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What The Founders Meant By Self-Governance


This is part one of a three-part series.

Self-government is often mistaken for its legal, procedural, or institutional manifestations, such as voting, representation, majority rule, and the freedoms of speech, association, and press.  These are necessary but insufficient conditions of self-government.  Self-government is, at root, a culture of public responsibility among a citizenry; that is, a widely accepted norm that citizens can and should take a role in public decision-making.  People must believe that they have the right, duty, and ability to govern themselves.  If they stop believing these things, self-government is effectively dead even if the rituals are still observed.

Because self-government is distinct from its institutional embodiments, a government can undermine the substance of democracy even while retaining its formal appearance by undermining a culture of responsibility, citizens’ faith in democratic legitimacy, or their ability to engage meaningfully in the system.  For example, elections are no evidence of self-government if they are rigged.  The existence of a body of representatives may undermine self-government if they do not represent, or if they have no power.  In other words, a government that claims to be democratic cannot be judged by the presence or absence of a few institutions, but by how well or poorly it promotes and protects the culture of self-government.

Certain features of American government undermine the culture of self-government.  I am not here primarily concerned with specific policies of government–that the social safety net may engender a culture of dependency, for example, or that pure capitalism may atomize society.  Rather, I am concerned with the structure of democracy and its relationship to civil society.  How the machinery of government functions, where decisions are made, and how citizens are treated are more primal realities that shape the culture of self-government for good or ill in more fundamental ways than any individual policy could.

Two specific features stand out for the duration and extent with which they have insinuated themselves into the structure of American government while weakening it, like ivy that fatally compromises a fence and so becomes the only force holding it together.  First, the concept of elected representation–virtually synonymous with democracy–has surprisingly anti-democratic implications in practice.  Second, the American government’s inexorable distention–hardly a new phenomenon–has led it towards ever greater administrative centralization, which in turn crowds out meaningful opportunities for citizens to participate in the work of government.

Both are long-standing features of American democracy; both have troubling effects on the culture of self-government; and both are so closely identified with the American experiment that it is difficult to envision them changing.

The danger of “factions”

In approaching the question of representation, we should note that it occupies a curious place in the work of political theorists whose ideas shaped and gave expression to early classical liberalism.  John Locke, for example, hardly gave the issue much attention in his Second Treatise (1690), being far more interested in articulating ways to limit government, protect individual liberty and property, and prevent abuses than in describing a scheme of representation.  John Stuart Mill, like Locke, was more concerned with the philosophical bases for individual civil and political rights than with the machinery of government for protecting them in On Liberty (1859).  It is noteworthy, if not troubling, that a central concept underlying modern self-government is so little discussed.

James Madison laid out the classic (and almost the only) case for a scheme of representation in the famous tenth essay of The Federalist Papers.  He was concerned with the problem of “faction.”  Madison’s “faction” is not synonymous with today’s “political party,” but something closer to what we might call “sectarian group.”  A faction is a number of citizens “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”  Subcommunities defined by some primal and exclusive identity marker, such as language, ethnicity, religion, or class (the latter two being the examples Madison actually gives) may grow so powerful as to seize the state.  He was concerned with the possibility of the sort of sectarian conflict that political scientists today observe in countries with overlapping economic and religious or ethnic cleavages.

Madison’s concern was how to control factions that constituted the majority of citizens.  Their takeover of the state could be, in theory, perfectly democratic, if democracy simply means rule by the 51 percent.  Yet factions could be just as tyrannous as individuals, even if elected democratically, if they oppress the minority and use the state to perpetuate their rule.  The essence of self government is in the participation of the whole self of the people, not the smallest portion large enough to seize power by force of numbers.  That is why Madison rejects “democracy” in favor of a “republic,” which he defined as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.”  The major distinction between republicanism and democracy are, in Madison’s elegantly economical phrase, “the delegation of the government…to a small numbers of citizens elected by the rest.” He also believed representation would allow a republic to be larger in geography and population than a democracy, a secondary difference between the two.

The wisdom of crowds

Representation and largeness, Madison believed, would inoculate a self-governing polity against faction by institutionalizing meritocracy, accountability, and moderation.  Largeness creates the possibility for meritocracy by making available a large talent pool from which representatives might be chosen, while the mechanism of election allows the public to choose them.  Assuming virtue and talent are randomly distributed in the world, the very bigness of America guarantees that there will be a large number of talented, moral men to compete with the “men of factious tempers.”  As Madison says, ”if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.”  As a result, representative democracy enjoys the benefit of “representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice.”

Secondly, large, representative governments are more accountable than small, direct democracies.  Madison’s argument here appears to be that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but the more voters there are, the harder it will be to fool all of them all the time.    In a large republic, he asserts, “it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried” than in a small republic.  Larger electorates, being harder to fool or manipulate, will thus keep a keener watch on their representatives and be more vigilant in holding them accountable.

The call of moderation

Thirdly, large, representative governments are more moderate.   In larger republics there are a greater variety of interests, depriving an aspiring demagogue of the ability to appeal to a majority, or even a powerful plurality, of the citizenry.  “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”  There is “greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest.”  Representation also helps.  A scheme of representation will “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”  Larger republics also have the advantage of the raw “extent of territory,” over which it is more difficult to organize a conspiracy.

Representation and largeness, Madison believed, would save a self-governing polity from faction because it would imbue government with meritocracy, accountability, and moderation.  The best men would be chosen by a large and sophisticated electorate. Their enlightened views would moderate the councils of state.  The largeness and diversity of the electorate, meanwhile, would prevent any single interest or faction from outweighing the rest.  The government remains responsive to the people through the scheme of representation–thus remaining a true species of self-government–but without losing the balance and maturity often missing from direct democracies.  The two features go hand-in-hand.   He acknowledges that representative governments in small polities may not always be moderate and accountable:  “men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.”

But this danger, he argues, is overcome by the very largeness which representation makes possible in a republic.

In the next installment, I will argue that Madison’s expectations of representation were surprisingly naive and that representation, in practice, is surprisingly unhelpful for the culture of self-government.