Madison’s Folly

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in The Federalist #51, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Unfortunately, he failed to reach the conclusion which screams from those two premises: Since men* aren’t angels, and since they don’t become angels when they enter into the business of governing, trusting them with that business is a very, very bad idea.

Madison was a creature of the times in which he lived: Inspired by Enlightenment ideals to exalt freedom as the highest political value, but unwilling to completely abandon the notion that some men must rule over others for the good of all.

The story of the US Constitution is in part the story of Madison’s attempt to bring those two conflicting sentiments into a workable alignment. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” he continued, “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.”

The measure of Madison’s success — and the success of others like him around the globe who helped cast off the bonds of feudalism and usher in the modern age of democracy — was a political, economic and industrial revolution which lifted much of humanity from poverty and bequeathed individuals born into that new age a sense of possibility for reaching their own potential.

The measure of his failure, and ours, is that because we’ve never fully excised the cancer of government from the tissue of society, it has lived on. It has metastasized into a somewhat different set of organs than the old feudal cancer plagued, and it has adapted itself to the use of our greater material productivity as its food and fuel.

As a result, government is now far more dangerous than ever it was in the feudal age. The explosion of population and productivity engendered by limited freedom have allowed it to exact far more onerous demands on its “democratic” subjects than any feudal lord would have dared attempt — or could even have conceived of attempting! — to impose on a lowly serf.

Because freer people produce so much more than feudal serfs, government can take that much more of what we produce without us noticing so much … on the front end, at least.

On the back end — the expenditure of those ill-gotten gains — the modern age has produced not just the nanny statism we all love to hate (NO SMOKING! DON’T WALK! CLICK IT OR TICKET!) but war and death on a previously inconceivable scale. If you give government money, government will buy guns and bombs and tanks with it … and then use them. On you.

If men were angels, I say in reply to Madison, I might not object to government. Men, however, aren’t angels. Power tends to corrupt us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Some men are bad; all men are fallible.

For precisely that reason, vesting the exercise of power in a monopoly institution, however representative or seemingly well-intentioned the people composing that institution might be, is a recipe for disaster. Such an arrangement is bound to compound error and exacerbate injury on the one hand, while on the other it fails to give full scope to the individual’s potential for innovation and advancement.

There is no “up side” to the state.

* “Men,” of course, used in these instances to refer to humanity of both genders. I’m riffing off Madison, who wrote in a pre-feminist era, okay?

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