On Angels, Ambition, and Institutions

More Madisonian musing on the current state of our constitutional order.

Photo by SLT.

After my previous two posts on this subject, I cannot get the following out of my head, so as is right and proper for a blog, I shall subject the potential readers to the following.

A couple of key passages fromFederalist 51 are ringing in my head. The first is this:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

This is one of my favorite quotes, insofar as it has a poetic feel to it and it forms a simple basis for the fact that we cannot simply hope for people to “do the right thing.” This sets up the very notion for the need for government itself, but also for designing that government is such a way that acknowledges that if humans aren’t naturally angelic, neither will be their governments.

What follows, however, is key:

If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Since our natures are not angelic, and are not prone to do the right thing naturally all the time without constraints, we need government to help organize our social and economic interactions, but we also need that government to be constrained in some way. The unangelic in power will act unangelically unless guided and constrained in some way. He then set off to discuss how the government might be constrained:

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

In the first clause we see the notion of representative government and, therefore regular elections, as a means of control of the government. In the second we see the notion of institutional design as another source of constraint. From there he goes on to describe what we call separation of powers and checks and balances.

Indeed, this is also where the notion of “ambition countering ambition” comes into play. This is important because the fundamental argument underlying that notion is that institutions must take into consideration actual human behavior if desired outcomes are to be achieved. So, if the goal is to try and govern in the common good (which is, certainly, a disputed concept in and of itself), then government needs to channel negative motivations, like ambition, in the proper direction.

Madison was supremely correct, I would argue at least, that the primary control on government is the people. And I say this with the Churchillian notion that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried, firmly undergirding the conversation. I am no Pollyanna and know that democracy is no panacea. Still, human history clearly suggests that properly designed democracies have done a better job of producing broadly good governance than any other system. This fact is one of the many reasons why I am concerned about the US’ ability to maintain (and improve) our current democracy (as well as why democratic erosion globally is so concerning).

Back to Madison: the problem is that the original design of our government had limited influence by the people. Only House of Representatives was directly elected. The Senate was chosen by the state legislatures (which were popularly elected), and the president by the Electoral College (without direct connection to voters). This problem, though better now, persists into our present moment. As I repeatedly note: the House is too small, the Senate poorly representative, and the president has been elected twice our of that last five elections by an electoral minority). If one thinks Madisonian logic to be persuasive, then where is the actual “dependence on the people”? Further, if the ultimate ambition is to remain in power, then it is necessary to link that ambition to pleasing the broader public, not to pleasing narrow constituencies (like under-represented states, gerrymandered districts, or primary electorates).

And yes, I understand that the broader the public’s preferences are not always good–but if the basic conundrum is between trying to address mass preferences versus the preferences of a single person or small cadre of the ambitious, it is better to rely on a process the diffuses the selfishness inherent to humanity rather than concentrates it. Further, if election then leads to service in institutions that are themselves properly designed, then the odds of some semblance of the public good being served is higher than if we just sit around and hope that the right outcome emerges on its own accord.

Beyond that, as I noted in my previous two posts: many of the “auxiliary precautions” built into the current constitutional structure are not accomplishing the stated goal of branches fighting for power, but rather it is one of parties fighting for power–parties that are linked back to the people, but rather imperfectly. Indeed, all of this makes me think that for all the mythology of separated powers generating responsibility in government, that perhaps fused systems, i.e., parliamentary ones, in which parties are directly responsible for forming the executive branch don’t produce outcomes with greater accountability. Our system of separation leads to an amazing ability of finger-pointing as opposed to actual responsibility. This is especially true when the Senate is largely insulated from public sentiment (bother because of the structure of representation inherent in its design, but also because the whole body is never subject to re-election pressures at the same time).

All of this is to say that while I think that basic Madisonian logic about the need for proper incentive structures within institutional design is remarkably sound, the notion that our current constitutional structure is the apogee of that logic is incorrect.

A passing note in conclusion, is the following passage from deeper in Fed 51:

In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.

We appear to have forgotten this, and not just recently.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    Edited – my comment was meant for your previous post.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    As I repeatedly note: the House is too small, the Senate poorly representative, and the president has been elected twice our of that last five elections by an electoral minority).

    And by an “electoral minority” four times of the last seven elections if by “electoral minority” you mean a minority of the popular vote.

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  3. de stijl says:

    We are 21st century people not equipped to contemplate and respond to more than one or two thoughts at the same time, let alone this proper geyser. This might be too much content to address all at once in this forum. You may want to break it into discrete chunks, and integrate later.

    Maybe, that’s a failure on my end, though. If so, ignore me.

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  4. de stijl says:

    I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature,

    18th and 19th century oratory was so much better and much more nuanced than our current day palpably inferior examples.

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  5. @de stijl: I did write three separate posts 😉

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  6. @Dave Schuler:

    And by an “electoral minority” four times of the last seven elections if by “electoral minority” you mean a minority of the popular vote.

    I was going for 2nd place in the popular vote, but your point is also valid. I would prefer a system that required election by an absolute majority, either by two rounds or instant run-off.

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  7. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    @de stijl: I did write three separate posts

    But sooo dense. And this one especially!

    It’s not really that it’s too dense with stuff, it’s there’s more stuff than a comment thread can cope with and not get unwieldy.

    You know what, go for it – I would love to be proved wrong here. Brang it!

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  8. Gustopher says:

    If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

    Wasn’t Lucifer an angel?

    Since our natures are not angelic, and are not prone to do the right thing naturally all the time without constraints, we need government to help organize our social and economic interactions, but we also need that government to be constrained in some way.

    There’s a difference between not always being angels, and being cravenly self-interested. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that our civil servants are somewhere on that spectrum, rather than at the worst point. I’m wrong, obviously, at least when it comes the the current Republican Party.

    I don’t understand what motivates someone to become a mediocre back bench Republican, who is slavishly voting to protect Trump from investigations, voting to investigate BENGHAZI!!! for the 17th time, oppose deficit spending except for tax cuts, and ensure the government doesn’t function.

    I get the entire “my sports team is the Republicans”, and why you might favor that, but I just don’t get why an individual would be motivated to be a cog in that machine. What makes someone want to be that cog?

    Is calling and asking for campaign contributions such a pleasant thing that it’s a reward in itself?

    It’s not power — there is no power in being a toady, and they live in fear of being primaried on the right.

    It’s not principle, because the principles change in a dime depending on who is in the White House.

    You can get more money in the private sector, so it’s not that.

    Most Democrats want to do something. They may be personally ambitious, or want to line their pockets or freezers with cash, but they also want to accomplish something.

    The Democratic Circular Firing Squad is what happens when these ambitions (usually the ambitions beyond themselves) come into conflict.

    There’s none of that on the right. John McCain was a maverick for not getting in line on torture immediately, watering it down some and only buying into 95% of the party. Collins is a moderate Republican for waffling before voting straight Republican and then being “disappointed”.

    I just don’t understand the Republican Congress-critters ambitions, so I don’t understand how the current situation fails.

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  9. de stijl says:

    Would you drop Fed n on an unprepared class and want to bear their immediate response? It’s going to be unprepared and slipshod.

    This is not a response, or riposte, but an observation:
    LCD Soundsystem / We Are North American Scum (the lyrics actually relate)
    https://youtu.be/RgkanR1P0JI

    We’re bright, but not terribly capable, and not able to response to a nuanced reaction to a provocation beyond aggression. We Are North American Scum.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    I’m not trying to steer the theoretical conversation into “Republicans are horrible” — that’s every other thread — I just have no idea how the ambitions are supposed to counter ambitions if I don’t understand the ambitions at all.

    What’s the point of power if you dare not use it? Is that even power?

    Do they all just want a dominatrix to beat them into submission, and make them do degrading things? I’d understand that.

    Running for office seems like a whole lot of uncomfortable work to go through if there’s nothing you want to do with the position.

    The Republican Congress-critter has about as much real power as the Queen of England. But at least she has access to a steady stream of corgis*.

    ——
    I am disappointed that she has let her herd of corgis die off, expecting that any new ones would outlive her. Doesn’t she have grandkids or greatgrandkids? What about continuity? Sure, the person on the throne might change, but the crowd of corgis at their feet is constant.

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I know, right? What kind of a human being wants to grovel and beg and spend days in motels and eternities on planes just for a chance to sit in a stuffy DC office taking orders from Nancy or Mitch or Don? I mean, I could probably sit down and come up with a character who’d want to do that, but he’d have some psychological issues, and he’d be so boring I’d fall asleep writing it.

    Starting pay on the Hill is 174K. And with that, unless you’re repping MD, VA or DE you’re going to need to maintain two homes. So, leave the family home and get a shared apartment on Capitol Hill, you’re losing minimum 2k a month just for the pleasure of being widely despised.

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Keep getting Corgis and upon her death her estate could sell them off – at a moment of maximum emotion – and bring in enough to cover funeral costs.

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  13. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    What’s the point of power if you dare not use it? Is that even power?

    Power unused, and perhaps more, the power you don’t even acknowledge, is paramount. It is key to what and who you are as a person.

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  14. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    A squared away person who can speak intelligently and spout their bullshit can earn stupid coin off the R gravy train. Cast iron ricebowl money. Fuck-you money, or close enough, if you have simple tastes.

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  15. de stijl says:

    @michael reynolds:

    ‘member when I said things get feisty?

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  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher:

    What makes someone want to be that cog?

    The old joke is that a Senator is someone who never got over being homeroom president (or not being elected to, depending on the version), and rich guys like you and Reynolds can josh about how $174,000 is chump change, but in a society where the median income is $67k, the average is closer to $49 (last time I checked) and net wallet (or whatever the name of that app is) pegs the average salary of a lawyer at well under $100k, I suspect that there’s a fair number of people out there who’d be willing to play along.

    Plus not all insider trading is illegal for Congress, you can raid your campaign funds as long as you follow the Congressional rules for doing so, you can take bribes make speeches for extra money. And don’t forget the power–even back bench, obstructionist power is a big rush for some.

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  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I even considered joining the party and running for office at one point, but I realized that I have a vowel at the end of my name and I lived in a district where that wouldn’t work out. Alas, moving was out of the question by that time.

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  18. @de stijl:

    But sooo dense. And this one especially!

    It doesn’t feel dense to me, but it is helpful to know that it comes across as dense. I will keep thinking about how to present the ideas.

    It’s not really that it’s too dense with stuff, it’s there’s more stuff than a comment thread can cope with and not get unwieldy.

    I do understand that none of these post necessarily lend themselves to typical blog conversations.

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  19. @Gustopher:

    What’s the point of power if you dare not use it? Is that even power?

    You are thinking too much like a good governance guy. You forget that just being in office is power in a personal sense. That it conveys a sense of importance. That people treat you like you are special–all of that stuff. It isn’t just (or even primarily) about policy (as much as I wish it was).

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  20. @michael reynolds:

    Starting pay on the Hill is 174K. And with that, unless you’re repping MD, VA or DE you’re going to need to maintain two homes. So, leave the family home and get a shared apartment on Capitol Hill, you’re losing minimum 2k a month just for the pleasure of being widely despised.

    It really is odd, isn’t it? I get it if one really wants to accomplish something, governance-wise, but a lot of them seems uninterested in that. But to maintain two households, that ain’t a ton of cash. Of course, it does make one wonder how some of them end up so well off.

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  21. @de stijl:

    Would you drop Fed n on an unprepared class and want to bear their immediate response?

    Depends on the class 😉

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  22. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: If you can schmooze well enough to get into congress, you can schmooze well enough to to do very well elsewhere.

    I’m not rich. I do well, but I’m not rich. Partly because I lack the ability to schmooze (or the desire — sometimes it’s hard to tell which).

    $174k is a lot of money. But, $174k, maintaining two households, and flying back and forth? To get long meetings and then make phone calls begging for money? That doesn’t sound like a deal.

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  23. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: If the only goal is to have the title (which I honestly cannot bring myself to really believe), then how can ambition check ambition?

    Do I have the title? Yup.

    That doesn’t check anything. It can’t.

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  24. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Insert breaks. (Not just “thought” breaks but pyhsical ones.)

    Smaller paragraphs.

    Colons, possibly.

    Maybe semicolons. (maybe not; after all, semicolons do not insert a paragraph break.)

    Definitely less commas!

    Massive blocks of text are hard for anyone to process for anyone let alone a Gen Z student prone to hyperbole.

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  25. @Gustopher:

    That doesn’t check anything. It can’t.

    This is part of my point, actually.

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  26. @de stijl: I’ll see what I can do.

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  27. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Depends on the class

    You are way braver than me.

    The response will be immensely better if you gave that class a day to prepare and the class hour will flow way better if you give them the day’s heads up.

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  28. Teve says:

    @de stijl:

    A squared away person who can speak intelligently and spout their bullshit can earn stupid coin off the R gravy train.

    when the Young Assholes Republicans chapter at West Dakota State U wants Jordan Peterson to show up and trigger the libtards give a seminar, they have to pony up 35 Large and probably plane tickets and a hotel room etc. I heard on a podcast last year that up until just a few years ago he was a mild-mannered, fairly conventional Canadian academic. But why work 60 hrs a week for 50k/yr when you can whip up some incels and go shopping at the Ferrari dealership?

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  29. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Pithy response.

    Approve!

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  30. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If you think I’m sportin’, I’m not. I actually meant what I said above.

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  31. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I hope you realize I was just advocating for more paragraph breaks, right? I hope and assume that was obvious as was my intent?

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  32. @de stijl: They don’t look like large blocks of text when I am writing (and, ironically, I think I combined a few smaller paragraphs because I thought they thematically went together).

    But, I take the observation as valid–I know for sure I use too many comas and often allow myself too many parenthetical diversions.

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  33. de stijl says:

    I do it too.

    If I’m feeling something, I’m also prone towards huge blocks of text and pity the fool who can’t decipher the through point. But blocks of text impedes messaging and meaning. And apt to be misconstrued.

    If you can’t decipher my intent, I’m talking to myself.

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  34. DrDaveT says:

    If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

    I think Madison underestimated the extent to which the men who ended up in the Legislature would be well below the median of the race when it comes to angelic nature. Douglas Adams was much closer to the mark:

    It is a well known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. […A]nyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

    Not only would we be better off with Zaphod Beeblebrox as President, we’re stuck with a Congress consisting entirely of people willing to do the things necessary to get elected to Congress, which is a horribly nonrandom (and generally icky) sample of Americans.

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  35. de stijl says:

    Thematically related thoughts work better if people don’t realize the theme until it’s too late and it is suddenly obvious (not too obvious)

    Fuck paragraphs. We had bad instruction as youths. Paragraphs are amorphous, ill defined. We’re supposed to group a thought into one, and the aftermath.

    Crap! I say! If a line break looks ri9ght and feels right to you, it’s right,

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  36. de stijl says:

    There was a crappy mall called Har-Mar just north on Snelling that had a theater and and an old-school token arcade and I abused both of those way when. Maybe a jcp or a Sears as the anchor. Dead now.

    Here is a weirdo white-boy doing old-school straight-up Philly soul in N St Paul. No one knows why. He just does it. He’s awesome!
    Har-Mar Superstar/ Lady, You Shot Me
    https://youtu.be/ouuqJ0pkWvU

    I love Har-Mar Superstar! That guy just does what he feels. Feel on, man! Go for it

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  37. de stijl says:

    @de stijl:

    Har-Mar Superstar is not ironic or post-anything. He’s just he.
    Har-Mar Superstar / How Did I Get Thru The Day?
    https://youtu.be/R370hYrZ7_I

    He’s a schlumpy N St. Paul guy who loves the Temptations and the Four Tops and yearns and has an angelic voice.

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  38. de stijl says:

    When You Were Mine is my second all time fave Prince song, easy

    HMS kills it.
    Har-Mar Superstar/ When You Were Mine
    https://youtu.be/R370hYrZ7_I

    Prince Version (off Dirty Mind)
    https://youtu.be/HEugh8DWQqA

    No one would expect that guy that looks like him to be the man, but Har-Mar Superstar is the fucking man and he brings it

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  39. de stijl says:

    Yeah, that dude was rocking a fringed poncho over a white tee shirt and wranglers and he looks like your accountant and he’s like-5’1″ in socks and singing Prince. deal

    I love the drummer. He spaces out and just does his job where appropriate so you think it’ll be lame, but he knocks

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  40. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Yes, while “If men were angels, no government would be necessary” is a brilliant turn of phrase, I don’t think it’s right. But perhaps I simply don’t understand “angels” in the way Madison does. But it’s demonstrably true that intelligent, informed, well-intentioned people will have different preferences that need to be adjudicated in some fashion. We don’t have unlimited resources and it’s not a matter of science to know how much of those resources we should allocate to defense, education, infrastructure, social welfare, etc.

    @de stijl: Writing for an Internet audience has radically changed the way I write everywhere. And I’m with you: I now use far more line breaks.

    One-sentence paragraphs violate all the rules I was taught in school and are against all style guides—but they’re sometimes effective.

    And I frequently start sentences with conjuctions.

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  41. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner: @de stijl: @Steven L. Taylor:
    White space is the term of art. You want a page with some white space. The younger the readership, the more you want. One of my wife’s tricks (The One And Only Ivan, Wishtree) is writing some chapters that are just a page long. It gives younger readers a sense of accomplishment. (Mommy, I read an entire chapter!)

    At the YA level and at the adult level I can get away with denser pages, but I still avoid long blocks of text. People read while multi-tasking, bouncing between page and screen and app, and white space makes for an easier re-entry after interrupting reading to send a text. A page with white space is inviting, un-intimidating. For better or worse, Steven, by the time students get to you, we and our ilk have trained them to expect white space.

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  42. Tyrell says:

    James and Dolly Madison were two important leaders who were center in saving this country from total destruction in the War of 1812.
    See “First Invasion, the War of 1812”

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  43. Dave Schuler says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t know what Madison’s view of angels was but in Christian theology angels have perfectly formed intellects and wills. What that means is that they are not all-knowing but they have a perfect apprehension of events. When things happen they understand them completely. Given that once their wills have been formed they would never change their minds. They do not suffer from mixed motives or have misgivings. They are either never self-serving or, in the case of Lucifer and those who followed him, always self-serving.

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  44. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:
    @michael reynolds:

    My life goal is to casually split infinitives with disdain. And end sentences with a preposition. (My brain can’t conjure up her name, but I can picture my middle school grammar teacher and memories of sentence diagramming.)

    That “Never end a sentence with a preposition” isn’t really a rule and entered the mix because one guy in 17th century guy who mistranslated latin preposito. 1. Latin is case-, not word-order based, 2. Latin is not English

    Churchill’s famous:

    “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

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  45. de stijl says:

    Har Mar Superstar does When You Were Mine live at every show. As an homage to Prince’s version, he does it sans shirt.

    It’s a wee dude in what can only be described as Guatemalan dollar store yoga pants. When life gives you lemons, you rock out with your less than stereotypically ideal Danny DeVito bod as a blatant fuck you to the world.

    You have been warned!
    HMS / Live When You Were Mine
    https://youtu.be/y03LTfLXID8

    (This is from Quad Cities. Many other takes exist.)

    And they are awesome!

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  46. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    One sentence paragraphs destroy *if* you have the right sentence.

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  47. de stijl says:

    No one gives a crap about Midway / N St. Paul Snelling north of University. Nothing happens there save the state fair, maybe the Saints. It abuts Roseville and Como Park (which is cool) and Falcon Heights which no one gives a crap about also, and Frogtown.

    It’s urban middle-class to LMC housing and Hamline, the Saints’ ballpark, and the Fairgrounds. To the NE is what is now called Energy Park, but used to have a shit-ton of abandoned industrial property ripe for squatting absent the ethical quandary of doing it in a house that some family owned and abandoned. Other side east was Half-Time Rec: home of cheap beer, live Celtic music, and one of the only IRA terrorist cells in the US (which basically amounted to some old guys gassing about times past, mostly. Apparently, they gave the old sons a few thousand bucks.) If you politely listened to their bullshit, they’d buy you a beer. God only knows about what they thought of me or my friends.

    Like LeBron James is to Akron, Har Mar Superstar is to Hamline-Midway.

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  48. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: That makes some sense. I’ve never really studied that aspect of theology and, in casual use, all dead people who go to heaven become “angels.”

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  49. @James Joyner: I would read the passage, more or less, as follows: “If human being were altruistic, selfless demi-gods, human wouldn’t need rules to constraint their self-interest and other base emotions.”

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  50. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: That makes sense. But I’d think even “altruistic, selfless demi-gods” would prioritize resource allocation differently, as I don’t think self-interest is the only thing keeping us from agreement.

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  51. @James Joyner: Well, I am sure I could write a lengthy essay on the topic that would round things out. I am not even sure he was thinking about resource allocation, per se.

    I think it is more fundamental: a race of perfect beings don’t need government, but imperfect humans do.

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