On Good Governance: The Federalist Papers, Diversity and Liberalism

Chris Hayes recently tweeted, “The least sexy part of socialism is effective, efficient bureaucratic administration but the project lives or dies based on it.” My purpose here is to utilize Hayes’ premise to ask a more fundamental question: what is good governance? Is good governance “effective, efficient bureaucratic administration”? Is it making manifest the majority will of an electorate? Is it even possible to speak of good relative to government—isn’t good merely a condition relative to the actor? To address that question, I’m going to turn to the tenth essay of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were a series of essays published in New York over a few months in 1787, to support the ratification of the new Constitution. Their task was, ultimately, to be politically persuasive. But the essays also provide the best rationalization and defense of the intellectual foundation of that Constitutional system.

Given that the American Constitutional order was to align with the new science of the age, and concurrently to create a new political science (which we’ve subsequently associated with liberalism), returning to these essays can remind us how liberalism was understood as it emerged in the eighteenth century but also what principles have endured over the past two centuries and are still manifest. I’ll focus on the question of good governance, specifically the end to which government is directed and the precipitating cause of government.

Federalist 10: Liberty and Diversity

Let’s turn to the discussion of faction in the tenth Federalist. The author, Publius, defines faction as, “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Faction is a perennial problem for any self-governing system. For any system of government to ever be rendered good it must be able to handle the mischief of faction. It’s therefore paramount we understand the means by which a government can handle this mischief. Publius argues that there are two ways to address the problem: attack the root or attack the fruit. One can either attempt to prevent the problem of faction from arising or attempt to mitigate the harm of existing factions. One can address the cause of faction by either eliminating liberty or “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” It’s worth looking briefly at how Publius addresses both avenues.

In one of the most famous passages from the Federalist Papers, Publius claims:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

Liberty is the foundation of the creation of government. But what defines liberty is still an open question. Liberty is not the same as the diversity of faculties, but is related to the expression of that diversity. Also if, in our desire to eliminate the dangers of faction, we choose to abandon liberty for some false sense of unity, we’ve done something worse than succumb to the disease of faction. Before progressing, it’s important that we have a clear definition of the disease of faction. Faction is the precursor to civil war. Here Publius has in mind the ancient Roman republic and the divisions which emerged between patricians and plebeians, as well as the various factions which emerged in the first century BC, during the various episodes of political violence which ultimately lead to the Caesars. Faction isn’t merely political parties or associations of people united by a particular interest. A bowling team is not a faction. Instead, faction exists as the perennial threat to self-government. It’s perennial because the good of self-governance, the reason why it is preferable to other forms of government, is liberty and faction is a diseased liberty. A people’s capacity to choose for themselves how they shall be governed is of paramount concern, even if latent within that capacity lie the seeds of decay and decline into civil war.

But that conception of liberty is different from later conceptions of liberty, such as those expressed in the liberal work, J. S. Mill’s On Liberty. Mill’s conception of liberty is more akin to what Publius presents as diversity in the faculties of men: the second topic to consider when resolving the cause of faction. And yet, Publius presents this diversity as being fundamental not just to governance, but to the human condition. He argues,

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

So long as people love themselves over others, are limited in their reason, and therefore develop different kinds and degrees of passions, human beings are going to have different opinions, motivations and drives. In order to eliminate what is now often called viewpoint diversity, one would have to eliminate the diversity among human beings—not just the variance in tastes and preferences, but also the differing degrees to which we prioritize ourselves over others and the differing degrees to which our reason is limited. The impracticality of such an effort allows Publius to dismiss it out of hand, but he makes a further assertion that’s salient to the concern about good governance.

Diversity of Faculties and Private Property

The diversity of faculties is the foundation of private property. Publius claims, “The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” This is the clearest argument for what Publius considers to be good government—government which protects the diversity of faculties. That diversity is best protected in a republic, a system of self-governance which is able to address the problem of faction, while still preserving enough liberty to make the responsibility of self-governance worthwhile. That diversity of faculties explains why societies are composed of various interests and concerns. It’s the task of government to protect that diversity as it manifests itself in the various forms of property.

But it is that very diversity which threatens liberty. Diversity is evident in both the various forms of property and subsequent conflicts of interest which propagate faction. Liberty feeds that diversity and that diversity feeds faction. This leads Publius to claim,

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society … So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.

If the diversity of man’s mind facilitates the perennial cause of faction through the unequal distribution of property, why is the solution not the redistribution of property to mitigate faction? Because, ultimately, protecting that variance of property is the first task of government. The diverse faculties of human beings lead to the unequal distribution of property. If one is to protect the former, one must protect the latter. This isn’t to say that government should exist for benefit of the propertied class. But good governance will not treat the property of its citizens as a reservoir which demagogues can draw on when they wish to win the hearts of the poor. The property of individuals is protected because the original task of government is to protect the diversity of faculties and the liberty necessary to express that diversity. Destroying the variance of property distribution would mean destroying the expression of the diversity of faculties. This doesn’t mean Publius is a libertarian. Again, the unequal distribution of property is the perennial cause of faction, of civil war, in a self-governing system. Too much inequality will threaten liberty—as will too little. This is often lost on those who wish to warn us of the dangers of the road to serfdom. Good governance involves addressing the issue of faction, while preserving the liberty which makes republicanism worthwhile and the diversity of faculties of human beings which exists by nature.

Publius, Liberalism and Good Governance

We are left with the question of what good governance is. It may be that part of good governance is “effective, efficient bureaucratic administration,” but to what end is that administration aimed? If it is the elimination of the variance of property then, for Publius, it cannot be goo  by definition. But that doesn’t mean that the government should be indifferent to economic inequality. Good governance, then, requires a kind of prudence relative to economics. It depends upon a capacity to judge the factional tensions within a given society, as well as the best means by which to mitigate those tensions. Publius’ answer to the problem is manifest in the American Constitutional order, with its extensiveness, its mechanistic checks and balances, its separation of powers, its federalism, etc.

This should also make Publius of concern to contemporary liberals because the liberal answer to the problem of faction is not going to be found in virtue nor in a conception of the good life. Virtue and the good life seem to be too restrictive so debates over virtue and the good life are often abandoned by liberals. Instead, liberals address the problem of faction by examining how to construct a system which handles the distribution of unequal property fairly; an example being the Rawlsian project. Liberalism is concerned with answers that do not rely upon the character of the actors involved, but on the rules of the game. Education is primarily concerned with instantiating procedures or the need to follow procedures; a good citizen is one who follows the rules and only questions those rules when either some group is breaking those rules or being broken by them. Publius is certainly far more aligned with that notion than with the ancient notion of virtue.

And yet, a certain kind of character is necessary even for Publius’s or Rawls’s project. For the liberal, one must be willing to suspend one’s belief in a singular good human life and be satisfied with a plurality of good lives. One cannot take one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) too seriously in the public square lest one infringe on someone else’s capacity to choose a different set of beliefs/non-beliefs. Respect for the diversity of faculties is necessary. Without it, the far more natural feeling of envy arises among those whose diversity is not rewarded within a particular system. That kind of respect for the diversity of faculties is a cultivated trait, not a natural condition. If it were natural, faction would not emerge from the unequal distribution of property. So, in a sense, liberalism does require a specific kind of character to make it function. Pluralism serves as a character trait: it is the virtue of sustaining multiple claims on the good life without ever succumbing to any of them. The ever-present danger of faction affirms the liberal character, which is constantly balancing multiple claims from a diversity of faculties. Choosing one over the other becomes associated with tyranny, and this creates a kind of bulwark against a tyrannical faction. However, for this to function, pluralism has to be presented as the best kind of life for a human being, which violates the nature of pluralism. This is one of the Catch-22s of liberalism. Therefore, the focus remains on systems of distribution and efficiency, often at the expense of a higher concern with good governance.

This is an Achilles’ heel of liberalism—it often abandons the notion of character training because it too quickly leads to the problem of proclaiming one kind of life to be the good life.  This flaw cannot be remedied through liberalism alone. What liberalism can do, drawing on the new political science of the Federalist Papers, is ask the question about good governance and ground the goodness of governance not merely in “effective, efficient bureaucratic administration” but in a respect for the diverse faculties of human beings. Stable governance may absolutely require effective and efficient administration, but stable governance is not worth choosing for its own sake. Stable governance is only worthy of choice if tethered to good governance. While this battleground may not be the most comfortable landscape for contemporary liberals, it is essential they do not abandon it—particularly since Publius provides a framework for how to approach the question of good governance beyond “effective, efficient bureaucratic administration.”

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