Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Is the U.S. gov't too balanced?

October 21, 2010 by Dr. Steve Frank


Publius 2.0 has been thinking about the big-daddy of all Federalist quotes, the most famous of them all. It’s shared below and comes from James Madison in Federalist 51. He’s writing about how checks and balances are needed among the three branches of government to prevent power-hungry politicians from turning government into an instrument for their own purposes, rather than the means to achieve what is best for the people they serve.

Which is very much a problem for today. There must be something very enticing about holding political office, because it seems that there is nothing candidates will not say to get themselves elected.

Publius 2.0 recently read a story by Molly Ball on Politico about how attack ads this year have taken negative campaigning to new heights, or rather new depths. Opponents are being vilified as religious fanatics, child abusers, puppy killers and worse.

What can the voters do to stop the finger-pointing and start the problem solving?

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition, Madison said at the beginning of this most-famous passage. But in today’s political arena we clearly have ambition to spare, and it’s not counteracting anything. It’s serving only to make things exceedingly nasty.

Now, to be fair to Madison, he wasn’t talking about elections. He had a different political framework in mind:

The interest of the man, he said, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.

Which is to say that the political framework established by the Constitution has been designed to encourage government officials to police their own powers (“the rights of the place”), or more precisely, to police the other guy’s powers.

And why is that necessary? Because politicians are only human, and when there are no restraints human beings tend to behave badly (or at least in ways that benefit themselves).

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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.

Madison considered the “external control” of the people to be the primary check on government. But the people themselves can do only so much. Between elections our attention tends to lapse. Hence the internal control of checks and balances.

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

So today’s question is about where things have broken down. Let’s assume that the voter anger everyone is talking about is grounded in legitimate doubts that politicians of either party are primarily interested in meeting their needs, and not being elected to office. And let’s further assume that the system of checks and balances is doing a fine job – too fine a job -- of keeping Congress and the president at each other’s throats.

All that finger-pointing may be keeping political power in check, but it doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. So what can the voters do to stop the finger-pointing and start the problem solving?


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