Thursday, January 5, 2012

If Men Were Angels

In The Federalist No. 51, arguably the most important one of all, James Madison wrote in defense of a proposed national constitution that would establish a structure of "checks and balances between the different departments" of the government and, as a result, constrain the government’s oppression of the public. In making his argument, Madison penned the following paragraph, which comes close to being a short course in political science:
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. 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. ([1788] n.d., 337)
The passage that refers to the angels is a rhetorical masterpiece, so memorable that it has become almost a cliché. In Madison’s argument, however, it does more than emphasize that human nature is something less than angelic. It also serves as a springboard that propels Madison directly into a consideration of "framing a government which is to be administered by men over men," which is "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature." In short, it moves Madison directly to a consideration of government as we have known it for the past several thousand years—a monopoly operating ultimately by threat or actual use of violence, making rules for and extracting tribute from the residents of the territory it controls. Henceforth, for clarity, I refer to this all-too-familiar type of organization as "the state."
by Robert Higgs, read the rest.