On the First Paragraph of Federalist 10: From Faction to Freedom to Property

Federalist 9 was discussed earlier in this blog; the complete text of Federalist 10 is here. I am only writing on the first paragraph of Federalist 10, and this may undergo major revision later. I’m not sure about a few of my arguments —

1. On the significance of faction: Madison begins by setting up “faction” as a general problem – “a well-constructed Union” can “break and control [its] violence.” Why is the problem of faction so important?

He goes on to claim that the “violence of faction” is a “vice” which has affected the “character and fate” of “popular governments.” It requires a “cure,” but one that does not involve a betrayal of principles.

Now Madison does not say that “faction” is a “disease,” curiously enough. He instead says that “popular governments have everywhere perished” because of the “mortal diseases” of “instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils.”

Already he has made “faction” blameless twice: it is, in-and-of itself, not a “vice,” just its violence. Nor is it a disease, but it can introduce “diseases.”

We must keep in mind that faction had caused the destruction of all previous popular governments. The most notable classical example of its effects of which I can think is in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, 3.70 – 3.84, the revolution at Corcyra.

The Left, through Progressive beliefs, seems to hold a curious view of faction implicitly. Progress is tied to populism: that’s the more fundamental sentiment that spurs things like the candidacy of Senator Obama. Diversity can show up as a means to progress, as it might create thoughts that would not be had otherwise, and perhaps also reveal itself as an end to progress. After all, if all minority groups get the rights they demand, we will be more diverse, no? (Or will we all be homogeneous, thinking that nothing really makes a difference?)

I bring up the Left to suggest that the difference between an utter fear of faction and an almost nonchalance about faction came about because of the success of the Constitution thus far. This is not meant to slight the thought of the modern Left in the least. (It should be noted that for Aristotle, however, political life is defined by something like faction – there will always be democratic and oligarchic elements in a regime, never just one).

2. The problem of majority faction: “The American constitutions” have made “valuable improvements on the popular models, both ancient and modern,” Madison states. In doing so, he shows respect for the governments of the States, but for a very specific criterion – they have avoided the “violence of faction” and its “mortal diseases.” Have they been effective enough in doing so?

Of course not. “Considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith and of public and personal liberty” have complained “that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

Now above, it was “adversaries to liberty” who liked to point out “the instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils” through faction. Here, it is “considerate and virtuous citizens” who are complaining.

The first list compared with the second list tells all – instability matches in both lists. But the “public good” is what confusion does not allow one to realize. The first list ends with “confusion” – it is that confusion which the “adversaries to liberty,” we can presume, deplore above all. What “considerate and virtuous citizens” deplore most is “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority:” the elaboration on this last point must have some significance. We are told injustice is explicitly tied to the use of force and abuse of rights of a minor party, and comes from “disregarding” the “public good.”

So what is happening? The second list drops the word “confusion” entirely: we are already virtuous, we are already considerate, we are already “knowers” – we could regard the public good if we so chose (take note of the relation between reason and self-love later in the essay – that indicates this is a dark joke of Madison’s). It is not government’s job to educate, but rather to manage forces so none of us are tempted to violence.

The former list is a list of complaints by those of us who are skeptical the mass of people knows everything. We may feel government has some role educating, and that if it doesn’t take that role seriously, or pretend that it doesn’t educate, it will end up doing things like enforcing Political Correctness or funding the alienation of Christians while promoting other beliefs all while claiming it is value-neutral, only doing the “education” the people asked it to do via the law. You may argue that schooling can be taken wholly out of the hands of government, but as long as there is Law, the government educates by the fact of Law, even if there is no explicit mandate.

Even though Madison’s logic is the logic of the Constitution, I am taking especial care to point out that any complaint against another person for “not knowing” ultimately hearkens back to classical thought. If you think someone should know better before participating in political life, then do recognize that the grounds of such a claim transcend the logic of faction.

We must wonder now about what was said of Progressive thought above – does Progressive thought embrace majority faction? In some sense yes: the popular will knows best, always. But in another sense, challenges to the popular will aid it in knowing itself, and finally, it does seem freedom via progress could mean a heterogeneous society ultimately. It could also mean everyone is made to be the same, and so the problem introduced above still remains. It looks like Progressive thought dodges this problem entirely, the problem of what society will actually be, for the problem of remedying injustice now.

And that really is the deep problem of faction – “factions” make competing claims about what is the Good, even in advancing their own interest. In ignoring this more significant claim, Madison and Progressive sentiments are united, strangely enough. Madison is pushing us to look at factions as motivated by self-interest, and to worry about a majority faction bullying everyone. The “Progressives” seem to be more partial to what would be a majority faction in effect, because of its greater significance of being the popular will. Neither seem to hold the Good as an end: the end is liberty, whether it is conceived through government’s restraint (majority faction prevented from dominating) or government’s ability (majority faction allowed to rule supremely). Liberty is looking a lot like “control,” whether it is the control of the individual or the popular will.

3. Public, private and the states: Madison says that the existing governments have been “erroneously” blamed for some problems, but the “heaviest misfortunes” are definitely ascribable to them in part. The biggest problems are the “distrust of public engagements” and “alarm for private rights” – a “factious spirit has tainted public administration,” and the effects are “unsteadiness” and “injustice.” This is a third “list” of sorts: “unsteadiness” mirrors “instability” above, “injustice” has stayed constant. “Confusion” and its counterpart, an overbearing majority ruling all, are not discussed explicitly. The important thing is how the “public” is matched up with stability/security, and how “injustice” is a matter of “private rights.”

Whose rights are being trampled by the States? People who are wealthier – creditors who loaned to farmers and were forced to accept money made worthless through purposely artificial inflation. Certainly there are plenty of poorer people losing their land and ending up in massive debt, but they’re the ones who have recourse to “public engagements” ultimately, as they are literally the “many” – if they don’t push the legislature to act, they can band together and march with those guns they had left over from the Revolutionary War.

I am not saying that the Constitution was imposed on Americans by members of a wealthy class. Rather, the perpetual political problem has always been few vs. many, and if you look at Thucydides above, you’ll see that the poor can threaten to take away everything and force the rich to do something drastic. Usually that “drastic” thing does not involve fashioning a Constitution which is extremely responsive to the popular will – usually it involves killing some demagogue who was getting everyone riled up.

We know the end of this story. We know that property will be discussed in this very essay, and that property will be seen not merely as the guarantor of liberty but as the instantiation of liberty. All people will be free to acquire what they want and the amount they want, without threat of it being taken away. The term “faction” is purposely generic, as there is no more a substantial difference between the oligarchic and democratic element. They are not motivated by different principles. All men desire to be wealthy, and so the policies that would benefit the oligarchy are extended to all for the sake of equality of opportunity. The only twist I’m adding to the story is that equality of opportunity is tied to the chaos of factions being multiplied purposely (enlarged orbit) and the distance between those factions and those who would rule (representative gov’t): it seems equality of opportunity, which our very existence as a public relies on, is only really provided for by overemphasizing the private. We get an efficient government at best when all is said and done, one that commands loyalty by being mainly in the background.

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