Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Model of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS

Ever since I saw Michael Meyerson on Book TV delivering and enthusiastic and stimulating talk about his new book, Liberty's Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote The Federalist, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World, my interest in his source material has taken off with comparable enthusiasm. I suppose this was due, at least in part, to Andrew Keen's "Digital fascism" post on his Great Seduction blog; but I think it also arises from my appreciation of just how hard it is to "sell" ideas of governance, having experienced this problem first hand in trying to initiate a conversation about governance within the Internet. Yet it is in Number 51 of The Federalist that James Madison (according to Meyerson, although the THOMAS site claims that Alexander Hamilton may also have been the author) made the now famous remark as to why governance is necessary in the first place:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

This is the fundamental premise behind the primary argument of this particular paper, as expressed in its title, "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments." The "punch line" of the argument captures why such checks and balances are so important:

In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.

This extended sentence is often reduced to the more manageable formula: "majority rule with minority rights." Put another way, since men are not angels, there is no reason to suppose that coalitions of men are any more angelic; and therefore it is necessary "to provide for the security" of those not part of such a coalition. In more modern language a majority coalition may form to make the trains run on time, but the unintended consequence of its success may be fascism. As I have observed many times, unintended consequences continue to constitute the primary blind spot of Internet evangelism.

However, the recent news from Europe has made me realize just how important The Federalist papers were in determining how our government turned out the way it did in the context of the governance of the European Union. Consider, for example, the SPIEGEL ONLINE report, based on multiple wire services, in the aftermath of Ireland's rejection of the second draft of a European Union constitution:

Despite Ireland's "no" to the Lisbon Treaty, Europe has to stay together. That was the message delivered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday during her speech before parliament in Berlin.

"European treaties must be developed on the basis of consensus," she said in her speech. There should be room for different levels of integration when it comes to issues like the common currency or border-free travel, she explained: "But when it comes to institutional questions -- like the rights of the European Parliament or the responsibilities of the European Commission -- we need unanimity."

"Unanimity" is the operative word in Merkel's statement; and it reflects the decision of our own Founding Fathers that the Constitution they drafted could only function effectively (which, to them, was more important than efficiency) if it were unanimously ratified by all the states of the republic-in-formation. It was in the interest of achieving that unanimity that The Federalist papers were conceived and published. As we see from the Table of Contents provided at the THOMAS site, each of these papers appeared in an independent news periodical circulated among the general public. Alexander Hamilton makes the motivation behind this "publication blitz" clear in Number 1 ("General Introduction"):

THE UTILITY OF THE UNION TO YOUR POLITICAL PROSPERITY THE INSUFFICIENCY OF THE PRESENT CONFEDERATION TO PRESERVE THAT UNION THE NECESSITY OF A GOVERNMENT AT LEAST EQUALLY ENERGETIC WITH THE ONE PROPOSED, TO THE ATTAINMENT OF THIS OBJECT THE CONFORMITY OF THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTION TO THE TRUE PRINCIPLES OF REPUBLICAN GOVERNMENT ITS ANALOGY TO YOUR OWN STATE CONSTITUTION and lastly, THE ADDITIONAL SECURITY WHICH ITS ADOPTION WILL AFFORD TO THE PRESERVATION OF THAT SPECIES OF GOVERNMENT, TO LIBERTY, AND TO PROPERTY.

As propaganda, the papers were intended to explain the principles behind the proposed Constitution in terms that general readers could understand, rather than in the legalese of the Constitution itself.

Without arguing over the effectiveness of the latest draft at a European constitution, it is reasonable to assume that the "propaganda engine" for promoting it has not been anywhere near as effective as The Federalist was. Furthermore, given that there were Anti-Federalist Papers, arguing just as compellingly against ratification, it is clear that the question of ratification for our government was as contentious as it now seems to be in Europe. The important underlying question is whether the European debate is being conducted in a forum accessible to the general public and in language that public can understand or whether it is being dominated by single-issue-centric manipulations of the media in the same manner as the current excuses for political debate in our own country. Europe may be older and more experienced than the United States in that grand scheme of history; but, unfortunately, age and experience do not guarantee that their current practices are any more mature or reasoned than our own!

1 comment:

Grahnlaw said...

Europe is still at the stage of the Articles of Confederation, almost 60 years from the Schuman declaration, where it took the United States a decade to reach the Constitution based on ratification of nine states to enter into force.

Defining moments ...