Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Pure Democracy vs. Republic: The Federalist No. 10

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SOME claim that today we urgently need a pure democracy — i.e., a system of government in which all social issues are decided by popular vote.  While pure democracy is a logical and effective system for governing small organizations, experience shows it ill-suited for managing large groups.  The framers of the US Constitution considered the alternative of pure democracy, but rejected it  Instead, based on a thorough study of history, they concluded that a republic, where representatives elected by voters make laws, was a more stable, just and democratic system.

The reasoning is best articulated in the The Federalist No. 10, by James Madison.  In this important work, Madison first identifies factionalism as the fatal flaw of pure democracies:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished. [italics added]

Madison lays out his arguments methodically.  First he notes that the seeds of factionalism are sown in human nature itself:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. [italics added]

The last words are central his argument.  He emphasizes that it is concern for the common good that is the essence of democracy, and implies that this requires a spirit of cooperation, not competition, to achieve.  To the extent that pure democracy promotes and empowers factionalism, it is extremely undemocratic.

In a pure democracy, the larger faction will use legislation to oppress the minority:

When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

But a minority faction can do its own damage with obstructionism and sabotage:

If a faction consists of less than a majority … [i]t may clog the administration, it may convulse the society.

The instability and injustice characteristic of pure democracies also supplies a pretext by which true tyrants (“adversaries to liberty”) may come to power.

Madison wraps up the first half of the article summarizing the problems of pure democracy:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. [italics added]

The advantage of a republic is that citizens are represented by elected legislators, who supply a buffer against the selfishness, injustice and fickleness of popular opinion:

The effect of the first difference [of a republic] is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

The benefits of having elected legislators include that they can (1) consider the well-being of all citizens, (2) study and debate issues in depth, (3) base decisions on long-term interests that popular opinion often disregards; and (4) avoid flip-flopping as voter majorities change.

Questions

1. Do modern social and mass communication media increase or decrease the relevance of Madison’s reservations about pure democracy?

2. Much of his argument for a republic depends on the ability to elect capable and honest legislators. What steps could society take to make this more likely?

Further Reading

  • James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),” Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.
  • The Federalist Papers (Wikipedia)
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