Madison’s diagnosis

In our previous post, we reformulated James Madison’s broad definition of “faction” and restated the litany of dangers that such factions pose to the rule of law. Here, we will diagnose the main causes of “this dangerous vice.” Simply put, why are factions created, and why do they continue to endure? In the seventh paragraph of Federalist #10, Madison identifies several sources of factions. One reason for our factious spirit is “the zeal for different opinions” in matters of religion and politics. Another source of factions is our psychology, specifically, our “attachment to different leaders.” Yet another cause is economic: “the various and unequal distribution of property.” Madison’s actual words are so eloquent–his sentences have such a lasting literary quality to them–that to paraphrase them is to do Federalist #10 an injustice. Mr Madison’s precise and meticulous diagnosis of the causes of faction is thus worth quoting in full:

1. Religion and politics, or in Madison’s words: “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points as well of speculation as of practice.” Simply put, people will worship different gods and hold heterogeneous beliefs about politics, law, and morality.

2. Human psychology and the cult of celebrity, or in the words of Madison: “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 ….” Think of Kim K. or Cardi B. (both of whom are pictured below) or other contemporary celebrities when you conjure up this latter category of persons with interesting fortunes. Think of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and other ambitious leaders when you picture the former category of persons contending for power.

3. Economic causes: “But the most common and durable source of factions,” Madison explains, “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.” In other words, people will develop competing financial and class interests, depending on what they do for a living. (As an aside, check out the chart below for a modern-day confirmation of Madison’s prescient economic thesis.)

People are thus motivated to create and join factions for a wide variety of reasons. As a result, given our heterogeneous political and religious beliefs, given the realities of human psychology, and given the division of labor and the uneven distribution of wealth, factions are here to stay. They are an inescapable feature of our legal and political worlds. Ok, but why are factions so dangerous? Why are they the “mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished“? Is Madison’s critique of factions just cheap talk or verbal hyperbole, or are factions really to be feared? Stay tuned …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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