The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

Centralization of Power

A political question attached to every decision and baked into every system of governance is the question of centrality. The center of the political system can be thought of as the legislative body that creates the laws or the administrative body that designs rules and regulations within the laws and is responsible for implementation. For every law and every program, fidelity to the intent of the decision-maker is important, but also in conflict with the ambiguity required to pass legislation and the flexibility needed by street level bureaucrats to implement policy. There is no one answer that tells us how centralized decision-making and implementation should be for any given issue or solution. Another factor that makes it difficult to determine the appropriate level of centralization is where power is located. Strong leaders may be able to demand more oversight and adherence to policy, while strong unions or popular street level agents may be able to shape policy from the periphery.

 

In Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch looks at the dynamics between centralization and power within congress and within our national political parties. Rauch is critical of some of the power grabs of congressional leaders and argues that increasing power through centralization does not always lead to improved governance. He writes,

 

“Similarly, centralizing a machine is not at all the same as strengthening it. A corporate CEO who concentrates decision-making in the C-suite while hollowing out the divisions might expand her authority at the expense of her effectiveness. In much the same way, House leader’s centralization of power over the past several decades and their weakening of the committee system and regular order seem to have diminished their governing capacity more than it increased their personal authority, weakening them on net.”

 

Centralization, whether within government or within a corporate structure as Rauch demonstrated, has the appearance of bringing more power to the lead decision-makers, but may lead to less creative solutions, less productive and effective systems and organizations, and weaker long-term performance. Rauch would argue that political power and centralization are tools to use to set agendas and push forward the most important items, but should not be used for every decisions in every context. Taking authority away from those who are responsible for the bulk of policy implementation can weaken the system overall and demoralize those who can provide creative solutions, innovative and effective design, and do the tough implementation work. Our country often gets into arguments about centralization as if there was a clear answer, but the right level of centralization for any given issue is always fluid. The right level of centralization is contextual, with influence from who holds power to how the public thinks about a given issue and about government more broadly.

Power

Howard Zinn wrote a letter to James Harmon for him to publish in his book Take My Advice, and in his letter he wrote about the incredible connections between people and the power that unified people can generate. He encourages the reader to find their own truths in life, and to seek an independence built through mindfulness. Zinn writes, “Understand that money and weapons are fragile forms of power.” He is criticizing institutions and their leaders in this statement.  To me, this sentence builds the idea that the most powerful people are the people who are connected with others through real and meaningful relationships.  These people are not powerful in the way that the winner of Shark Tank or high profile attorney’s are powerful. Their power is not built by influence, but rather empathy and a true concern for the people around them.  While money can dwindle and is not a true representation of the value of an individual, and weapons can be used by government to coerce and intimidate people, Zinn writes that people, when united, become more powerful through relationships than weapons and money (the use of both weapons and money against a united people will only strengthen the bond which empowers those people).
A book I plan to read is called, Generation Me, and it focuses on the psychological differences between generations.  The author was recently on a political podcast that I listen to frequently, and she stated that as our society becomes more individualistic our attitudes towards institutions, government, and other people begin to become more negative.  We loose trust in each other and in institutions, adopting an every man for himself attitude where we focus on obtaining our own wealth regardless of the state of others.  This is interesting to me because it seems to slightly contrast Zinn’s message while at the same time supporting it.  Zinn is advocating that we try to connect with more people to build powerful and lasting relationships, yet he is decidedly anti-institutional.  The author of Generation Me would certainly advocate for greater social connections and interactions which would strengthen our sense of community through relationships, yet she would not implore people to hold such a rebellious attitude towards government and other institutions.