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Saturday, December 24, 2005
A Little Christmas Eve Madison
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 10:40 am

This is probably my favorite passage from the Federalist Papers

From Federalist #51:

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. 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.

Note: the context is in the discussion of separation of powers and checks and balances, and in the generic discussion of limiting government and preventing tyranny.

The contemporary context is my general disquietude about ongoing revelations regarding the Bush administration and its focus on security at the expense of adequate consultation with the other branches.

Government does many good things, but its capacity for evil is remarkable. I don’t wish to seem hyperbolic here, and I hardly find myself in the camp with would proclaim the constitution to already be in shreds. Still, it is troubling, and worthy of attention when those in positions of power start to think of themselves as wiser than the established institutions within which they work. It is doubly dangerous when they do so in the name of protecting the people, as the need for security is such that many (both in and out of government) will be seduced by the notion that the bending (if nor ignoring) of the rules is justified because the motivations are worthy.

Even if we assume a best case scenario in terms of motivations, the unmooring of governmental power from proper institutional constraints is always a bad idea. As I have been arguing for several days: if the current rules, procedures, and institutions are inadequate, then let’s have the proper debate and then alter them as needed, within the proper constraints of the system.

Unfettered, unconstrained executive power in the pursuance of security has, in the history of mankind, led to far more disasters than to stirring triumphs. I am not arguing that we are on some headlong fall into dictatorship, but I am arguing that we should be far more cautious in simply assuming that everything that is done in the name of protecting us from terrorists is, by definition, a good idea.

Reasoned, measured consideration is needed, and proper safeguards need to be in place because regardless of which party is in power, we are not governed by angels, but mere human beings. And therefore the issue becomes not how to catch terrorists as much as it is how much power are we, and should we, be willing to vest in mere humans?

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror, Political Philosophy/ Theory | |Send TrackBack

2 Comments »

  1. That is indeed a good one, but perhpas the most relevant thing he ever said for this topic was in “Political Reflections” in 1799 (see my page about that essay; I am not aware of an e-version of the complete text). The most relevant passage is:

    “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”

    But my favorite quote of all from Madison is the one I put up on my home page a year or so ago.

    Comment by Matthew — Saturday, December 24, 2005 @ 7:27 pm

  2. That’s a good one.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Saturday, December 24, 2005 @ 10:01 pm

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