On Angels, Ambition, and Institutions
More Madisonian musing on the current state of our constitutional order.
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 (both 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.