Editor’s note: This is one in a series examining the Constitution and Federalist Papers in today’s America.
Anxieties over inequality are pervasive in America today. Arguments are made that if we could eradicate major economic disparities, then the less fortunate would have more voice in government and our society would be more just. For some, economic equality is becoming the highest form of morality.
But for James Madison, a just government was one that defended the right to inequality.
It is important to note and remember that Madison’s definition of “property” was far more expansive than our modern definition. Opinions, ideas, the free communication of opinions and ideas, and a person’s own conscience — what Madison called “the most sacred of all property” — were goods he thought a just government should protect. Liberty went hand-in-hand with property, because “property” — properly understood — was an essential element of liberty.
There was also a practical and pragmatic reason for Madison’s liberal definition of property and his insistence on a government that safeguarded the right to unequal distributions of that property.
Inequalities play a critical role in keeping American government institutions healthy. This is especially true of economic inequalities, which create economic factions. Economic factions generate the types of political divisions needed to prevent tyranny of the majority, or mob rule.
Many people are familiar with the “tyranny of majority” — the idea that democracy can quickly turn oppressive when a majority faction forms and uses its superior voting power to infringe on private interests and undermine the general welfare.
The Founders were concerned that people who owned little property or no property at all may at some point comprise a large, despotic voting bloc. Their fears were based on the failures of ancient democracies, which mob rule rendered short-lived “spectacles of turbulence and contention” (Federalist 10). Indeed, the most threatening and durable types of factions are economic factions.
The natural impulse among governments is to try to prevent dangerous factions from forming in the first place. But preventing factions leads to an overbearing government, one with a tendency to trample over people’s abilities to acquire property. Ultimately, this strips any real power from most voters, which is why regulating the source of factions is “worse than the disease” (Federalist 10).
The second solution to factions — controlling their excess — is less aggressive and far more fruitful. This is accomplished by reducing the power of the faction itself before it can apply its full force to government institutions and disrupt checks and balances. In this approach, groups compete with each other and then, eventually, find compromise. This minimizes and contains friction and constrains government involvement in societal decisions.
Madison, who foresaw the American economic juggernaut, argued that a large, commercial economy will lead to competing factions, but the size of the factions would preclude any one group from achieving dominance.
The larger the republic, the larger a majority faction must be to tyrannize minority factions. This is good, because the bigger the faction becomes, the less likely it is that individual members of that faction will be unified enough to “invade the rights of other citizens” (Federalist 10). The resulting disunity within a majority faction reduces its overall power.
Commercialism also leads to factions that are vulnerable to internal, weakening forces.
In a commercial republic, people are no longer just worried about the amount of property they hold. They are also worried also about the kind of property they hold. Instead of a singular poor class and singular wealthy class, voters want to advance the interests associated with their own specialized trade or type of work, and not just the general cause of the poor or rich.
The discord that stems from people possessing different degrees and types of property results in a greater number of smaller factions that compete with each other. In Federalist No. 10, Madison calls this “the saving multiplicity of faction,” because it keeps any one faction from gaining too much power.
The key to this profoundly democratic remedy is the intentional absence of strong barriers that block people from seeking immediate material gain.
The wisdom of Madison’s solution is that it does not require people to abandon their beliefs or interests. Discord and disunity, rooted in the fragmentation of economic interests, are essential to American government institutions continuing to operate in the protective ways the Founders intended.
Madison’s solution to economic factions will strike some as immoral. Is there really no other remedy? Can we not trust people to do the right thing? Madison says no. In Federalist No. 10, he writes: “We well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to control for majority factions.
Today, it is undeniably true that a commercial economy is responsible for some problems, as powerful interest groups occasionally infringe on the common welfare. Madison would undoubtedly abhor groups that seek to curtail the abilities of private citizens to freely communicate their opinions and ideas (think Twitter and Facebook).
But Americans cannot afford to let specific interest groups distract them from reflecting on what might occur if they continue to embrace economic equality as the highest form of morality.
If Americans fail to remember the practical reasons why their Founders wanted a multiplicity of competing economic factions, they might be tempted to try to use government to neutralize inequalities. This is a rocky path, one that could lead to tyrannical majorities imposing their preferences on us all — a fate far worse than undue interest group influence in government.
Like their Founders, Americans have to come to terms with the idea that certain kinds of inequality may be the best answer we have to avoid omnipresent, omnipotent government. Public discourse should focus on what these inequalities will inevitably entail and how citizens and civil society might manage their undesirable effects.
• Rebecca Munson is associate professor and department chair in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University.