18 January 2021

Madison's nightmare

James Madison & John Adams
This week the venerable British newsweekly, The Economist, has published an editorial drawing on two and a half millennia of political philosophy: Madison's nightmare: Political theorists have been worrying about mob rule for 2,000 years. An excerpt:

The Founding Fathers argued that democracy could avoid becoming mobocracy only if it was hedged with a series of restraints to control the power of the people. Power was divided between the branches of government to make sure that nobody wielded too much. Citizens were given extensive constitutional rights. Senators were given six-year terms to insulate them from fads. They were also initially appointed by state legislatures rather than directly elected. Supreme Court judges were appointed for life, ensuring they cannot be removed by people from other branches.
Alexis de Tocqueville added his own worries about mob rule in ‘Democracy in America’. For him the constitution alone is not strong enough to save democracy from the mob. A vigorous civic culture rooted in self-governing communities (he was particularly keen on New England’s townships) and a self-reliant and educated population are also necessary. So too is a responsible elite that recognises that its first duty is to ‘educate democracy’.

The emphasis on civic culture is of considerable significance. Many Americans believe that the architects of their constitution achieved such a careful balance of institutions that it became virtually exempt from the negative effects of individual self-seeking. Much as Adam Smith's invisible hand was thought impersonally to bring order out of chaos, so many assume that the vaunted "checks and balances" built into the framework are adequate to compensate for human depravity.

But this is a serious misreading of the founders and of the larger western tradition of political philosophy on which the founders drew. A familiar quotation by President John Adams in 1798 illustrates the dependence of the new American federal republic on public virtue in the citizens:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Benjamin Franklin sounded a similar note: "[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

In other words, institutions can only be as good as the people working with and within them. Efforts to establish a political framework apart from a thorough knowledge of the customs and mores of the nation for which it is fashioned will quickly run aground. Proclaiming liberty in a nation for which liberty means mere licence for individuals to do as they please will lead in short order to chaos, likely to be followed by authoritarian rule. As Harvey Mansfield puts it, "A free people, with greater opportunity to misbehave than a people in shackles, needs the guidance of an inner force to replace the lack of external restraint." Absent this "inner force," even a well-written constitution will become a dead letter.

This indicates once again the limits of politics. Even the best of democracies see leaders unduly raising the expectations of voters so as to win elections. Yet no candidate can credibly promise to reweave the fraying fabric of a supportive political culture, which depends instead on pre-political elements best addressed by other institutions outside the state proper, including families, schools, churches, and a variety of voluntary associations.

No comments:


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Contact at: dtkoyzis at gmail dot com