Among those of our contemporaries still inclined to ask, many might be surprised to hear what James Madison believed to be the purpose of government.
It was not material prosperity, or peace defined as the absence of conflict. Nor was it the defense of individual rights or property interests, per se.
Rather, according to Madison: “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
The constitutional design Madison defends in The Federalist utilizes a complex set of checks and balances to prevent any single faction, or narrow coalition of factions, from capturing government and abusing its powers.
What defines faction, however, is worth repeating, and making the basis for a regular examination of political conscience.
A faction is any group of citizens (even a majority) whose agenda is harmful to the rights of others or to the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
In other words, factions are bad because unjust. The purpose of checking and balancing them is not simply to diffuse their explosive potential. Nor is it to suppress whatever is just in a particular group’s demands. The goal is rather to force each faction to abandon its unjust designs and apply its talents and energies to better ends.
“In the extended republic of the United States, and among the variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces,” Madison thinks, “a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.”
As previously noted, Madison’s famous formula for good government—“ambition must be made to counteract ambition”—was never intended to function as a mechanical device or magical incantation. Rather, it is an attempt to structure political deliberation on the basis of a moral and political realism according to which men are neither beasts nor angels.
Being less than angels, men cannot be trusted always to ascertain and do what is true and good, unless assisted by their fellow men. Surpassing the beasts in key respects, however, men are in fact capable of discerning and doing what is true and good, if held accountable.
Immanuel Kant notwithstanding, a nation of devils cannot be well-governed. Our system of government is designed to bring out the best in us, but this presupposes a culture in which serious deliberation among factions is possible.
Checks and balances cannot save us if we surrender the reins of our society to those who would suppress the deliberation without which injustice cannot be exposed and sifted out of public policy.
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