by Henry Oliner
The seduction of reform is that the ideas circulating lack the empirical flaws of the problems faced. Crisis reaches for the untried ideas. Think tanks serve to explore ideas, waiting for the next crisis to enact.
Our founders studied the history of democracies and republics, and read the works of John Stuart Mills, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, David Hume, Adam Smith and others. While they absorbed the wisdom of history and philosophy they were also facing the pragmatic problems of independence and self-government of a unique and isolated group of colonies. Our Constitution distilled the political wisdom of the ages, but it also addressed the real failures of the Articles of Confederation, the moral division of slavery, the inability to collect taxes and fund the government, and the threat of the military might of Britain, Spain and France.
The intellectual solutions of the Progressives came not from the purveyors of liberty, but the thinkers on socialism. Progressives were like the Fabians of England; seeking the objective of a powerful central government to achieve social ends through evolution rather than revolution.
The founders sought to limit both majoritarian democracy and central power. Liberalism, before the term was polluted by FDR, meant individual and natural rights and limited government. It also embraced scientific reasoning, intellectual tolerance, and free speech. Religious liberty included deists and atheists, but they clearly resisted a religion supported by the state.
The founders were adamant that they created a republic and not a democracy and this distinction remains valid, but what is the difference?
Republics historically were centered in small geographies like city-states. The founders debated the appropriateness of this form on a geography as large as the thirteen colonies. The colonies were troubled by the distant rule from London. Did the new capital on the Potomac replicate this dynamic?
Madison believed the larger geography was a greater protection from tyranny because it would be more difficult for special interests to control a larger geography, particularly when divided among thirteen sovereign states. The limited sovereignty of the states were as essential to the success of the republic as the limited and divided power of the central government.
The First Congress constructed the Bill of Rights to assuage the fears of central power a few states retained. Only then did Rhode Island and North Caroline ratify the Constitution. A few framers questioned the need to enumerate these rights. They were assumed to be the case and specifically naming them made them vulnerable in their logic. Naming the Bill of Rights proved to protect them as the current debate on the Second Amendment has shown.
The Constitution was radical in its supremacy of the written law, a development we now take for granted and a source of resistance to the concepts of a “living” constitution subject to the views and interpretation of current leaders.
Now that we have consumed much of the continent and expanded to 50 states, does Madison’s justification of a republic over such a land mass remain valid? Does rule from the central location in Washington D.C. over a much larger land mass still comply with Madison’s ideas of dispersed special interests?
Distances are now measured in time rather than miles. One can fly from DC to Los Angeles faster than one could ride from Philadelphia to New York in 1789. This distance is also measured in ideas and the dimension of that distance may be greater than in Madison’s time.
A Republic is more than a democracy by representation. It assumes a rule of law that is hard to change. The Bill of Rights is a safe where certain laws are placed far beyond the reach of the voters. The Republic is based on the limits of democracy. The Republic is based on the supremacy of means over ends no matter how well intended.
Our republic is based on a fear and limitation of central power. The purpose of government is to protect individual and natural rights. These rights are not granted by the government; they exist outside of government authority.
These limits on Democracy prevent tyranny, but they also inhibit the power of central government to provide well intentioned solutions to real social problems. The dilemma of progressivism was to expand the power of the central government to provide benefits to citizens without sacrificing the limits of the central government should it turn to the dark side.
After a century of expanded government power from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to The Great Society we can now observe how the dynamics of a large central government can frustrate good intentions. Expanded democracy has led to further class divisions, and a dangerous level of debt caused by voters who vote for more benefits and lower taxes. Telling the truth has proved to be a very ineffective use of campaign funds.
Madison was correct that a dispersal of special interests over a large land mass could protect a republic from tyranny, but he failed to foresee that special interests are no longer restrained by mere distance and geography. They now exist in the cloud.
The Progressives failed to see that a well-intentioned administrative state could not be isolated from partisan politics, and that special interests could capture the benefits of the regulatory state for their own benefit at the expense of the public.