Bench Memos

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The Perennial Publius, part 13


In what may be the shortest of all the Federalist essays, Alexander Hamilton argues in No. 13 that a federal government over the whole Union will achieve greater “economy”—that is, cost less to the taxpayers—than would two or three or four governments over partial confederacies of the then thirteen states.  Readers today who see Publius as predicting that the national government won’t cost too much may roll their eyes and say, “he couldn’t know about the New Deal and the Great Society.” 

And they’d be right about that.  Hamilton does indeed want to centralize and strengthen much of the political power in America, but his vision is of an energetic yet limited government.  What it must do—it must do well.  And what must be done for a Union of all the states, would have to be done for any smaller union of several of them:

“When the dimensions of a state attain to a certain magnitude, it requires the same energy of government and the same forms of administration; which are requisite in one of much greater extent.  This idea admits not of precise demonstration, because there is no rule by which we can measure the momentum of civil power, necessary to the government of any given number of individuals . . .”

There is a very wise political science at work here in the second sentence quoted.  Like Aristotle, Publius understands that different “sciences” have appropriately different degrees of precision.  Political science is necessarily one of the most inexact; principles can be stated, but prudence must take care of the rest, since strict “rules” of action, of administration, and even of institutional organization are not available to us, given the free human materials we have to work with.

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

Tags: Franck


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