Saturday, August 20, 2011

James Madison and a dumb dog barking complaint?

When I drive to NYC with a bunch of dogs, I listen to lectures, part of the time. I was listening to this excellent course on the US Constitution, particularly interested in lecture 7 on James Madison in the Federalist Papers.

I remember telling our town board that section 10 of the 2010 dog law was unconstitutional because it allowed for removal of a dog from someone's property without a warrant, violating the 4th amendment. Town attorney Tal Rappleyea rolled his eyes and explained it was just a little law in a small town and they aren't really going to go around grabbing people's dogs. Still, I said, it's unconstitutional and you should get rid of that section. They didn't.

Its small, its not a big deal, don't go bringing up the constitution, that's for big stuff and this is too small. Please don't drag James Madison into a petty little dispute. That's the kind of stuff I hear.

But James Madison is relevant. I think the big and small follow some of the same patterns. Listening to what Madison said in the 18th century, I was floored by how prescient he was, how exactly right he was about human nature and how, broadly, to design a government that accounts for human nature in such a way as to allow people to live together in community.

James Madison was pretty negative about human nature. Living before Hilter, before Stalin, before Napoleon, he nevertheless saw, from a careful examination of what was then known about ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Italy, how carefully a Republic must be built. His main concern was the tyranny of the majority, demagoguery, and the mob.

A successful Republic was a rare thing in 1790 and even today most people on earth do not live in stable, functioning Republics. I think we in the US do, more or less, live in one, although we have some huge, massive, staggering, constitutional and structural problems that are fundamental and our situation is far from ideal.

Madison saw human nature much better than did Plato, for example. Madison and the federalists studied ancient politics and noticed that although these Republics lasted for centuries and produced many geniuses, they were generally violent, chaotic messes and eventually an Emperor had to step in. They didn't want that to happen here.

The Federalist papers, Plato's Republic, Thucydides are all about the same thing.

Since he and his colleagues wrote the constitution without ever mentioning women in any way and only mentioning blacks as "persons who owe labor" you might see Madison's dislike of direct democracy as suspect, really an elite dislike of the masses. He just ignored the majority of the population!

But he was talking about a system, passion, and human nature. The system works the same when you expand the membership. I think he hit the nail on the head in terms of how the system has to work to avoid a "faction" being a majority and oppressing the other "factions."

Some of the stuff they did in 1790 to avoid the tyranny of the majority is plainly anti-democratic and I don't like it. I don't like the Supreme Court gutting the 13, 14 and 15th amendments in the 1880s and 1890s or getting in FDR's way in the 1930s or installing Bush in 2000 when Florida has jurisdiction. I could go on.

All in all, though, I see why America is, if we stick with Madison and his institutions, unlikely to be ruled by Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin. They were both elected by majorities. Yet Russia and Venezuela are not democratic.

Do I need to draw all the parallels and implications for this little town? Majority rule is one aspect of democracy. Any attempt to create a homogenous or organic community where everything is perfect and everyone gets along and there are no conflicts is a recipe for tyranny. Conflict and factionalism are endemic and natural to humans and the system must allow for human nature to flourish as it is, not as we wish it were.

Don't pine for a condition of perfect unity. Don't assume majority rule is sufficient for a stable democracy. Multiple layers of government are necessary to avoid faction rule. Those are the links between James Madison and this petty dispute in Stuyvesant.

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