Madison on mass politics and on the dangers of a representative chamber

The Federalist Papers, No. 48:

In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. But in a representative republic, […] where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.

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17 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    Not clear what your point is here. Federalist 48 deals with the dangers of legislative tyranny (as opposed to the tyranny of a hereditary executive) and the inability of “parchment barriers” alone to prevent the abuse of power. The problem would be there irrespective of how the legislative chamber is constituted (preference election or sortition), so what is the relevance of this passage? (Madison has already ruled out a (direct) democracy as this would be corrupted by “the ambitious intrigues of the executive magistrates”.)

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  2. Hello real democrats!
    I just wanted to tell you there is a userbox on wikipedia which is about sortition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Eduemoni/Userboxes/Sortition/v3

    This user box is still very little used..
    So if you have a wikipedia account and a user profile, I advise you to show your sortition suppport by adding this box to it!

    By!
    (ps: people can easily find this userbox in the politics userbox category https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Userboxes/Politics )

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  3. I find this paragraph interesting because it separates lines of argument that are usually conflated in standard democratic dogma. Rule-of-the-mob is often described as being driven by passions rather than reason, controlled by demagogues, unjust, and ineffective. Madison is separating out those elements by making a distinction based on the size of the decision making body.

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  4. Hi lii. Thanks for calling attention to the Wikipedia sortition userbox.

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  5. >Madison is separating out those elements by making a distinction based on the size of the decision making body.

    Yes that’s true, but the principal anxiety that he expresses in this chapter is the unchecked power of a small representative assembly “with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions”. This is precisely the sort of legislative assembly that you are proposing (albeit constituted by a different method of election), but Madison cautions that “it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions”. He didn’t want to replace an executive tyranny with a legislative tyranny.

    Your proposal is to abandon even the modest checks and balances that Madison believes may not even be fully up to the task, so I’m surprised that you are seeking to enlist him as an ally.

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  6. Yes – Madison’s sentiments and his doctrine of checks and balances are well known. The doctrine has been debunked many times over. It is interesting, however, that the Federalist Papers do contain some seeds of valid – and as far as I am aware, original – analysis (which unfortunately never germinate).

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  7. OK but if you abjure Madison’s solution then what is your own preferred method to address the problem of the tyranny of the legislature? This is a problem the Greeks were well aware of, the fifth century being characterised by demos turannos, the 4th century reforms merely replacing this with the tyranny of the law
    (Hoekstra, 2013). These reforms, as we have discussed before, were designed to make it as hard as possible to introduce new laws. An all-powerful allotted legislature would have been viewed by the Greeks as tyrannical as the 5th century demokratia (or, more likely, the oligarchic council during the period after the abolition of the first demokratia).

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  8. Reblogged this on The Andrade Archive and commented:
    Democracy is ridiculous.

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  9. What does “tyranny of the legislature” mean? The legislature is supposed to set public policy as it sees fit, so at what point does it become a tyranny? It seems to me that like the “tyranny of the majority”, the “tyranny of the legislature” is a disingenuous term for “policy that I do not like”.

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  10. Yoram,

    Madison clearly believed this was the principal danger of representative government, and it was his work that you (surprisedly) chose to cite here. Majoritarian tyranny is also the fear of modern liberals who follow the Millian tradition. The Greeks believed that Demos was a tyrant, so you are running a little short of allies. I assume your support for “as they see fit” in the case of an allotted legislature is based on your (tautological) argument for representativity and I’ve addressed the issue of unrepresentative speech acts so many times that I won’t trouble you with any further repetition. The modern attempt to resist tyranny via slicing and dicing powers and separating them with leaky parchment barriers doesn’t work; the only effective solution is the ancient theory of the mixed constitution, in which opposing interests (the one, the few and the many) are forced to compromise.

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  11. When it comes to theoretical analysis, I look for convincing arguments, not for “allies” (and I certainly do not consider you a reliable speaker for “The Greeks”).

    But let’s leave the rhetorical maneuvers aside and address a simple question: how do you draw a line separating acts of the legislature (or of the majority) that are legitimate from those that are “tyrannical”?

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  12. Being an advocate of mixed government, I would agree with the Greeks that any single source of power is tyrannical. As for whether or not I’m a reliable spokesman, I was simply reproducing the argument of Professor Hoekstra.

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  13. Yoram

    Turning your question on its head, can you provide an example of singular government that was not tyrannical? Acton’s dictum (all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) is applicable to rule by the many as well as rule by the one and the few. Dictatorship (including unchecked popular sovereignty) just doesn’t work very well.

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  14. Keith,
    Aren’t all unicameral parliaments examples of your feared singular government (and virtual unicameral systems where a “House of Lords” is essentially toothless, and/or a king is only a figurehead)? Are these examples tyrannical: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden?

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  15. The English Constitution is (uncontroversially) an elective dictatorship. I’m not a comparative political scientist so have no knowledge of the other countries you mentioned, but in his History of Political Thought article Hansen described Denmark as a mixed constitution in which, at the time of the Iraq War, the prime minister had powers that the Sun King would have viewed with envy. Hansen devotes 4 pages of the article each to the monarchical and aristocratic elements in the mixture but only one short paragraph to the democratic (the ability to choose our aristocrats). I wasn’t persuaded by his argument as it seems to me that the mixed constitution presupposes that each element requires a unique method of constitution (heredity, appointment, secondment, election, allotment etc). With a single principle (election) you just end up with sliced-and-diced powers separated by leaky parchment barriers.

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  16. > Turning your question on its head, can you provide an example of singular government that was not tyrannical?

    Since it appears you are unable to give a reasonable criterion for what constitutes “tyrannical” policy, there is really no way to answer this. From your response to Terry, it appears that “singular government”, as you use this term, is meaningless as well. So it appears we are at least twice removed from a meaningful discussion.

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  17. “Singular” government is when only one mechanism is used for the selection of political agents; “mixed” constitutions involve a variety of mechanisms; “tyranny” is the result of singular government. “Tyranny” in the ancient world was a descriptive rather than an evaluative term, ditto with the observation that the UK constitution is an “elective dictatorship” (Hailsham went on to became Lord Chancellor a few years after making his famous observation.)

    I don’t dispute that this is reasoning by tautology, but that certainly fulfils one of the criteria of meaningfulness used by analytic philosophers. As to whether tyrannical government can ever be in the public interest (an empirical question) the answer would likely be only for very short periods of crisis, as Acton’s dictum applies universally.

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