The Constitution vs. Reality

D.W. Brogan, in his foreword to Bertrand de Jouvenel‘s On Power, writes:

It is a dangerous and idle dream to think that the state can become ruled by philosophers turned kings or scientists turned commissars. For if philosophers become kings or scientists commissars, they become politicians, and the powers given to the state are powers given to men who are rulers of states, men subject to all the limitations and temptations of their dangerous craft. Unless this is borne in mind, there will be a dangerous optimistic tendency to sweep aside doubts and fears as irrelevant, since, in the state that the projectors have in mind, power will be exercised by men of a wisdom and degree of moral virtue that we have not yet seen. It won’t. It will be exercised by men first and rulers next and scientists or saints a long way after. It was an illusion of the framers of the early American constitutions that they could set up “a government of laws and not of men.” All governments are governments of men, though the better of them have a high admixture of law, too — that is, of effective limitations on the free action of the rulers.

I must say, in defense of the Framers of the Constitution of 1787 (the one that is still supposed to be the “law of the land”), that they had no illusions about the men who sought and wielded the state’s power. See, for example, Federalist No. 10 (James Madison), Federalist No. 15 (Alexander Hamilton), Federalist No. 55 (Madison), Federalist No. 58 (Madison), Federalist No. 63 (Madison), Federalist No. 71 (Hamilton), and Federalist No. 73 (Hamilton). (Relevant excerpts can be found here.)

For all of their wisdom, however, the Framers were far too optimistic about the effectiveness of the checks and balances in their design. Consider this, from Hamilton:

It may … be observed that the supposed danger of judiciary encroachments on the legislative authority, which has been upon many occasions reiterated, is in reality a phantom. Particular misconstructions and contraventions of the will of the legislature may now and then happen; but they can never be so extensive as to amount to an inconvenience, or in any sensible degree to affect the order of the political system. This may be inferred with certainty, from the general nature of the judicial power, from the objects to which it relates, from the manner in which it is exercised, from its comparative weakness, and from its total incapacity to support its usurpations by force. And the inference is greatly fortified by the consideration of the important constitutional check which the power of instituting impeachments in one part of the legislative body, and of determining upon them in the other, would give to that body upon the members of the judicial department. This is alone a complete security. There never can be danger that the judges, by a series of deliberate usurpations on the authority of the legislature, would hazard the united resentment of the body intrusted with it, while this body was possessed of the means of punishing their presumption, by degrading them from their stations. While this ought to remove all apprehensions on the subject, it affords, at the same time, a cogent argument for constituting the Senate a court for the trial of impeachments. [Federalist No. 81]

Hamilton’s misplaced faith in the Constitution’s checks and balances is an example of what I call the Framers’ fatal error. The Framers underestimated the will to power that animates office-holders. The Constitution’s wonderful design — horizontal and vertical separation of powers — which worked rather well until the late 1800s, cracked under the strain of populism, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The Framers’ design then broke under the burden of the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court of the 1930s (and since) has enabled the national government to impose its will in matters far beyond its constitutional remit.

The Framers’ fundamental error can be found in Madison’s Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.

But Madison then made the error of assuming that, under a central government, liberty is guarded by a diversity of interests:

[One method] of providing against this evil [is] … by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable…. [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased.

Madison then went on to contradict what he had said in Federalist No. 46 about the States being a bulwark of liberty:

It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. 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. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Madison understood that a majority can tyrannize a minority. He understood that the States are better able to prevent the rise of tyranny if the powers of the national government are circumscribed. But he then assumed that the States themselves could not resist tyranny within their own borders. Madison overlooked the importance of exit as the ultimate check on tyranny. He assumed (or asserted) that in creating a new national government with powers greatly exceeding those of the Confederation a majority of States would not tyrannize the minority and that minorities with overlapping interests would not concert to tyrannize the majority. Madison was so anxious to see the Constitution ratified that he oversold himself and the States’ ratifying conventions on the ability of the national government to hold itself in check. Thus the Constitution is lamentably silent on nullification and secession, which are real checks on power.

What has been done by presidents, Congresses, and courts probably will not be undone, except at the margin. Too many interests are vested in the regulatory-welfare state that has usurped the Framers’ noble vision. Democracy (that is, vote-selling) and log-rolling are more powerful than words on paper. Even a Supreme Court majority of “strict constructionists” probably would decline to roll back the New Deal and most of what has come in its wake.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was queried as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

What we have got now is a mobocracy at war with itself, under the guidance of power-seekers who aren’t fit to empty the Framers’ chamber-pots. The Republic envisioned by the Framers is a thing of the past. Its empty shell survives, but perhaps not for long.

One thought on “The Constitution vs. Reality

  1. If Elizabeth Warren is elected and attempts to enact her platform (and isn’t stopped by the courts), we’ll see a breakup of the United States. And maybe a 2nd Civil War.

    America was a great idea, while it lasted. Nothing lasts forever.


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