Continuing his theme on the difficult and innovative undertaking of the Constitution, James Madison writes in Federalist No. 38 that naturally the document will very probably be found to contain imperfections. Who could expect otherwise? But the anticipation of such discoveries becomes, in Madison’s argument, a reason to adopt the Constitution rather than to reject it:
“Is it an unreasonable conjecture that the errors which may be contained in the plan of the convention are such as have resulted rather from the defect of antecedent experience on this complicated and difficult subject, than from a want of accuracy or care in the investigation of it; and consequently such as will not be ascertained until an actual trial shall have pointed them out?”
Drive the car now. Fix the first thing that breaks. Drive it some more. Fix the next thing that appears defective. Would we accept such an offer from a car salesman? Maybe not, but this is just how inventors came up with the automobile in the first place before they sold one to anybody, and Publius is inviting us to join him in the enterprise of inventing and tinkering. There is no place to test a political invention other than in its use by its “consumers.” Trial and error will show the way we should govern ourselves.
Still no one would accept this argument if a plausible case could be made either that the Constitution was fundamentally defective, or that the still-existing Confederation could continue to be tinkered with as our test vehicle. No dice, says Madison:
“It is a matter of both wonder and regret, that those who raise so many objections against the new constitution, should never call to mind the defects of that which is to be exchanged for it. It is not necessary that the former should be perfect; it is sufficient that the latter is more imperfect.”
As the wise old saying goes, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And don’t keep trying to salvage a failure with one hand when a promise of success lies in reach of the other.
Still, Madison’s argument should be a rebuke to patriot lovers of the Constitution who commit the error of regarding it as a work of perfection that cannot be improved. This is an easy error to make for those, like myself, who are convinced that no better government has ever been made.
(For explanation of this recurring feature, see here .)