Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
Politicians are fond of talking about “the people.” In Part 1 of this series I ended with two questions that must be answered before we can reasonably expect politicians to address the needs of “the people”: Namely, who, exactly, are “the people” (Part 2)? And who speaks on their behalf (Part 3)? Having addressed those questions in prior posts, we’re now in a better position to examine what system(s) of government best protect the rights and advances the interests of “the people.”
This is precisely the question James Madison—Founding Father, America’s fourth president, Father of the Constitution, and among the esteemed authors of the Federalist Papers—endeavored to answer in his famous Federalist Paper No. 10. Madison’s dilemma was to find a way to prevent the various American factions from using their newfound liberties to tear the newly formed nation apart. Madison wrote: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
As we discussed in Part 2, “the people” can best be understood not as a simple headcount of everyone who happens to be standing around, but as a collection of various interest groups—in other words, factions. There is nothing particularly righteous or evil about factions; humans have always segregated into various groups that provide the individual a sense of belonging—a way to distinguish between “us” and “them.” However, as Madison cautioned, nothing can be quite so destructive to a free society as factions using that freedom to war against one another.
Madison observes that there are two methods of resolving this dilemma: the first method is to remove the causes of the factions. But this method is less than ideal as factions are so embedded in human nature that it would only be possible to eradicate factions at the expense of liberty. The second method involves attempting to mitigate the effects of factions. And it is here Madison believes we may make progress, though he cautions that the most obvious solution—a pure democracy—offers no relief: “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”
In that same era and across the Atlantic, Edmund Burke, the Father of Conservatism, observed much the same thing in his scathing critique of the populous French Revolution: “It is said, that twenty-four millions ought to prevail over two hundred thousand. True; if the constitution of a kingdom be a problem of arithmetic. This sort of discourse does well enough with the lamp-post for its second: to men who may reason calmly, it is ridiculous. The will of the many, and their interest, must very often differ; and great will be the difference when they make an evil choice.” Generations later Russell Kirk expressed a similar distrust of pure democracy: “Illusions of direct democracy lead to direct tyranny. The franchise should be the privilege of citizens whose stake in the commonwealth, and whose moral character, to some extent lift them above the temptations of power to which corrupt human nature is terribly susceptible.” While these men may have differed in the ideal form of government, they did recognize a republic—a system in which citizens elect representatives to govern them—as superior to the unadulterated freedom a pure democracy affords to the majority.
By electing representatives to govern rather than directly governing themselves, the various factions—that were discussed in Part 2—would be afforded both the expertise and moral character—that were discussed in Part 3—of those each factions believed was fit to represent their views. Madison believed it would be far easier to ensure a small group of representatives had the expertise and character to govern well than to depend upon the collective expertise and character of the entire nation. Such a system may become corrupt over time—as many insist it has today—yet all human systems are prone to corruption and we would do well to maintain perspective over which systems are most likely to become corrupt, and which systems have the potential to purge corruption. From that viewpoint, much can be said in favor of republics.
Another desirable feature of a republic is its ability to expand with a growing population or additional factions or acquired territory without losing its effectiveness. Where in a pure democracy the potential for mob rule or warring factions increases as a nation grows, a republic is shielded from such concerns as the voice of “the people” is filtered through a smaller set of elected representatives. The number of citizens may grow, the number of representatives do not; factions may evolve, the representatives may evolve with them to speak on behalf of the factions but at a slower pace to allow for reflection and deliberation.
During the 18th century, the advents of The Enlightenment and the American Revolution led to a revival in the republican form of government throughout the Western world as many absolute monarchies gave way to liberated societies. Some of those republics—such as the United States—endured while others—such as the French Republic—violently fell into disorder and eventual dictatorship. Conservatives have traditionally held that republics are the best-known system of government for securing the liberty of citizens while providing for national stability. Yet it must be acknowledged that not all republics have been successful, which is why conservatives focus much time and attention on the cultural fabric and moral character of a nation, as those are necessary ingredients for sustained liberties.
An obvious problem with a republic is so many pesky minority factions, with whom we may happen to sharply disagree, often thwart the desires of the majority. A republic is essentially a national compromise. No one faction gets everything they wanted but each faction—in theory—won’t have their rights trampled by any of the others. Does that leave you feeling dissatisfied? You’re not alone. Most political “isms”—liberalism, socialism, populism, authoritarianism—promise their adherents they can have it all so long as the ideology is followed faithfully.
But conservatives have no such ideology. Conservatives observe respect for the past, the nature of man, and prudence/circumstance, all of which suggest we are incapable of governing ourselves without proper constraints and that no one faction or ism holds all the answers. If that strikes you as a bit stuffy, antiquated, and needlessly uninspiring then it may be that conservatism doesn’t appeal to you. But just as a child who’s been coddled into believing the world is his for the taking, only to strike out on his own and learn the world can be a very cruel and unpleasant place, miscalculating political realities can have terrible long-term consequences. The hope conservatism offers is to remind us that there are things of far greater value than some ideology’s promise of the fleeting satisfaction of meeting our temporal needs and desires. But that is a mature viewpoint that does not tickle one’s vanities. If we want to nourish the soul with sweets rather than nutrients, conservatism will hardly satisfy.
Madison sought to answer the question of how best to secure liberty in a nation of warring factions by mitigating the effects of factions, not by addressing the cause. In other words, he didn’t promise us what we wanted, he taught us how to sacrifice our desires for the national interest so that both peace and liberty could be sustained. And for over half a century the Western world’s solution to absolute monarchy was the republican form of government Madison championed. But in 1847 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto promised a method of controlling the causes of factions by meeting the needs and desires of “the people.” They rejected the idea that Madison’s republic was the best society we could hope for, and their message soon led to another wave of revolutions that covered the entire planet. What are we to make of this alternative view of governing “the people?” That is something we’ll explore in Part 5.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.