conservative dichotomy, as well as in political theory.

Conservatives see any attempt of government to legislate morality as an infringement on civil liberties and a violation of federalism. They advocate local control and personal freedom because of a fundamental belief that the diverse nature and experience of individuals makes them best suited to effectively govern their own lives. Progressives point to inequalities, both material and natural, which allow dishonest actors to take advantage of those with less and argue that government, when properly managed by well-trained officials, can be a great equalizer. It is easy to see the “structure versus personality” split preserved here.

Modern American political science also recognizes two attitudes towards representation. The first, a more bureaucratic model, reasons that electors have a responsibility to pursue the best interests of their constituents. Their position of power gives them access to better information, meaning they sometimes have to go against the popular will of the people in order to best serve their interests. The second, a more democratic model, simply holds that the people’s wishes should be reflected in the positions taken by public officials regardless of what broader facts suggest about the merit of a policy. Essentially, this is a question over whether structure or personality should be the locus of government action.

It is important to recognize these differing attitudes as a seminal issue of American politics. The language and subject of debate may have evolved since the 1780s, but the same fundamental tensions exist. There are those who argue that the Founders’ intentions are irrelevant, as their technology and social positions are anachronisms incompatible with today’s “enlightened” ideas. But this is a puerile attitude that conflates ideas with the language in which they are expressed and, in doing so, ignores the obvious connection between the predominant political debates of today and those of the past.


Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.