Hamilton on the Militia and the Limits of Legislation

Due to my workload during the school year, I’ve had to drop blogging except for occasional instances on my other blog, but due to the lovely three day weekend bestowed by our observance of Veteran’s Day, I have a chance to return to The Federalist Papers. Appropriately enough, in this one, Federalist No. 25, Alexander Hamilton discusses the limitations and dangers of maintaining local militias.

However, the most interesting point Hamilton makes here is a broader appeal to the limitation of legislation. I may be misreading this a bit, as I am pulling it out of context, but I’ll leave that up to wiser readers to decide:

Here I expect we shall be told that the militia of the country is its natural bulwark, and would be at all times equal to the national defense. This doctrine, in substance, had like to have lost us our independence. It cost millions to the United States that might have been saved.. . . the bravest of [militiamen] feel and know that the liberty of their country could not have been established by their efforts alone, however great and valuable they were. War, like most other things, is a science to be acquired and perfected by diligence, by perseverance, by time, and by practice.

All violent policy, as it is contrary to the natural and experienced course of human affairs, defeats itself. . . .

. . . nations pay little regard to rules and maxims calculated in their very nature to run counter to the necessities of society. Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed, because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable. [bold added]

This point of caution about the limitations of legislation made me think of a passage I just read in a short book called The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

What’s lost is the willingness of people to make judgments in situations that are not formulaic but are messy and human, and then to trust each other to make the best calls we can. As Philip Howard has argued powerfully, in a society that over-relies on laws and rules to govern everyday interactions—one where much is prescribed and proscribed and “what is not prohibited is permitted”—people forget how to exercise both rights and responsibilities.
What’s lost, in short, is citizenship.
 
Hamilton’s point about militias has faded with relevance, but his point about the limitations of legislation remains salient to our time.

The Decline of Wikipedia

“As commercial websites have risen to prominence, online life has moved away from open, self-governed crowdsourcing communities like the one that runs Wikipedia, says Clay Shirky, a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. Shirky was one of the biggest boosters of an idea, popular during the previous decade, that the Web encouraged strangers to come together and achieve things impossible for a conventional organization. Wikipedia is proof there was some truth to that notion. But today’s Web is dominated by sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where people maintain personal, egocentric feeds. Outside specific settings like massive multiplayer games, relatively few people mingle in shared virtual space. Instead, they use mobile devices that are unsuited to complex creative work and favor neatly self-­contained apps over messier, interconnected Web pages. Shirky, who is an advisor to the Wikimedia Foundation, says people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it. “Facebook is the largest participatory culture today, but their mode of participation is different,” he says. “It’s aggregating rather than collaborating.”

Gardner agrees that today’s Web is hostile to self-organized collective efforts, likening it to a city that has lost its public parks. “Our time is spent on an increasingly small number of increasingly large corporate sites,” she says. “We need more public space online.” In fact, Gardner is leaving the foundation at the end of the year in search of new projects to work on that very problem. She contends that even with all its troubles, Wikipedia is one of the Web’s few public parks that won’t disappear.”

http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/520446/the-decline-of-wikipedia/

What Modern Writers Mean When They Say, “Keep It Simple,” Dude

Desperate ScribblingSpeaking of bullshit and Alexander Hamilton. . . When I commenced exploring the Federalist Papers, I noted that the language can be at times dense and opaque. In #23, Hamilton must have shifted back into bullshit mode, as he squeezed out the following bollocks. In addition, note the frequent insertion of breathy commas:

Every view we may take of the subject, as candid inquirers after truth, will serve to convince us, that it is both unwise and dangerous to deny the federal government an unconfined authority, as to all those objects which are intrusted to its management. It will indeed deserve the most vigilant and careful attention of the people, to see that it be modeled in such a manner as to admit of its being safely vested with the requisite powers. If any plan which has been, or may be, offered to our consideration, should not, upon a dispassionate inspection, be found to answer this description, it ought to be rejected. A government, the constitution of which renders it unfit to be trusted with all the powers which a free people OUGHT TO DELEGATE TO ANY GOVERNMENT, would be an unsafe and improper depositary of the NATIONAL INTERESTS. Wherever THESE can with propriety be confided, the coincident powers may safely accompany them. This is the true result of all just reasoning upon the subject. And the adversaries of the plan promulgated by the convention ought to have confined themselves to showing, that the internal structure of the proposed government was such as to render it unworthy of the confidence of the people. They ought not to have wandered into inflammatory declamations and unmeaning cavils about the extent of the powers. The POWERS are not too extensive for the OBJECTS of federal administration, or, in other words, for the management of our NATIONAL INTERESTS; nor can any satisfactory argument be framed to show that they are chargeable with such an excess. If it be true, as has been insinuated by some of the writers on the other side, that the difficulty arises from the nature of the thing, and that the extent of the country will not permit us to form a government in which such ample powers can safely be reposed, it would prove that we ought to contract our views, and resort to the expedient of separate confederacies, which will move within more practicable spheres. For the absurdity must continually stare us in the face of confiding to a government the direction of the most essential national interests, without daring to trust it to the authorities which are indispensible to their proper and efficient management. Let us not attempt to reconcile contradictions, but firmly embrace a rational alternative.

I trust, however, that the impracticability of one general system cannot be shown. I am greatly mistaken, if any thing of weight has yet been advanced of this tendency; and I flatter myself, that the observations which have been made in the course of these papers have served to place the reverse of that position in as clear a light as any matter still in the womb of time and experience can be susceptible of. This, at all events, must be evident, that the very difficulty itself, drawn from the extent of the country, is the strongest argument in favor of an energetic government; for any other can certainly never preserve the Union of so large an empire. If we embrace the tenets of those who oppose the adoption of the proposed Constitution, as the standard of our political creed, we cannot fail to verify the gloomy doctrines which predict the impracticability of a national system pervading entire limits of the present Confederacy.

 

Hamilton and Taxation

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with my review of The Federalist Papers, I’m going to move to a couple of short excerpts from #21 from Alexander Hamilton (did you know his political career was nearly capsized by a sex scandal?). I love this first line:

The wealth of nations depends upon an infinite variety of causes. Situation, soil, climate, the nature of the productions, the nature of the government, the genius of the citizens, the degree of information they possess, the state of commerce, of arts, of industry, these circumstances and many more, too complex, minute, or adventitious to admit of a particular specification, occasion differences hardly conceivable in the relative opulence and riches of different countries. The consequence clearly is that there can be no common measure of national wealth, and, of course, no general or stationary rule by which the ability of a state to pay taxes can be determined. . .

This is an interesting declaration that I will admit I don’t fully understand. His argument seems to be essentially that there are too many intangibles in determining the true wealth of a nation, which lesson he then turns and applies to the impracticability of imposing a just tax on states. This quick dismissal of any attempt to quantify national wealth seems suspect to me, which is why I think I don’t fully understand this. It may be possible that there are political obstacles to a state tax which Hamilton doesn’t want to address here. He then goes on to examine taxation more carefully:

Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. . .

I also found this interesting. This sounds like an awful lot like a description of the ideals of a free market–that imbalances will organically be corrected, without requiring the constricting oversight of regulation. I suppose this philosophical underpinning in capitalism is unsurprising–Hamilton did become the Secretary of the Treasury, after all. However, my understanding is that Hamilton’s running of said office resulted in more central planning than otherwise.

No Apologies

I’ve decided I will no longer apologize–neither to myself nor to my anonymous audience here–for failing to write on this blog. Part of getting older entails sacrifices and necessary shifts from idealisms of youth and hobbies once held sacred. Writing for most of my burgeoning life has been a method for me to cogitate and develop independence of thought, but most importantly, to relieve myself of loneliness and give voice to an inner life long held silent.

But now I am married and professionally immersed. Though I don’t have many close friends in NYC since I moved here five years ago, I don’t generally have time to feel lonely. I continue to develop and refine my philosophies, but that development now either takes place amongst discussion with colleagues at my school, at education conferences or events, or on my professional blog, Schools as Ecosystems.

So while I do miss the personal and introverted creative explorations/exorcisms I once performed regularly here on this blog, I won’t allow myself to be burdened by guilt that I am compromising some essential aspect of my existence. The reality is that I am developing in other ways, and such is as it should be, because it must be, and it will be.

In a Sense

Today we forced ourselves to take the train northwards, out of the gridlock reach of the city, to visit an acquaintance and a museum in a small town with one main street called Main St.

As we wandered the vast warehouse expanse of “modern” art, I reflected on how some pieces seemed calculated to create a sense of alienation, even disgust, in the viewer. What is the purpose of this sheet of metal laying in the middle of a room? What is the purpose of this room filled with paintings of stripes of off white colors? I don’t get works of art like this. There’s something infantile, inaccessible, or passive-agressive about them, in that whatever meaning meant to be constructed is either entirely within the mind of the artist, or peevishly left to be determined by the viewer. The intention of some of the pieces were interesting in a sort of anthropological way, in that they took ordinary objects or materials and attempted perhaps to heighten attention on what constitutes the ordinary, either by way of transplanting them into a gallery, or by way of transforming them into distorted mutant and hybrid objects.

Other pieces were more playful or contained elements of awe, beauty, or surprise that made them much more palatable to non-modern-artistic senses such as mine. Perhaps that means I am just not immersed enough in the lingo and arcana of the visual arts to truly appreciate the more challenging pieces. Maybe I should just stick to Monet and pieces of art appealing to the eye and easily digestible without much further thought.

It’s not that I shrink from intellectual challenge, but I suppose I have never been one to be engaged by cold puzzles of logic, either. I can’t tolerate Sudoku or riddles for this reason. If I’m not engaged by either some deeper purpose, beauty, a sense of connectivity, or at least by just plain old physical engagement (artwork that lets you walk around inside it or on it is always cool), I don’t see the point in it.

Ultimately, art must engage the viewer by telling a story. The artists whose pieces are displayed in this museum are fortunate in that even the most isolated, passive-aggressive, or alienating pieces are united by the encompassing and beautiful layout of the museum itself. The story that is created by the viewer comes from walking around the museum and enjoying its expansive spaces. In some cases, the design and placement of the pieces in the warehouse were more powerful than the actual pieces themselves.