Sunday, June 26, 2016

Subtitle to the Federalist Papers: We are not throwing away our shot

In the grand (or not so grand) tradition of blogging the Bible, another lay impression as I work my way through the Federalist Papers:

Hamilton and Madison are both deeply frustrated and alarmed by what they paint as the ever-more complete enfeeblement of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation. Both, too, present themselves as cold realists with respect to human motives and response to incentives. At the same time, they are breathless with the sense of the U.S.'s potential -- geographically, as a contiguous, fertile, navigable and highly defensible land mass; culturally, as speaking one language and being bred to liberty by English heritage; and politically, as having won the opportunity for a fresh start informed by human experience to date.

Both are at pains to argue that the perceived and often cited failures of democracies past do not apply to representative democracy. Madison, making the distinction in No. 9, touts representative democracy as a kind of emerging technology that the Constitution will bring to scale. Acknowledging that the republics of antiquity present a cautionary tale of constant warfare and corruption, he argues:

The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided.
Government is a "science" in which progress is cumulative, as in other sciences. That basic technocratic belief in progress underpins the Hamilton's framing of the stakes in the very first paragraph of the first number:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
And so, the meta-message of the project: we are not throwing away our shot. (Or, we had best not.)
We are faced with a unique opportunity to build something new -- but something that makes full informed use of cumulative human experience.

Related: Hamilton's ghost in the Gettysburg Adderss

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