Federalist No. 10

“…modern progressives have dismantled key elements of the republican structure of the federal union and have replaced them with more democracy, which is the form of government most susceptible to faction.”


Here is another one of those gems of the Federalist Papers. This is the first essay written by James Madison and includes his remedy for the ancient problem of faction. According to Madison, factions are as natural to mankind as eating and sleeping, or should I say murder, cheating and lying? For Madison, factions are an evil because they tamper with the public good but this is what made the framers like Madison so important: they did not believe men were angels. So instead of government led reform toward that perfect “just” society, dare I say “Hope and Change,” the writers of the Federalist Papers developed a government that built vices into the system and Federalist No. 10 is a perfect example of this.

If faction is a vice, which Madison claims it is, how would one build it into the system that was supposed to be “a more perfect union?” According to Madison there are two ways of dealing with faction: “removing its causes” and “controlling its effects.” The first way is the modern progressive way. If you want to rid society of “bad” things, ban them. Pass a law that banned the actions of all the groups considered a faction. They might start with banning smoking, private education, Christian charities, energy drinks, fast, gas guzzling cars and trucks, private healthcare, fastfood, guns or a myriad of other things people are pushing. After all, Madison claims that a faction is:

a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

The above examples of factions could be considered harmful in some way or another to the people. Smoking is bad for your health so ban it. French fries clog arteries so ban that. Guns kill people so ban them. This is one way to be rid of harmful factions; this is the modern approach but it was not the remedy that Madison lays out in this essay.

The biggest problem of the progressive approach to dealing with factions is loss of liberty. Madison is typical of the founders in that he crafted political systems and policies with a view to liberty first. Will this idea or proposal circumscribe freedom? This was the framers number one concern for the new Constitution. And it is a concept that many today find utterly intolerable. But for Madison the modern approach to societal ills, that of banning factions is a “remedy is worse than the disease,” for “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.” So no liberty (ban those filthy groups!), no faction. This is our thinking today. But Madison states:

it could not be a 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 property. 

Notice the emphasis on liberty. Madison compares it with the necessity of air for living creatures that is how important it was to the framers. No, you can’t arbitrarily ban factions, there must be some other way to handle them. It turns out there is and that is why this essay is so important and relevant today. The other approach to factions is the framers way–control them. You can only control them by factoring them into your system. This is how Madison proposes to do that:

Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.

Like the governmental system of checks and balances, factions, being numerous in a large republic serve to check the power and ambition of each other, thus one faction in effect cancels out the other. For example, cigarette producers promote their interest through advertisments while anti-tobacco groups produce their own. Each faction fights the other for the “hearts and minds” of the whole of the people. That is how it is supposed to work. But if one looks at Capitol Hill today it is a hive of differing interests buzzing non stop with countless comings-and-goings of self-serving bees all seeking their own self-interest and in many cases being rewarded with the sweet green honey. Too many factions are being rewarded by the government today. The genius of Madison’s remedy for factions is that it is predicated on the idea that resources are scarce. All factions cannot be rewarded, the government must choose what interest groups, if any, it will promote because it cannot fund every one of them. It would go bankrupt, right? 

If Madison were to return today and see the that the federal and many state governments are not controlling factions but rather funding them he would no doubt wonder what went wrong. But he would not look very long in the annals of American constitutional history before he would find the answer: modern progressives have dismantled key elements of the republican structure of the federal union and have replaced them with more democracy, which is the form of government most susceptible to faction. By turning the Congress into a purely democratic institution (by the 17thAmendment) we have provided the necessary conditions for faction to flourish and it has done so with a vengeance. Madison warns that a “small number of  citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” In our current system legislators represent their constituents who elected them and these democratically elected representatives are a relatively small numberof citizens who are beholden to the people. These representatives, being beholden to the people, if they want to keep their jobs will have a vested interest in promoting certain factions from among the people. There is no other body to check the People’s House, the Senate being composed of members who are elected in a similar democratic fashion. Terms limits might do much to curb this trend but that is a whole other issue.  Also, if senators and representatives can in Madison’s terms “practise with success the vicious arts (eloquentoratory)” and gain the support of the people they have a better chance of putting some faction into action because the constituents of the other legislators, if convinced of the faction, will demand that their representatives join  it. If you think this is too far fetched I point you to the Obama campaign, hope and change oratory, popular progressive majorities and the rapidity with which they have sought to put their faction into action; a faction which is hostile to property rights (stimulus spending and wealth redistribution). This is why turning a republic into a democracy is an unwise decision because as Madison wrote of democracies:

[they] have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.   

Why would we want this? The Constitution established a republic, with representatives that transact our business, we are not a democracy but have, since the founding, moved in that general direction by dismantling sections of the Constitution. Madison taught that factions are more likely to thrive and survive in democracy rather than a republic. As America becomes more-and-more democratic, the lobbyists and special interests will be the real beneficiaries. 

But for all of my pessimism, my heart is gladdened when I see how hard of a time Democrats are having getting certain pieces of fool hardy legislation passed (healthcare, climate change) because of the checking power of some factions within the Senate. Maybe the system still works to a certain degree after all. A comment left at a Washington Post article summed it up nicely: “The lefties out there who are crying bloody murder right now would be fit to be tied if there wasn’t the senate (with all it’s left-wing factions) in 2002 when Bush came in with a majority in both houses.”

In the end, Madison warned us and gave us the remedy, all we need to do is muster up the courage to swallow the pill and do as the doctor has ordered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: