The Federalist #21: 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.

The Federalist #15: Government and Human Nature

Cover of "The Federalist (Barnes & Noble ...
Cover via Amazon

We’ve explored James Madison’s exposition on a democratic republic and the regulation of faction through the mechanism of representation in Federalist #10. I’d like to now move on to some interesting insight provided by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15 on the use of power and sanction by government, and on the self-interest of human nature:

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.

One thing this passage demonstrates is that our founding fathers did not have the rose-tinted glasses that many of us moderns seem to possess when we consider the role of government. Stating the role of government in such stark terms probably rubs our politically-correct sensibilities the wrong way. Recall that Hamilton is referring explicitly to the context of political and economic disarray due to the Articles of Confederation. He knew what it looks like when governance is weak and based on mutual promises of goodwill and intent, rather than backed by an authoritative power to enforce laws.

There is an interesting parallel here in the manner that many people today view public schools. They seem to think that if we simply create a nurturing and caring environment, student behavior will take care of itself (just a quick note: I do believe that environments can be created that will do much to address misbehavior. See my other blog for more on this). This is patently ridiculous to anyone who has taught children. Children naturally take advantage of any opportunity to gain attention and status amongst their peers. Without the ability to enforce transparent and fair codes of expected behavior, a teacher and a school’s administration are toothless. Children know when there are no consequences.

That doesn’t mean a suspension for every child who steps out of line. A consequence may just mean a long conversation with the child and their parent, with a contract drawn up or some other such embarrassing formalized thing. But there must be clear and fair penalties given. Children expect and demand this, and lose all respect for an adult when no such actions are taken (watch and observe children with their parents out in public for further demonstrations of this principle).

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?

What’s interesting here is the somewhat cynical but pragmatic view that Hamilton displays on human nature. Optimists may disagree, believing that without government, mankind will better self-govern through community-based efforts and individual self-interest. Such optimists are also known as “anarchists.” On the other side of this, however, we can also see that authoritative constraint can produce its own set of dysfunction when it is not implemented in a manner that gains the trust and respect of those so constrained. Americans are renowned for their distrust of their own government. Some of this distrust is well-earned, while some is steeped in provincial conspiracy and superstition. /Begin tangent. Currently, the discovery that the NSA has untrammeled access to almost all corners of our online communications has made many otherwise complacent Estadounidenses awaken to the reality that a healthy mistrust of their government can be warranted, especially when that government has demonstrated that it is fomenting dastardly plans in secret. If our government was more transparent about its surveillance methods and the purposes for that surveillance, I don’t think people would be so taken aback. After all, we willingly hand over wads of our personal information to retailers, credit card companies, and other organizations on a daily basis. /End tangent.

. . .in every political association which is formed upon the principle of uniting in a common interest a number of lesser sovereignties, there will be found a kind of eccentric tendency in the subordinate or inferior orbs, by the operation of which there will be a perpetual effort in each to fly off from the common centre. This tendency is not difficult to be accounted for. It has its origin in the love of power. Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged.

Hamilton is making it clear here that this natural tendency for subordinate states to desire greater power requires the execution of federal power through law.

In our case, the concurrence of thirteen distinct sovereign wills is requisite, under the Confederation, to the complete execution of every important measure that proceeds from the Union. . . .The measures of the Union have not been executed; the delinquencies of the States have, step by step, matured themselves to an extreme, which has, at length, arrested all the wheels of the national government, and brought them to an awful stand. . . 

Hmmm. Our federal government brought to an “awful stand” because of extremism. . . Sure sounds painfully familiar. McDonnell, anybody?

The greater deficiencies of some States furnished the pretext of example and the temptation of interest to the complying, or to the least delinquent States. Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden? These were suggestions which human selfishness could not withstand. . . Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.

Again, Hamilton’s pessimistic view of human nature is demonstrated here. It is the selfishness intrinsic to mankind that explains the behavior of the states. Yet this very selfishness is what we see demonstrated when we come up against the greatest challenges to our nation and to our species, such as the depletion of fish from our oceans, the degradation of top soils and water sources, and general environmental volatility across the world. Nations, just like states, just like individuals, act in accordance with self-interest. It is only via the mechanisms of constraint through legislation and justice that this self-interest can be managed for the greater and equitable interest of a collective.

Direct Democracy and the Rule of the Mob

I haven’t been able to get back to my review of The Federalist Papers due to work that I need to catch up on, caused by a wonderful trip to Maine, during which I abstained from doing anything other than reading, eating, and otherwise vacationing. I aim to continue the exploration when I get a chance.

In the meantime, I just came across this interesting article on “The Monkey Cage” that demonstrates the danger in direct democracy that Madison warned us against:

July 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans felt that universities should not be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.  A 2011 poll found most respondents agreeing that Muslims “undermine American culture.”  In the context of attitudes such as these, direct democracy campaigns may not only produce outcomes that constrain the rights and influence of minorities, but may also generate increased animosity toward the group.

The Federalist #10 (cont): A Democracy vs. A Republic

Image: J. Crocker. Statue: Daniel Chester French (died 1931

Building on the subject of faction in federalist #10, James Madison then moves into a discussion of the differences between a pure democracy and a republic:

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 republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. . .

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended. . .

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice. . .

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,—is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.

I found this passage interesting because we have become so accustomed to referring to our nation as a democracy that we forget that democracy can assume a variety of forms, and that we have been founded as a democratic republic. Here, Madison demonstrates a distaste for direct democracy, equating it with untrammeled faction. He posits that republicanism is the best fit for the United States, in that the larger a republic is, the more organically it will encompass, as well as focus, a diversity of perspectives, and thus reduce faction. He furthermore envisions a larger republic as a natural fire wall to the spread of corruption.

This presents us with a critical insight into how republicanism was conceived as a focusing lens for a systemic balance and regulation of conflict. This concept of representation and its relation to conflict is well-worth considering, as we need to consider whether that balance continues to be upheld in our system today.

A friend of mine informed me that the US has shifted more towards a direct democracy since its founding, and that this is problematic, given that the system was originally envisioned as Madison proposed here. I don’t know enough about such things to determine this, and would appreciate any further guidance on this from my readers.

Another point to consider is whether technology has shifted the nature of how representation should function, and whether some balance can be achieved through the use of facilitated communication and structured decision-making via online platforms and channels.

I can relate to some of this discussion at a micro-level in that much of my work within public schools has been in the role of facilitating groups, and I know that to allow unstructured conversation and debate results not in democracy, but rather in the domination of the voice of a few. I have found that to enable a more democratic dialogue, conversations must (perhaps paradoxically) be well structured, planned, and guided. Equitable conversation, in other words, requires the willingness to enforce shared rules, and such enforcement must take place through the adoption of set roles and responsibilities.

But beyond such procedural strictures, of course, comparisons are difficult to make in applying those workings to that of a large republic. However, I do posit that perhaps technology can be harnessed to change the nature of representation. One of the great deficiencies of our current system, arguably, is that we often perceive our representatives, even at the local level, as far removed from the realities of the commonweal. We also often see that the given political power of a locality can be determined by unscrupulous mapping. Remove the constraints of physical location and empower more individuals via structured online communications, and perhaps the nature of representation can be shifted to encompass a greater number of people without necessarily leading to greater faction.

The Federalist #10: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. 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.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. 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. 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. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

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. 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. 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. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.