PRINCIPLES

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The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times.
—Alexander Hamilton from Federalist 9

The Agenda

We have two hopes here. One is to encourage many more Americans to constructively participate in American governance (or Civic Engagement) beyond voting (or including voting if you have lost the habit or patience), to expand the productive form of popular sovereignty—active power to the people—as an enduring and much needed corporate component of American political life.

The second is to elevate the level of dialogue and understanding in America about our government and its relationship to our many problems that seem to be outrunning our capacities to treat them successfully. If this second objective does not induce in you some desire to become part of the treatment, at least the dialogue itself may move beyond mutual animosities, undeserving egos, trivial answers to agonizing difficulties, and transparent lies about topics often irrelevant to our political and national health but dominating headlines for the melodrama of it all. How refreshing would it be to have an extended discussion of features of our health care system with recommended advances or real solutions in play after exposing the underlying problems from the New York Times?

The Principles

We believe (or hope at least) that understanding some of the basic principles by which our particular form of government works will help us collectively move forward. We are not speaking of our Constitution. Our Constitution is a framework, a very partial framework, for the legal and administrative system controlling our federal government. It contains no explanations and only implies, lightly usually, its underlying principles. For example, the Constitution does not expressly require separation and balance of powers between the branches of the federal government. It describes three branches in three separate articles, and lists relationships among them in each article, but never demands their separation as a principle. Furthermore, the Constitution does not characterize our 50 state constitution, thousands of city charters, or how municipalities without charters obtain their structures. We will discuss in many places in this web site all the unwritten rules that augment our written Constitution, some of which will be surprising because you probably think they are actually in the Constitution.

Of course, the Federalist Papers spend a great deal of time explaining our Constitution. In so doing they construct an underlying set of principles that helps explain and justify the Constitution’s construction and its migration through massive changes in our country over some 245 years. Ones we feel are important may be summarized as follows: (1) we do not know enough as individual human beings or as collectives to understand complex problems enough to make good decisions all the time; (2) a large set of tensions persist, such as between liberty and power, that must be considered together in deliberations; (3) our particular government compensates by limiting the power of any one individual or agency within it to make such decisions, which principle leads to the republican form, the federal form, and separation and balance of powers; (4) the government must have means commensurate with agreed ends, which ends are subject to change with time, causing changes (usually additions) to means; (5) the need to experiment with the prospects of failure as the steps before success, particularly as time forces changes in government as well as policies. Not in the Federalist Papers explicitly but implied when read as if written today is (6) the demand that we the people be involved in the process far beyond voting.

We admit here, and you will see herein, that the subject is complex, at times difficult, and (if we are doing our job right) requires the new, things not to be found in existing political cookbooks. We think the first question to be answered given these initial conditions is why invoke the Federalist Papers, written two hundred and fifty years ago, to help? We hope to answer this question first. We will then summarize the radical differences between then and now and give reasons for our government’s general incapacity for dealing with things that are new and difficult. Following we will introduce the Federalist Papers, which we believe deserve their sense as American scripture, universal testaments to universal problems, but of course neither complete nor accessible without interpretation (for reasons they provide themselves). We then conduct such an interpretation, distilling from the Papers (as we shall call them) those principles and conditions that still apply from those that have clearly lost value as history has unfolded around them. We end this section with a brief discussion of liberty and justice for all.

The organization is layered. We will present a paragraph or two below, each of which links to a longer disquisition. We are not yet at the point of providing further reading after the longer parts. We are hampered in some ways by the circumstance that almost all of the academic work on the Federalist Papers concern themselves with what they meant when written; we are concerned with what they can and should mean today. The difference in perspectives limits an easy linkage with the vast resources available on the subject from academic libraries. The Stanford University library lists over 10,000 articles and books on the Federalist Papers. We have not read them all (meaning of course that our claim that they all address the Papers when written is suspect, a speculation based upon those we have read).

You will detect a liberal bias herein. But we also hope you detect disaffection for the current behavior of the far right and the far left, both enmired in ancient or impossible remedies with ear plugs so tightly installed that they can listen to nothing but themselves. We suspect neither side to be interested in this web site. But we treasure the thought that liberty and justice for all still resonates with most of us, with most of us having some grasp of the tensions between liberty and justice—liberty usually meant from the perspective of the individual, justice from the perspective of the collective, the reason the right focuses on liberty, the left on justice—and the almost impossible mountain to be climbed if we take all to really mean all. All includes the poor, the illegal immigrant harvesting food for our table, the police, the people the police arrest, rich white males, Republicans and Democrats with deeply felt convictions around irreconcilable ideologies, those with guns, those opposed to guns. Hemmed in by their particular ideologies, neither political party has a grasp of what these words taken as a whole mean in the real world. Among the universal statements within the Federalist Papers is that “all” will never have common opinions, itself among the critical tensions the Papers identify and a clear obstacle to realizing this central goal. In some abstract sense, we hope to build a meaning for these words that make them face the future with hope for their continued improvement while recognizing the perpetual puzzles they present.

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I. Why Read the Federalist Papers Today?

The Federalist Papers are the first body of political philosophy that addresses our particular government. We do not mean this regarding specifics or details like our bizarre means of electing a President. We mean at a deep level of structures and means. The Papers also outline our nature as political beings to explain our particular structures and means. Neither have altered in any fundamental way in over two centuries, even as our political world would be incomprehensible to the founders. Structures, means, and reasons do not solve problems. But solving problems without understanding structures, means, and reasons is like fishing without a bait and tackle or a boat; you just get wet and have nothing for dinner.

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2. America Has Changed Profoundly from Then to Today

Our founders would not recognize the country they created. It is nine times larger, with almost 100 times more people, from all over the world. It moved from an outpost (Mexico had half again as many people then) to the most powerful nation ever on earth. It produced many of the inventions that fueled economic prosperity, human health and life spans, and quality of life that now rule the world. It gradually expanded suffrage to all adults over the age of 17 (it had the widest suffrage in the world when formed, largely because most adult men owned small farms and qualified under money limitations—the rules were the same in England, where primogeniture kept farms large and those eligible to vote small.) It also suffered serious troubles. The Civil War was predicted at the Constitutional Convention, but the massive rebellions in the 1890s, the Progressive Movement, the Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement would never enter their imaginations. Nor would they have conceived the degree to which globalization is changing our world, beginning with air and sea travel, global financial and labor forces, broadband and the Internet, and the prospect of mass annihilation from atomic weapons. They would have been pleased that our republican system became a model of sorts for most of the world, with the trend still in that direction, but disappointed that no one took our federalist structure, balance of powers, and internal limits to the same extent we did.

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3. Our Government is Intentionally Limited

Our founders knew, from history and the human heart, that unlimited government, particularly the most common form of unlimited government, a hereditary monarchy, crushed human liberties. Plato’s wish for a philosopher king, Aristotle’s similar wish for government grounded in virtue and respect, and Augustine’s wish for a government willed by God never materialized. All three knew the reasons; they are familiar and similar. So did our founders. It is the paradox of self-government. Self-government must be subject to the will of the people. The will of the people is never coherent or learned enough to govern. If governments have unlimited power, the best of intentions wither into autocracy when troubles arise. Indeed, the people wish for autocracy under such circumstances. We see this throughout the underdeveloped world today (including Russia, China, and some eastern European countries). The only long-term answer is structuring a government with limitations so strong that it cannot by its own devices compel the people to surrender liberty for the sake of stability. Our founders did just that. We hasten to add that this is not the same as the distinction between small and large governments, or federal and state governments, or more or less power. This is a constitutional barrier to quick and unilateral action by every government in our country.

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4. The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers are our American Gospel (from Old English “godspel” for “good news” but transferred to liturgical use for the first four books of the New Testament, borrowed here to suggest a higher power or authority). As with any human artifact attempting universal truths from an oracular voice, the production suffers limitations, ones Madison expounds upon in Federalist 37: “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Thus we have four Gospels founding Christianity, three writers founding our country, each producing inexact renditions of their region of governance. (And the Papers, as the Bible, are immensely quotable.)

Given their age, some parts of the Papers have lost relevance. Some parts clearly got the future wrong. But we can distill from the papers five general principles we feel fit with today. Stated simply:

1. We are limited in knowledge of the world, the capacity to think, and our ability to describe everything or every idea, but we are enormously resourceful and creative.

2. Permanent tensions dominant our political landscape and dialogue, which tensions should be explicitly present in our political deliberations, and which tensions forbid a fully coherent, comprehensive political ideology.

3. The core structures of our system are republicanism (electing leaders for limited terms), federalism (republican governments at all levels with discrete responsibilities) and separation and balance of power (legislative, executive, judicial).

4. Means must be made available commensurate with accepted ends.

5. Governments must be constantly adapting to changing conditions.

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5. Some Essential Principles Assumed

The Federalist Papers are not a comprehensive take on a political philosophy. They hardly touch the key issues of liberty, justice, sovereignty, legitimacy, rights, the general welfare, the notion of the state, the nature of law. Their philosophical and normative attentions fall on government structures, the nature of political man, and the tensions and obligations that flow from their view of political man in the context of a particular notion of liberty, namely, liberty as freedom from government coercion, and the necessity of certain forms of power that inherently compromise liberty meant in this sense. We could fish around in the Papers for implications that would point to philosophical positions the Papers assume, but most of those fishing expeditions would just create arguments. However, three principles do seem consistently enough assumed to warrant inclusion here. The Papers clearly presume the rule of law as the brake against arbitrary personal rule. They as clearly assume majority rule as the normal means of settling disputes and reaching community decsions without reaching agreement. And they subscribe to a form of popular sovereignty that is limited to voting, but they wrap this assumption in enough contrary material to justify a greater range of permitted, even necessary, actions by the people other than voting.

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6. The Principles in Expanded Form

It is time to take a deep breath. The room to which this door opens is not a perfect parlor with all beauties set clearly before our eyes. It is more like the back room of a book hoarder with a obsessive-compulsive disorder committed to chaos. The five principles given above seem simple enough. But they gradually lose their purchase on clarity and precise edges as they expand, both as they expand within the Federalist Papers, and how they expand in our minds as they are connected with current political realities. Of course, this is virtually predicted, even ordered, by Madison’s vision of man in Federalists 37and 10. We are limited, contentious, and given to disputes the human mind cannot resolve. Why should these principles be any different? They are not. Nevertheless, we feel they lay out the fabric on which our political order rests. For example, we contend that the tensions at the foundations of our political order both render ideologies incomplete and at times meaningless but force in their way political ideologies as necessary outcomes of competing factions, which are necessary outcomes of free governments. It turns out that means and ends are often hard to separate, and as often driven in the opposite direction, means conditioning or determining ends, not the other way around. These are the sorts of things that help explain what happens in our political world that defy reason and sense.

We offer here a modest expansion of these ideas. A project for the future is to stich them to much more robust resources within the Federalist Papers and those outside the Federalist Papers, which project will likely change to some extent the principles themselves or their implications, perhaps even to refashion them in outline. Stayed tuned.

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7. With Liberty and Justice for All

Our Pledge of Allegiance has a long history, but its present form owes most to Francis Bellamy, who composed the current words absent “under God” in 1892 (a date in dispute, but Bellamy not). It now reads, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Of some interest is that the Supreme Court agreed that schools could require students to recite this pledge in 1940, reversed itself in 1943, with a 2004 decision that students could not be compelled to stand when reciting the pledge. It seems an innocent enough demand, much like the demand to affirm that you will “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God” when appearing in court when the demand itself cannot be met. We submit that “liberty and justice for all” suffers ineradicable internal tensions and conflicts that make it an interesting goal that cannot be realized in the real world. We further submit that recognizing this fact, explicitly, would improve the health of our political discourse, and then the political health of the country.

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