Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 35


Continuing his discussion of the business of taxation in Federalist No. 35, Hamilton turns his attention to the kinds of interests that will typically be represented, and the kinds of men who will typically represent them, in the new national legislature. For it is representation itself, and not the artificial imposition of limits on the taxing power, that will produce the most justice in a system of taxation.

Hamilton’s analysis of representation here differs, in interesting ways, from what Madison will say later in his essays on the House of Representatives. Hamilton is more matter-of-fact about what he takes to be the natural inclination of poorer men to vote for richer ones with whose economic interests they find their own to be aligned. Poorer farmers will likely vote for great landowners-do not property taxes fall on all, in equal proportion to their land’s value? “[A]rtisans and manufacturers”-all who work with their hands in making things-will likely vote for the wealthy merchant, the great man of commerce who is “their natural patron and friend” because of the general coincidence of their interests.

One might quarrel with these arguments about the natural alignments of economic interests. Some quarreled with them then (Americans did not require Marx to teach them about classes), though not with much success, it must be said. But of the third great contributor to the ranks of legislators, along with merchants and landholders, Hamilton has something to say that is hard to quarrel with: “the learned professions,” he asserts, “truly form no distinct interest in society,” and men in those professions will be chosen by their fellow citizens (and by one another) “according to their situation and talents” and not for any presumptive economic connection between those who represent and those who are represented.

Whom does he mean by the learned professions? Chiefly lawyers, with perhaps a few physicians and teachers thrown into the mix. Would Hamilton speak as he does of today’s “intelligentsia” as a whole, of the sector that includes lawyers, college professors, and various “public intellectuals” committing journalism of higher and lower varieties? Do they “truly form no distinct interest in society”? Aside from their shared inclination to defend freedom of expression (though often only for themselves and not for others), Hamilton is probably still right about this. They have no distinct economic interest, floating as they do on the surface of an economy that employs them to advocate, to teach and write, and to comment on the passing scene. Politically they can move in any direction. This makes them particularly open, in ways to which those who really drive the economy are more resistant, to intellectual fancies, ideological agendas, and cultural self-indulgences.

Anyone who observes the ideological absorptions of university faculty, or of the elites of the American Bar Association, will find it hard to disagree with Hamilton’s observation that the “learned professions” live in a world largely separated from the ordinary life in which “distinct interests” form on a basis grounded in economic (or political) reality. Hamilton might have thought of them as literally “disinterested,” which is generally a good thing. But the disinterested may be more vulnerable to ideological viruses than Hamilton paused to consider here (and we know how much respect he had for the grounding of political behavior in economic interests). By contrast, has anyone ever observed the complete captivation of businessmen by an ideology?

Would it follow, then, that the nation’s interests are not in the best hands when the “learned professions” do too much of the representing in Congress?

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

Tags: Franck


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