Madison’s metaphor

Can we cure ourselves of our factious spirit? Alas, as James Madison teaches us in the fifth and sixth paragraphs of Federalist #10, any attempt to address the root causes of factions is going to end in disaster. Either we restrict people’s freedom to create and join factions, or we try to impose on everyone “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” Hell no!, says Madison in essay ten. Yes, factions are bad, but any attempt to remove their causes are going to be far worse. Thank you, Mr Madison: that has to be one of the most important political lessons of all time, a lesson lost on so many serious scholars, sundry politicians, and assorted do-gooders.

Let’s consider the second solution first. Unless you are one of those ‘serious’ scholars who take the crazy and communistic prescriptions in Plato’s Republic seriously, the latter solution is pure folly, especially given human psychology and given “the diversity in the faculties of men.” Moreover, as Madison correctly notes–and as our other intellectual hero Robert Nozick would confirm with his irrefutable Wilt Chamberlain argument–, an unequal distribution of property will inevitably arise from the diversity of our skills and talents. For Madison, the whole point of law and government is to protect our ability to make a living: “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.”

So, what about the first “solution”; why not impose practical limits or reasonable requirements à la John Finnis on our ability to create and join factions in the first place? Again, hell to the no!, says Madison. The cure (restricting liberty) is far worse than the disease (the mischiefs of factions)! In what is perhaps the most memorable sentence in Federalist #10, Madison propounds one of the most beautiful, haunting, and powerful metaphors in the annals of political philosophy. He compares liberty to air: “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.” Madison’s fire metaphor is not only memorable; it is spot on!

Simply put, unless we are willing sacrifice our freedoms or willing to impose the equivalent of martial law, there is no way of removing the root causes of faction. Factions are inevitable. Given this reality, the best we can do is to try to control their effects, i.e. limit the damage that factions can do. Stay tuned. It is here where Madison will make one of the most original and surprising political arguments of all time …

Image result for fire emoji

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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