Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 55


What is the proper ratio between the representatives of the people in a legislative assembly, and the constituents they represent?  James Madison tells us, in Federalist No. 55, that “no political problem is less susceptible of a precise solution.”  He is writing in response to Anti-Federalists who complained that the proposed House of Representatives would have too few members to represent the American people safely, knowledgeably, and sympathetically.

One reason political science cannot precisely solve this problem is that the solution is affected by the absolute size of both figures–the country’s population and the assembly’s total size.  “[T]he ratio between the representatives and the people, ought not to be the same where the latter are very numerous, as where they are very few.”  This is because a small society should not be permitted to have too small an assembly, and a large society should likewise not be permitted to have too large a one.  The legislature’s size affects its character and operations, and Madison, writing for a society already large and expected to grow, warns particularly against letting the assembly grow too large:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.  Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.

The political psychology of the Federalist is on full display in this essay, as Madison wrestles with the problem of achieving the victory of reason over passion in a republic.  It exaggerates only a little to say that in the history of political theory up to this point, the conclusion had been that rational government was unattainable in a republic.  Mob rule will eventuate wherever the people govern themselves, and when it does, liberty itself is in jeopardy.

But with the right kind of representative institutions, Publius argues, republicanism can for the first time achieve a stable, rational protection of liberty.  And so, notwithstanding his jaundiced remark about the Athenians, Madison concludes with a pledge of faith in popular government:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.  Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

These lines draw one’s gaze to Iraq, and to the struggle of the Iraqi people to establish republicanism for themselves.  Will they, and we, throw in the towel and opt for the “chains of despotism,” or will we, and they, stick to Publius’s conviction that there is “sufficient virtue among men for self-government”?

(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here.)


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