Monday, August 13, 2012

James Madison and Millionaires in Congress

I saw this image about rich people in Congress on the Internet recently, and it brought to mind a passage from The Federalist Papers that I recently re-read -- with underlining from my undergraduate days at the University of Oklahoma in 1983 or 1984.

See!  It pays to keep all of your college textbooks!

In #10, James Madison writes about the sources of conflict in society.  He writes that "factions" are inevitable, and so government must be designed to limit the potential damage from these conflicts.  Some of this should be accomplished, he says, by limiting the amount of governmental power obtained by any particular faction.

He cites several sources of conflict, but he says "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distributions of property."

This unequal distribution for Madison does not seem to mean only the difference between those who have property and those who do not.  He seems to also mean the competition that exists among factions that derive their property from different sources or activities.  However, I think we would agree that the difference between those who have and those don't is a major source of conflict in the political arena today.

Regulating these competing interests "forms the principal task of modern legislation."

To assure the fair and effective regulation of these competing interests, Madison states something is essential:

James Madison
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. 

He immediately backtracks, though.  He knows that the people elected to government are citizens too.  They are not monks, removed from society.  It is inevitable that they will be involved with legislation about issues impacting them personally.  Sometimes those elected officials can be trusted to set aside their personal interests for the public good.  But not always.

This can be managed so long as those personally interested in the legislation are not in the majority.  The power of the majority keeps the influence of the self-interested "judge" in check.  The problems come, Madison says, when a majority of the officials have their judgment biased by self-interest. 

When that happens, that majority can "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens."

As the cartoon's caption states: "There's Your Problem."  It is hard to argue that the personal wealth of those in Congress does not influence their actions on legislation; it also is hard to argue that their actions on legislation do not influence their personal wealth ("How Members of Congress Get Rich Through 'Honest Graft' ").  They have a vested interest in many of the bills on which they act as judge, and their vested interest is many times different from the interests of their constituents.

As the cartoon graph indicates, the wealthy constitute a sliver of the population but a large portion of  Congress.  How often are the interests of the minority (regardless of party affiliation) ruling the majority?

1 comment:

  1. Regulating these competing interests "forms the principal task of modern legislation."

    Is that a quote from Madison?

    You will spend your entire life talking about this topic, and how to "solve" it, and I will spend my entire life pointing out the only viable solution is to remove the power of Congress to do exactly these things, and neither you nor I will have an appreciable impact. Congress, with so much power of the purse and of force through legislation, will be bought and paid for by powerful interests, and not generally serve the republic well.
    Sad truth.