What “Local Control” Really Means

“In December 1890, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, tribal police arrested and killed Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in similar circumstances to the earlier death of his fellow Custer battle comrade, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, jittery Army soldiers opened fire on some 300 unarmed members of the Sioux tribe. Their bodies, mostly very small, very wrinkled, or with breasts, froze solid on the Dakota tundra. Ten months later Chief Charlo, leader of the last band of Salish in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, led his people on a tearful, forced march to a new reservation across the river bridge nearest the future site of Hellgate High School, where I would sit a century later and listen to a pair of neo-Nazis hold forth on misunderstood swastikas, miscegenation and what could be done with public lands were it not for federal conservation laws.”

—Nate Schweber, “A Racist Runs Through It

We’re battling our own habits

History also shows that if we want to tame antibiotic resistance, we have to be ready to fight for a long time — perhaps forever. The problem is that we’re not really fighting against bacteria. We’re battling our own habits, which are deeply ingrained and hard to change.


—Carl Zimmer, “The surprising history of the war on superbugs — and what it means for the world today

Trump is a Chaos Monkey (or Why I’m Not Afraid of Trump)


As the media machine ramps up outrage for every small wind that blows from Trump’s mouth, I’ve found myself growing increasingly zen about it all.

Yeah, there’s a slight possibility that Trump may win. So what?

Here’s why I’m OK with the possibility and why you won’t hear me whine about moving to Canada:

  1. It means that many Americans voted for him. Remember that whole thing, voting?We still live in a representative democracy, meaning that we elect our public representatives. We can then thank all those young idealists that either failed to vote or voted for a 3rd party candidate. Maybe they’ll get an inkling of how politics works from that experience.
  2. Trump is surfacing the toxins of our society.  If many Americans are truly angry racist xenophobic zealots, then it’s probably about time we saw one another for what we really are.
  3. If Trump doesn’t destroy our democratic republic, then he will make it stronger. We’re supposed to have a system that balances power. Like a chaos monkey, Trump will test this system through impulsive, bull-headed, shortsighted and selfish decisions. If our system then fails, then that means we need to build a better one. If it doesn’t fail, then it will adapt and react to his incursions like an immune system fighting off a viral invader. And so our political system shall evolve and continue.

Today, when the next headline crosses your radar manufactured to make your conscientious, caring, and progressive self get upset, calm yourself by considering that Trump may well be the Chaos Monkey of the gods. We shall overcome.

Negative and Positive Freedom

I’m reading James McPherson’s book The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Mattersand it presents interesting context that connects to our explorations of The Federalist Papers.

McPherson notes in the first chapter that the word “liberty” has assumed multiple meanings throughout American history, and that the Civil War marked a paradigm shift from one dominant meaning to another. “The tragic irony of the Civil War is that both sides professed to fight for the heritage of liberty bequeathed to them by the Founding Fathers.”

To help us understand this divide in the American definition of liberty, McPherson turns to “famous twentieth British philosopher Isiah Berlin in an essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty.'” In this essay, Berlin delineates the concepts of positive liberty and negative liberty.

Negative liberty is freedom from. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints.” McPherson states that “Traditionally in American ideology . . . power was the enemy of liberty. . . ‘There is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty,’ wrote James Madison. . . . Madison also drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution as a Bill of Rights that limited the powers of the national government in the name of liberty. Nearly all of these amendments apply some form of the phrase ‘shall not’ to the federal government.”

This concept of liberty remains alive, even resurgent, today. As McPherson notes, “In recent years, with the rise of small-government or antigovernment movements in our politics, there has been a revival of negative liberty.”

But the Civil War marked a transition from a primarily negative conception of liberty to that of a positive one.

Positive liberty is freedom to. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that “positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.”

McPherson notes that “The change from all those ‘shall nots’ in the first ten amendments to the Constitution to the phrase ‘Congress shall have the power to enforce’ this provision in most post-Civil War amendments is indicative of this shift—especially the Thirteenth Amendment, which liberated four million slaves, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which guaranteed them equal civil and political rights.”

McPherson also notes another interesting shift in language and ideology during the Civil War—the transition from a description of the United States as a union to that of a nation. “In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 ‘United States’ was a plural noun . . . Since 1865 ‘United States’ is a singular noun. . . This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses.”

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War was critical to forging the conception of a unitary nation. If the primary goal of the Civil War was to preserve the union, the secondary one became the abolition of slavery, and those two goals symbiotically evolved during the war to become one and the same. McPherson articulates, later in Chapter 8, Lincoln’s critical role in defining this new nation in terms of a positive freedom. He uses James Oakes’s study The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, to compare Lincoln with Frederick Douglass in terms of their impact on our nation’s definition of liberty and freedom.

The difference between the two men was one of position and tactics, not conviction. Douglass was a radical reformer whose mission was to proclaim principles and to demand that the people and their leaders live up to those principles. Lincoln was a politician, a practitioner of the art of the possible, a pragmatist who subscribed to the same principles but recognized that they could only be achieved in gradual step-by-step fashion through compromise and negotiation, in pace with progressive changes in public opinion and political realities.

In other words, Lincoln and Douglass both served a critical and complementary purpose in carrying our democracy forward.

Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, through McPherson’s retelling, stands up well to the critical eye of history. Though Lincoln was necessarily a man of his time, he also seemed to possess a foresight that enabled him to understand the ultimate purpose of the Civil War, and to strategically steer a divided union through the devastatingly disruptive shifts that it took to forge one nation (did you know that 750,000 soldiers died during this war?!). Lincoln was playing the long game. He told Congress in the winter of 1861 that “this struggle to preserve the Union ‘is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.'”

The tension between a positive and negative conception of liberty continues as a source of faction in our nation today. I think we would do well to remember the Civil War, and heed the lessons learned from the great sacrifice that was made to create a more sophisticated nation in which liberty meant equality for all, rather than the mere autonomy from tyranny that first created our nation.

The Civil War taught us that establishing a meaningful definition of national liberty means sacrificing some individuality for the betterment of a collective good. This is a sacrifice that many of us today seem unwilling to make. And it makes one wonder—what will be the next divisive battle that we will need to fight to transform our democratic republic into a nation that will be worthy of our grandchildren?

The Federalist #22: Majority vs. Minority Rule, B.S. vs. Passion

Let’s move on to Federalist #22, again by Alexander Hamilton. While I sometimes find Hamilton tedious, as I mentioned earlier, he can also display a ferocious command of logic, political acuity, historical example, and rhetoric. These passages serve as a demonstration of this. Here he discusses how the Constitution addresses majority vs. minority power of the states, as opposed the idea of equality amongst the states, which had been an operating principle of the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the approval of all nine states was required in order to approve a bill, treaty, or other legislation:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. . .

Great rhetoric there, while also demonstrating the frequent insertion of breathy commas–a grammatical oddity throughout the Papers and a reflection, no doubt, of the stylistic conventions of the time.

It may be objected to this, that not seven but nine States, or two thirds of the whole number, must consent to the most important resolutions; and it may be thence inferred that nine States would always comprehend a majority of the Union. But this does not obviate the impropriety of an equal vote between States of the most unequal dimensions and populousness; nor is the inference accurate in point of fact; for we can enumerate nine States which contain less than a majority of the people; and it is constitutionally possible that these nine may give the vote. Besides, there are matters of considerable moment determinable by a bare majority; and there are others, concerning which doubts have been entertained, which, if interpreted in favor of the sufficiency of a vote of seven States, would extend its operation to interests of the first magnitude. In addition to this, it is to be observed that there is a probability of an increase in the number of States, and no provision for a proportional augmentation of the ratio of votes.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. . .

Again, great use of rhetoric and logic. He furthermore demonstrates political acuity in acknowledging that the republic would not be static, and was likely to expand. The principle of a majority rule is so commonplace in governance dynamics that we now seem to take it for granted. “Majority rules”: a flippant phrase we throw off while electing which movie to see. Yet at this time, the young states, newly independent, were protective of their rights and demanded equality. As Hamilton notes, though this seems like a just principle, in reality, it provides obstruction to even routine governance processes.

Now these next few passages get interesting, when you read it through the lens of our current perspective. All we see our government doing now is obstruct, delay, and filibuster:

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. . .

The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods. . .

What could better describe the overuse of filibuster we witness today, and the consistent impasse that arises now at what should be navigable issues of governance?

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. . .

No, Alexander, we most definitely now know them not to be imaginary. They have become our political reality. Does this suggest that we need to further reduce the minority party’s “negative upon the majority,” as Hamilton put it?

What’s interesting about that last line above is how we can spin the meaning of “foreign corruption.” Hamilton meant it in the literal sense, but today, we could read it in the sense of any entity operating outside of the government, such as corporations, lobbyist groups, and other special interests, which have an out-sized influence on the operations of our government.

In an article in The New Yorker, there’s a bit more on viewing this as a screed against the filibuster, as well as some interesting caution against viewing The Federalist Papers as “secular scripture.” To quote:

The Federalist Papers—so often quoted to rationalize governmental stasis and congressional gridlock—are almost always treated as secular scripture. They’re not. They’re newspaper op-ed pieces, written in haste to sell a particular set of compromises, some of which their authors had adamantly opposed and accepted only with the greatest reluctance.

This is interesting, and it may explain in part why I’ve found some of Hamilton’s contributions to the papers tedious: he really may be bullshitting when he sounds like he’s bullshitting. The passages above, however, reflect real passion, and this stood out as I read them.

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 #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?