October 25, 2003


Self-Interest Versus Virtue: Conservatism and America's Divided Inheritance (Professor Barry Shain, October 4, 2003, The Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting)

To understand accurately Madison's political teachings...one must uncover what Madison proposed as solutions to the critical problems of govern-ment: (1) how to control the governed and prevent them from acting tyrannously against minorities, and (2) how to control the government so that no one branch would impose its will on another. In confronting a work with contradictory claims, one must develop some such analytic to allow one to discriminate between essential and unessential remarks (though this is so rarely done). And Madison's answers to these questions provide just such a key that will allow us to uncover his authentic political teachings. By proposing that the means by which the new American government would control these twin pathologies of popular government exploited self-interest and found little or no role for virtue, Madison made clear which discourse, that of self-interest or that of virtue, was essential.

The first of these problems was majority faction. To address this, Madison famously argued in The Federalist that the American system would be designed so that factions would be set against themselves so that none would be able to affect their will against deviant minorities or individuals. Madison argued that by extending the size of the polity and including within it numerous distinct economic and religious differences, and having these interests represented in a national representative legislative body, interest would offset interest. Strikingly, in the system as he defended it, there is no appeal to virtue in the people or any hope that the proper inculcation of it could prevent majoritarian tyranny. All that is expected of the people is that they honestly represent their self-interest when choosing representatives. Thus, in proposing a solution to the first of the most intransigent problems of popular government, Madison turned to well engineered political institutional mechanisms in a properly designed system that left no role for popular virtue. [...]

[H]is vision of self-interestedness and elite dominance would only be imposed on the entire country in the glow of the Incorporation Doctrine and its hyperbolic development under the Warren Court (surely Warren went further than even Madison would have gone). Curiously, though, it is only with something like the Warren Court that Madison's political vision finally found a vehicle to put in place the essential features of his plan of government in which a centralized elite would be able to suspend morally intrusive laws of local majorities, if you will of "moral majorities." Still, in spite of this and that almost no one understood or showed any interest in his argument in number 10 until Beard did in the beginning of the twentieth century, it is Madison's theory of the extended republic that is read by students today as characteristic of eighteenth-century thought and as providing a foundational logic to the Constitution. Such an understanding, though, is historically without any credibility and represents instead the hopes of those who wish to import into the eighteenth century liberal values more appropriately associated with the twentieth. This kind of dishonesty true conservatives must resist.

But to return to the two problems of popular government that Madison believes a defensible theory of government must solve, and that provide the key to discriminating between his authentic and unauthentic theories of government, we must also briefly consider his solution to the second problem, that of governmental tyranny. Here too, Madison proposes that virtue would be little needed. In fact, again, he offers a vision of government that will take as its basic engine the seeking after honor. Although this was more noble than that passion most readily associated with people -- avarice -- still it is a selfish passion and, thus, at a considerable remove from true virtue, be it Christian or republican. [...]

Thus, Americans have inherited two visions of republican government and conservatives do have a choice. We can celebrate and give voice to the most long-lived, one might suggest most authentic, American vision of republican self-government guided by a morally demanding vision of human flourishing, or we can follow neo-conservatives and defend the precocious liberalism of Madison and its denigration of the corporate commitment to human virtue. We have a choice: embrace local self-government and moral education as central to a well-lived human life, or choose Madisonian liberalism and its twentieth-century incarnation in something similar to the Warren Court and its embrace of centralization and individualism. Conservatives must understand Madison's vision for the liberal one that it is and, if they are truly conservative, painfully turn away from it and turn back to the long-lived vision of American republican government that is Christian and localist. One must choose, if you will, between adhering to American conservative ideals or idealizing those who stood against them, and have done much to undermine them. The choice is yours

That's why the Anti-Federalists were right.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2003 7:28 AM

The Anti-Federalists had some good points; However... As is acknowledged in your review, Federalism was necessary for the survival of our young nation.
It was also necessary to win the Civil War, WW II, and the Cold War.
One can certainly dispute the validity of undertaking ANY of those challenges, but, we did, and in each case, the US was the better for it.

Therefore, I'd have to conclude that anti-Federalism, like pacifism, is the best system only in a better world, filled with more noble people.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 25, 2003 5:51 PM

The author is demented. The warren court exists in a political universe so far from mdison's that he would have required the Keck Telescope to see it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 26, 2003 10:10 PM