Let a thousand factions bloom!

We are now ready to discuss James Madison’s most ingenious and counter-intuitive solution to the problem of factions. With the possible exception of Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory, Madison’s solution has to be one of the most original ideas in the annals of political economy. (And as an added bonus, no magic philosophical wands or other bullshit fictional devices like “practical reasonableness” or the “original position” are called for.) Instead, this solution is simple, pragmatic, and testable: extend the geographic sphere of politics in order to encompass a wide range of sects, interests, and people. Simply put, let a thousand factions bloom, to paraphrase Chairman Mao; the more factions the better!

Say what? Aren’t factions supposed to be dangerous? Aren’t they “mortal diseases”? Why is increasing the number of factions the best way of reducing the dangers of faction? There are at least three reasons why. The first is based on simple arithmetic: the more factions there are, the more difficult it will be for any individual faction to dominate the lawmaking process or form a simple majority in the legislative arena. Or, in the immortal words of James Madison in paragraph 20 of Federalist #10 (emphasis added by us):

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.

The second reason is based on the ruthless and remorseless logic of economics: the more factions there are, the greater the costs of coordination among the various factions will be. This point about the costs of coordination is key. Even if the various factions are able to coordinate among themselves to secure a majority in the legislature, by increasing the number of factions we also increase the level of horse-trading that such factions will have to engage in to get the necessary votes to accomplish their nefarious and selfish ends. So, why is horse-trading such an effective solution to the dangers of faction? Because horse-trading among competing factions will most likely lead to concessions and compromises. That is, in order to accomplish its goals, a faction will need to form a legislative coalition with other factions, a coalition that is large enough to secure a majority. But in order to form a coalition that is sufficiently large, the members of the coalition will most likely have to compromise with each other and make concessions moderating their selfish desires.

But the third and best reason in favor of more factions is moral. In a word: liberty. Factions thrive only when people are free to pursue their interests and form voluntary associations with like-minded individuals. A world with large numbers of factions thus presupposes a political system in which we are free to form and join any faction we wish and to refuse to join groups we don’t like. That is why I can’t praise Madison’s ingenious solution enough: extending the sphere to increase the number of factions not only makes it more difficult for these factions to get anything done unless they are able coordinate with each other and willing to horse trade and make compromises; extending the sphere to let a thousand factions bloom also promotes liberty!

Now that we have discussed the dangers of factions and presented Madison’s method of counteracting this danger, I will conclude this digression into Federalist #10 by asking two questions. First and foremost, who presents a more accurate picture of law and politics, Finnis or Madison? And secondly, who presents a more promising mechanism for furthering the common good, i.e. for stimulating human cooperation and solving collective action problems? For my part, the answer to both questions is clear. That said, I must concede that Madison’s theory of factions is just a starting point. To better understand the role of law and politics in promoting (or retarding) the common good, we will need to review the work of two more of my intellectual heroes, Mancur Olson and Robert Axelrod. Professor Olson is best known for explaining the “the logic of collective action,” while Professor Axelrod gets credit for explaining “the evolution of cooperation.” Rest assured, we will revisit these themes and the work of professors Olson and Axelrod after the Memorial Day Weekend …

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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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1 Response to Let a thousand factions bloom!

  1. Craig says:

    Isn’t Italy the Land of the Thousand Factions?

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