-By Warner Todd Huston
Our fourth president, James Madison, has been called the father of the Constitution for not inconsiderable reasons. Madison was highly educated, widely read, and well thought of. He was also a prescient man. Madison was so prescient that in February of 1788 he was able to describe the precise reasons why his beloved Republic would be faring so badly 222 years later in 2010.
Madison’s far-reaching delineation of our current troubles appears in the Federalist Papers, a document that Thomas Jefferson proclaimed “the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.” There in Federalist 62 — his explanation of the senate — we find an amazingly clear prediction of how badly we’ve gone off track in Washington D.C., not to mention our state and local governments.
Student of history that he was, Madison understood that democratic governments often suffer from the malady of unfaithful elected officials. “It is a misfortune incident to republican government,” Madison wrote, “that those who administer it may forget their obligations to their constituents, and prove unfaithful to their important trust.” The founders and writers of the Constitution intended that the Senate help keep the federal government on track serving as a “salutary check on the government.” The Senate, they proposed, would serve as a check on the passions of the House of Representatives and possibly an overzealous president. They intended that the senate would slow the wheels of government and help keep the interests of the states alive in the halls of Congress. It would become known as the “most deliberative body in the world” exactly for this reason.
Originally Senators were appointed by the state legislatures in order to represent the interests of the states. Since the members of the House were elected by state voters to represent their interests, electing senators seemed duplicative. After all with the whole of the people electing the president and the individual voters of each district electing their member of the House of Representatives it seemed that the voters were getting plenty of representation. The states needed their interests protected and so senators were appointed by the states for that purpose.
That delicate balance would end in 1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment altered the original plan and made provisions for voters to directly elect members of the Senate just as they do their House members. No more would the states be represented in Washington and as each decade passed into the future our politicians began more and more to take on that “misfortune” that Madison so lamented.
Noting that any person that is “inconstant to his plans, or perhaps to carry on his affairs without any plan at all” is immediately “marked” as a “victim to his own unsteadiness and folly,” Madison insisted that governments that act similarly forfeit “the respect and confidence” of everyone.
Every nation, consequently, whose affairs betray a want of wisdom and stability, may calculate on every loss which can be sustained from the more systematic policy of their wiser neighbors.
Madison is right that nobody likes or trusts a flighty fool. But Madison was not talking in merely general philosophical terms. He saw his own fledgling nation already acting is such a self-defeating manner under the feckless Articles of Confederation that he hoped the new Constitution would correct.
But the best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation. She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.
The country was already floundering due to its ineffective form of national government. Madison saw the Articles of Confederation as a complete failure offering no stability for his nascent nation. But as he went on to explain why the Constitution would be better than what they had in the Articles, Madison seems to be describing exactly the situation we are confronted with today.
Today we are faced with a government that no one can count on. It is capricious, constantly changing, and grabbing new power unto itself nearly every month. Businesses cannot make plans for the future for fear that those plans will be ruined by the next government power grab. Greedy politicians that are more interested in power for themselves and their party than they are about governing beset us. They exhibit a supreme arrogance that only comes from those that feel they are unaccountable to anyone but themselves. Additionally, as these oppressive government tendrils reach further into our lives we find that those lobbyists who understand and/or can guide the next set of rules constantly emanating from government are the only ones that benefit. Sadly the people are either the last to benefit or don’t benefit at all.
Read, then, Madison’s description of a failed state and you’ll find it a perfect description of our predicament.
The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood… Law is defined to be a rule of action but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?
Madison noted other consequences of these calamitous failures.
Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.
Sound familiar? Remember that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi insisted that we had to pass Obama’s budget bloating Obamacare bill so that “we could know what’s in it”? We’ve had senators and members of the house insisting that they can’t be expected to actually read the bills they are voting on? We have dozens of bills floating from one unaccountable committee to another until no one is sure what is at what stage of consideration? We have government convening in the dead of night to slip things past the people and thousands of documents dumped on Friday evenings so that no one sees them? We’ve also had federal agencies issuing reams of new regulatory changes every month with no real accountability at all. Madison’s description of a calamitous government poisoning the blessing of liberty is no exercise in philosophy. It is a precise description of our current governing climate.
Were it not for its elegance, one would think that Madison’s words were ripped from today’s news.
The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? … In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.
The end result is that the people themselves no longer have a bond of affection to their government.
But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people… No government… will long be respected without being truly respectable… without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.
With approval ratings of congress and presidents at all time lows and voter turnout at a trickle of what it should be, who can’t see that the people have lost reverence and attachment to their government? Madison was exactly right with his warnings.
After all this, what is the solution to our ills? Is Madison’s Constitution itself at fault? Of course we have not had Madison’s Constitution for well over a hundred years. We’ve allowed his blueprint to become bastardized, warped, and made a shadow of its former self. Have some things gotten better? Sure they have. But on the whole we’ve strayed far from our founding principles and of what was prescribed in the Federalist Papers.
The only solution is to begin a systematic trimming of government. Scores of federal employees and their departments need to be summarily eliminated. Pensions canceled. Programs ended. Departments snuffed out. We need to force our politicians to adhere to the Constitution by insisting that they justify their policies by pointing to which clause tells them that their actions are Constitutional. We need to begin impeaching judges far more than we do. In short, we need to start taking government out of our lives, not involving it more.
But above all today our politicians think we are their servants. We need to remind them of who controls whom.