Federalist Ten

Faction has ever been the bane of popular governments. The spirit of faction can never be extinguished but can only be curbed. Yet if faction cannot be banished entirely, its pernicious effects can be mitigated. Madison specifies the disease and the remedies:

By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods for curing the mischiefs of factions: the one by removing the causes, the other byu controlling the effects.

There are again two methods for removing the causes of factions: the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It doesn’t take Madison long to dispense with these two methods for removing the causes of factions. To destroy liberty is unthinkable and to give every citizen the same opinions, passions, and interests is clearly impossible.

He moves on to controlling the effects, and he contends that the very size of a large republic will control the effects of faction. In a great republic, a large number of electors will select a small number of representatives. Out of a wide field they can pick the wisest and most virtuous among them all to rule on their behalf.

It is true that a huge pool of talent will more often yield one individual who’s singularly gifted than a much smaller one. This is why huge nations with enormous populations take so many of the medals at the Olympic Games. Out of their hundreds of millions of citizens there will be a handful who’re superbly gifted. In a country with over a billions inhabitants there will be one who can run faster than anybody else, swim faster than anybody else, or jump higher than anybody else. Yet speed and height are clear and straightforward, matters of measurement and not of judgment. It takes a measuring tape and a stopwatch to gauge an athletic but to evaluate a lawmaker or a leader is far more difficult. The same leader will be seen by some as stalwart and by others as belligerent. Some will think a man wise and forbearing while others despair of him as weak.

Madison next claims that because the representative is chosen by a greater citizens, it will be harder for the unworthy to practice the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried. He doesn’t elaborate on what these vicious arts might be and we can only speculate on what he had in mind. In his era there were two chief ways that a small constituency might be secured by an unworthy and unscrupulous candidate. In very small and usually rural constituencies called pocket boroughs, a powerful landowner exerted his influence to have his tenants vote for the candidate of his choosing. Candidates also held rowdy gatherings at local farms where he’d feed his supporters and ply them with large doses of cider and whiskey.

Strong-arming farmers and hosting barbecues will work best in small villages and Madison hoped that increasing the size of the constituency would render them extinct. These pocket boroughs and boisterous, drunken barbecues are relics of the past but the vicious arts have changed to carry on in the modern era.

Nowadays, big city mayors seem the most astute, sober, and responsible of all our public leaders. Our national leaders indulge in wild and dangerous talk, spread lies, spout nonsense, and carry on in the most deplorable manner. This is nothing new and the rulers of previous ages were just as bad. What is strange is that humble municipal leaders show so much wisdom and discretion. Why are we served with such diligent, conscientious leadership at the local level while we must suffer such lunacy at the very top?

Cities, no matter how large, don’t field armies. They have police forces but these are public services designed to deal with criminals, individual miscreants, and they aren’t fighting forces. Our modern republics boast large populations and many huge cities, but unlike the scrappy and rapacious city-states of Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy, they don’t make war on each other.

These municipal leaders have nothing to do with warfare and fighting. The deal with matters of utility and expense. An unsightly interstate cuts through what used to be one vital neighborhood and there’s a plan to cover it with a huge swath of green parkland. There will be great benefits, the mangled neighborhood will be reborn, and the urban oasis at the end will be beautiful but it will also be hugely expensive and lead to traffic nightmares for decades. A huge corporation is hinting it may want to move its headquarters and sizable operations into town but it wants a staggering package of incentives and tax abatements. The mayor wants to make one lane on a busy downtown street into exclusive bike lanes but the businesses along the street point out that traffic is already heavy, and nobody is riding bicycles, and there is no need whatsoever for bike lanes. In all these matters, costs are weighed against benefits and there will be disagreement, sometimes shrill and acrimonious disagreement.

Yet in none of these cases, do the citizens fear for their lives. Money is at stake but not blood. We’re a violent species and when we’re scared or furious, our wisdom vanishes. National leaders most deal with hostile states, terrorists, reluctant and undependable allies and avowed enemies. It is our curse that when our lives are threatened we can never be calm and deliberate. We can no longer weigh and measure: world leaders are either fiends or heroes, our fate either doom or conquest.

 

Madison felt sure that hundreds of millions of voters spread across an entire continent will group themselves into many different parties. Such a huge electorate must give rise to a correspondingly large number of competing parties. This has not been the case. For all its gigantic size, the United States has put forward two principal parties and has done so for nearly two centuries. Much smaller nations teem with minor parties, some of them quite outlandish. A large number of voters does not always result in a large number of parties.

The principal reason for this is that the executive branch is elected apart from the legislative. In some systems, the party holding most of the seats in the legislature is thereby entitled to form the executive arm as well. But to garner support wide enough to form a government, they must often form a coalition with much smaller parties. By holding a part of the legislature a minor party may be given a minor hold over the executive. But a presidential election is either won or lost. It’s a binary state, all or nothing.

The victorious party has won the executive and it has won it for a set period. The opposition parties may thwart the sitting government but they can’t bring it to an end before its term expires. The constitution does contain a provision for impeachment but that perilous and damaging expedient isn’t a practicable means to retake the executive. The losing party must score some points against the ruling party, hone its rhetoric, prepare its case, and wait for its next chance. Huge nations may support only a tiny number of parties and small nations may swarm with a legion of parties, many dedicated to regional or particular interests.

Protagoras Part Two

Socrates asks if justice is itself just or unjust. To assert that just men are just is nothing more than a tautology and tautologies lead nowhere. To go further and ask whether justice is just may lead to a tautology but this is a treacherous path that may land us in a paradox and we’re veering close to territory where barbers shave themselves. To accept that justice is just will simply assert a tautology and no interesting premises can follow from a tautology. The only point of such a useless question is to snare the respondent in difficulties.

Justice and holiness are the virtues most mentioned. Justice is ordinarily applied to human beings and their laws. It is in relation with one another that men and women are considered just, and the hermit, the outcast, the solitary, and the marooned are neither just nor unjust. The term just may be applied to the laws of man but not the laws of nature. It is because they are written by men that laws and decrees may be just or unjust. The laws of gravity or magnetism are neither just nor unjust.

The holy is much wider in its application. Persons, places, plants, physical objects, names, letters, and numbers may all be considered holy. A great many things may be holy but not everything. Socrates asks Protagoras whether justice is holy or unholy and whether holiness is just or unjust. To assert that holiness is just or justice is holy isn’t tautological but it makes little sense. The just is a narrower property than the holy because fewer types of things may be considered just than may be considered holy. A man may be considered holy and just but while a spring, or a tree, or an ibis may be considered holy they cannot be considered just. And while men may be thought both just and holy, their laws may be considered just but the laws of men aren’t considered holy. To be considered holy, laws come down from the gods but holy laws cannot be framed by human legislators.

There is an intersection between the just and the holy but the terms don’t align. How much more mischief will result when we try to ascribe justice to holiness and holiness to justice. Protagoras won’t assent to describing justice itself as holy or holiness as just, but though he balks he doesn’t back out and go on the attack. Some terms are simply not related and have nothing to do with one another. Socrates might ask whether binomials are carnivorous or herbivorous. If we deny they’re carnivorous, that doesn’t mean that we’re asserting they munch grass. The terms carnivorous and herbivorous apply to animals and have nothing to do with number. Whether that’s solely by convention or in the attribute itself, it’s equally true in either case.

Protagoras has refused to go along with the predications Socrates has set before him and so Socrates advances a new argument. When men are acting wisely or correctly, they are controlling their actions. Protagoras agrees to this. Next, when they are acting foolishly, they are not controlling their actions. Protagoras assents. Yet Socrates is again defining the terms of the argument in a fashion in line with his own thinking and advantageous to his own position. Wisdom is reason restraining and governing the passions.

 

There’s a joke about a man who’s the greatest villain alive, but fortunately for humanity, he’s also the greatest fool. The point of the joke is that this is a happy accident but not a necessary correlation. Some villains possess incredible patience, assiduity, self-control and in these ordinarily commendable qualities they match our greatest saints, sages, and benefactors. However, many villains are drunken, impatient, garrulous, and undisciplined and because of these faults, their schemes are thwarted or miscarry.

Whether Socrates or the joke is correct may best be left to the judgment of psychology and criminology but it is clear that the two visions of the nature of evil are incompatible. Protagoras is led to another impasse and in his frustration he points out that good and bad are taken in many senses. He enumerates examples of things that are beneficial to animals but not to men, to the roots of plants but not to the shoots or leaves, to be rubbed on the skin but not to be swallowed.

Protagoras hasn’t gone on at great length but Socrates accuses him of making long speeches and prepares to leave. The listeners beg him to stay but he protests that while Protagoras may be proficient in giving short and concise answers and in delivering long, splendid speeches, he, himself, cannot follow these lengthy orations and is skilled only in briefer expositions, comparing Protagoras to a great runner who must hold himself back so that Socrates may keep up with him. Plato makes Socrates gracious in his refusal but he has Alcibiades break in to protest that Protagoras drones on so that everyone forgets what is at issue and he can evade the question.

Federalist Nine

 

Hamilton shifts his attention from the enemies without to those within:

A Firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrasts to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open themselves to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party-rage.

The petty Republics of Greece and Italy Hamilton is referring to are Athens and Rome. The reference is clear but the adjective ‘petty’ is noteworthy. Hamilton admits his own feelings of horror and disgust at the perpetual assassinations, conspiracies, and riots that tore and shook both Athens and Rome, and while the casual reader of history may find these chronicles of blood and treachery lively reading, the student who wanted to use these republics as a model, however imperfect, for a republic founded in the present age will be brought to despair.

If the Greeks and Romans had learned something from the past, if they’d hit upon some measure to curb the violence and heal the state, if some improvement, some progress had been made, there would be grounds for hope. We’d feel pity for the victims, the brothers Gracchi, Aristides, Coriolanus, Cimon, Sertorius, and all those who perished anonymously in the strife never to be immortalized by Plutarch, but we could take solace that they hadn’t died in vain. But neither the Greeks nor the Romans found a remedy for the distemper, and in the end they were doomed by their folly, ingratitude, and feuding.

When Hamilton describes Athens and Rome as petty, he is moved to scorn by frustration and regret, but he also means petty as synonymous with tiny. Neither of these ancient republics were much larger than the Philadelphia of Hamilton’s day and their small size made them vulnerable to much larger enemies. The Athenians were faced with the enormous Persian Empire, a colossus they never hesitated to antagonize, and the Romans fought the Carthaginians, a nation far greater and more powerful than they, in war after war. Against all odds, Athens and Rome prevailed through courage, superb leadership, and luck, and their victories brought spoils. The Athenians formed the Delian Confederacy and siphoned the moneys contributed to defend against the Persians into erecting magnificent but hugely expensive temples and buildings like the Parthenon. With Carthage destroyed, the Romans were free to plunder the entire Mediterranean world. The laws and institutions set down to administer a large town were far too frail to withstand this flood of treasure and when Athens and Rome acceded to empire they doomed themselves as republics.

These disheartening examples have led many to despair of free government, and they conclude that as tantalizing as civil liberty might seem, it always proves fatal to the order and peace of society. Recent developments, however, give cause for hope. Don’t despond because the science of government has taken great strides forward. ‘Stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty’ have come to flourish, stumbled upon by Englishmen, pondered and praised by a Frenchman. England’s system of checks and balances, its separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers in king, parliament, and the courts, showed a way forward.

Yet England was a limited monarchy, and after the Civil War the victors had tried again and again to found a republic upon English common law and constitutional precedent and again and again their creations had broken down. But that was an England distraught and furious after nearly a decade of civil war, and rent by religious discord. To establish a republic in that torn and bleeding nation was like building a house during an earthquake in a thunderstorm.

The Americans are mild and forgiving observers of a faith shared by nearly all, compared to the wild Puritans, Presbyterians, and Fifth Monarchists of the Protectorate. They enjoy one more advantage. In surveying the history and constitution of England, the ingenious Frenchman Montesquieu has come up with the expedient of a Confederate Republic.

 

A confederate republic is a number of small republics like Rome and Athens assembled into one much larger republic. Each of these member republics will be responsible for its own local administration and they will be left to enact and enforce their own peculiar laws. A confederate republic will enjoy the signal advantage of size, many puny republics bound together to raise a Leviathan formidable enough to stand against huge menacing empires or mighty kingdoms like France. The story of the survival of Athens and the rise of Rome are thrilling because they’re improbably, and no statesman should trust to a repeat of such stupendous luck. Huge expanses of territory, deep pools of manpower, and enormous resources are much surer safeguards than the exploits of Miltiades or Scipio.

Hamilton goes on to enumerate further advantages:

If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit, in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great an influence in one, that would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free would oppose him with forces, independent of those which he had usurped, and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.

The present or the future may be fundamentally different from the past. With the means of communication available to the late eighteenth century, Hamilton’s aspiring demagogue will find it impossible to reach a wide audience. However thrilling his oratory, his voice can carry only so far, and to hear him the masses must shoulder their way into a public square. If he should cry out through a newspaper as his mouthpiece, his propaganda will reach only as far as the paper can be carried. If he appeals to the grievances, the interests, the biases of his own canton, these will be of little interest, and may rather dismay the citizens of neighboring and rival cantons.

The legacy of Thomas Edison launches us into a new world. The same demagogue will no longer need bellow from a platform to a standing crowd, but chatting from some cramped booth in a basement, his voice and his messge will pipe into every living room across the globe. His face, his fears, his demands, his answers will carry across the planet in an instant. As soon as he speaks he’s heard, as soon as he postures he’s observed, as soon as he pleases he’s cheered. In our age, the peoples across the world hear the same songs, buy or covet the same clothes, and hang on the same spectacles. They will come to speak the same tongue in the accent favored by talent, dress their bodies, style their hair, and adorn their bodies as favored by a common fashion, waste their money on the same follies, share the same dreads, and hold onto the same hopes. The demagogue is no longer a parochial agitator and when he mounts the platform, the eyes of the whole world are upon him.

Protagoras Part One

Protagoras, the celebrated sophist has come to Athens and Hippocrates is so excited by his arrival and the chance to hear him that he proceeds at once to Socrates and give him the great news. It is very early and sun has not yet risen. Plato would have posterity believe that Socrates can drink copious amounts of wine without getting drunk and go without sleep for days and while he doesn’t admit outright that Hippocrates catches our hero asleep, the fact that he doesn’t aver that Socrates was already awake and bustling about indicates that he did.

In another refreshing change from some of the other dialogues, Socrates isn’t agog at Protagoras wisdom.
He concedes that the sophist may possess great learning and ability but he remains doubtful that he can teach Hippocrates to be wise and he is worried that the young man is placing himself so heedlessly in the hands of a teacher he’s never met. As soon as the sun is up, he and Hippocrates head over to see Protagoras for themselves.

Plato has brought himself to admit that Socrates does sleep, but in compensation he makes some of the sophists very sedentary indeed. One of them, Prodicus, is still abed, bundled in sheepskins and blankets, but holding forth from that supine posture. Protagoras himself is on his feet, walking back and forth, his listeners trailing him, parting when he turns around so not to get in his way and falling in behind him again like a school of fish.

Plato is poking fun of the sophists but his ridicule is straightforward, without the disguise of feigned veneration, and the picture he’s drawn is amusing without being spiteful. Socrates himself doesn’t believe excellence can be taught but he defers to Protagoras learning and experience and will change his mind if Protagoras can prove that he can instill virtue in his pupils. He doesn’t flatter Protagoras and beg him to share his wisdom, but admitting his own reservations, he asks how this course of study will benefit Hippocrates.

Upon this invitation, Protagoras holds forth at length but in a manner selected by his listeners. He asks whether they prefer that he tell a story or expound an argument. Men, women, and children alike relish stories, and the ominous phrase ‘expound an argument’ forebodes that this argument will be abstruse and soporofic. It is somewhat surprising that his audience leaves the choice up to Protagoras.

Protagoras picks the story and that story turns out to be the one of Prometheus and Epimetheus. The myth is well known and we can dispense with a full retelling. Yet in this version, fire was not enough and despite being able to huddle around bonfires and brandish torches, they were still at the mercy of wild beasts. They were helpless because they were solitary and they could not band together for their common protection. When they banded together, they injured one another and so that they might gather themselves into groups, Zeus was forced to give them the supplementary gift of citycraft.

This citycraft is a skill originally dispensed by Zeus but as a skill it is teachable. Unlike every other skill it must be learned by every citizen. No citizen is faulted for not knowing how to play the lyre or sculpt statues but those who are unjust and persist in their injustice are either cast out or killed. Because justice is teachable and injustice can be corrected, the unjust are deemed worthy of blame. There are defects of the body which are the result of birth or chance, and those who are blind or crippled are not blamed for their condition. The unjust are blamed because they can learn to be better but don’t bother to reform themselves.

The unjust are reviled, shunned, and severely punished and so all parents do their utmost to bring their children up to be just. The Prisoner’s Dilemna and Game Theory teach that the optimal course for a group is tit for tat. But the best thing for any one individual is to betray the rest and benefit over and over. To protect the interests of the group, betrayal is marked and remembered and it is repaid. Thieving and aggression cannot be tolerated. The individual is forced to cooperate and sacrifice, and those who are unwilling to do so are killed or driven away.

For our ancestors on the savanna, no single member of the band can long survive alone among the ferocious predators and hardships of the wilderness, and exile means a quick and ugly death. The band itself is only barely surviving, always hungry and close to starvation, menaced by predators much bigger, faster, and deadlier than the weak, slow, naked, ungainly bipeds who must resort to tools and weapons to fend them off. The stakes are life and death and they are all so close to the edge that they can’t put up with any nonsense.

The band makes some provision for the sick and the injured but all must pull their own weight. Those who feign illness and injury to get out of work will be found out. Only those who do their share of the work get their share of the reward. He who will not work, will not eat. The rest of the mothers will watch the young of one of their number while she sleeps, and she in turn will take on these babysitting duties when it is her turn. The sick and the injured will be fed and nursed to recovery and he will do the same for his fellows when they are struck down. The hunters share their meat with the gatherers, and the gatherers turn over their roots, tubers, and berries to the hunters.

The society is ruled by fairness and equity and the penalties for harming the group or shirking are dire. The members of the band make it very plain when they are dissatisfied with one of their own. They gossip incessantly discussing the faults and failings of those not present. Every member is hungry and every member is tired. They’ve all loafed at their work, snatched the choicest cut of meat, pleaded off sick when they may have taken part. It is crucial to their survival that they monitor how widely these acts of selfishness have been marked and how bitterly they’re resented. A large part of our brain is devoted to reading facial expressions and bodily demeanor. When our fellows scowl at us, when they glance at us and huddle in conference but fall silent when we come near, then we know that we should work harder than anybody else, give a portion of our food away to somebody needy, assume the position of greatest danger during the hunt. We must outdo ourselves to win back the grace and favor of the group. If we don’t we may be expelled, doomed to wander the grasslands alone until thirst, hunger, or some huge predator put an end to our exile.

These skills allow us to work together in groups and for almost all of us they are innate. There are some who, by birth or chance, are born unable to read faces or understand the feelings and intentions of those around us. Yet almost all of us know when we’re being thoughtless, lazy, or greedy and we are perfectly aware that when we’re caught out our fellows are angry and disgusted with us.

Pericles has been mentioned several times before as an individual who was remarkable for his citycraft. Yet his citycraft was a very different thing. He wasn’t accepted, he was preeminent. He wasn’t a member of the band, he was the leader. He was above the rest of the Athenians and he had correspondingly exalted dreams for his city. He didn’t aim for Athenians to have enough to eat and live in safety. He wanted them to dominate the other states of Greece, to build astounding monuments at their expense, to take more than their share and to live at ease while the rest labored to support them.

He distinguished himself from the rest of the Athenians with a curious deportment. On the savannah, the disruptive must be met with snarls and cowed instantly. Athens was so rich and secure that this was no longer necessary. As Pericles was heading home, a stranger who had a grudge against him began following him screaming threats and obscenities, tottering after him and abusing him all the way to his door. Pericles showed not the least discomposure at any of this, and when he was under his own roof he sent one of his servants out to see the man home and light his way, since it was growing dark and the streets were soon to become unsafe.

Pericles deliberately departed from the behavior necessary to survive in one of the primate bands of the savanna. He didn’t try to fit in; he did the very opposite. In his comportment, he was haughty and oblivious to the expressions and feelings of those around him. He was too lofty and noble to lower himself to tit for tat. He acted superior to the other Athenians and believing him to be superior, they chose him to lead them again and again. This superiority will raise feelings of jealousy. Aristides was acknowledged to be the justest man in Athens and he was so respected for his virtue that he came to be resented for it and he was exiled. Men who try to rise above their fellows risk ostracism for this preeminence.

Men who eschew this primitive citycraft believe they’ve attained a second and higher citycraft, one that nowadays is usually called statecraft. Pericles was convinced that he alone saw the true destiny of Athens, and that destiny was grasping and shirking on a scale that no single malcontent could ever aspire to. The rest of Greece was to pay and labor to support Athens so that the Athenians could be set free to achieve something far greater than mere survival. There was one great obstacle to this dream, Athens one rival, Sparta.

The two cities must go to war and Pericles planned this war far in advance. He knew how much money there was in the treasury and he plotted how much they will have to spend per year if they restrict themselves to a purely defensive strategy. He plotted how long the Spartans will batter against the Long Walls before they grow weary of their fruitless assault and agree to peace. He tried to guess how much food they’d need to store and how likely their enforced allies were to revolt. In the end he was wrong. The Spartans were more tenacious, the Athenians more impulsive, the allies more aggrieved than he planned. And he never counted on the plague that ended up killing him and so many of the citizens who followed him.

Yet this kind of statecraft does seem like something teachable, if not by Protagoras, then by someone else. It’s a compound of economics, statistics, probability, political science, and military strategy, but it is a science of some kind. Could Pericles’ calculations be improved upon, and if so, how? Can experience fix the numbers so the outcome is predicted correctly? Is the problem beyond the calculating capacity of a human brain but tractable to a supercomputer? If RAND had been on hand to counsel Pericles, could he have beaten the Spartans?

Whatever the answer, these sort of war games are far from what Protagoras or Socrates had in mind when they spoke of virtue. They will go on to consider what virtue is and how it relates to its components but that will have to wait til later.