July 16, 2010

Critique of Federalism (Madison’s Federalist #14)


In Federalist #14 James Madison continues his defense of the federalist idea by rebutting the claim that the physical extent of the proposed country would be too large for effective and equitable governance. Today, Oil Age transportation and communication technology have made this a moot point, though how long it will remain so as we pass beyond the oil Peak is an open question. At any rate, physical logistics in themselves have thus far not seemed to play much of a role, and on that point at least Madison appears vindicated so far.
But in the course of his argument he takes the opportunity for some peculiar asides regarding democracy which I’ll examine in this piece.
Before proceeding I’ll describe again where I’m coming from, and what I think is politically needful today.
As aspiring relocalizers we’re of course skeptical on its face of any alleged timelessness of Madison’s pro-federalist argument. We now believe in positive democracy. It’s a normative value in itself, a moral imperative, and, as a matter of practicality, the only form of government which is not a proven failure (unlike representative “democracy”). Meanwhile, we know the decentralized economy can also be run by the people. This has been proven, for example, in the Spanish cooperatives of the 1930s. So all forms of economic paternalism, from Madison to Lenin, have been proven false. We’ve long since come of age and must no longer let thugs convince us that we can’t run our own affairs. We can do for ourselves. It’s precisely those parasites who have no right to exist, morally or as a practical matter.
So here’s the call:
1. Participatory democracy and economy, as a positive good.
2. Political and economic relocalization as a political imperative vs. tyranny.
3. Political and economic relocalization as a physical imperative in the face of Peak Oil.
It’s in the sunshine of this framework that we unfold the critique of federalism and call for the devolution of federalism, levering the real center of power’s gravity close to the soil from which it grows in the first place.
In what follows, it’s always the case that much of Madison’s argument becomes both obsolete, since energy descent’s enforced relocalization renders the federalists’ imperial aspirations moot; and beside the point, since we’ve recognized the political failure of the “republic” form, and democracy remains our only option, unless we wish to submit to slavery once and for all. So in both cases, the decision is determined by circumstances and argument is moot.
But let’s proceed. Madison opens up with the question of whether the proposed country is too big and the claim that only a republic can be politically capacious enough to encompass ever-greater geographical scales.

The error which limits republican government to a narrow district has been unfolded and refuted in preceding papers. I remark here only that it seems to owe its rise and prevalence chiefly to the confounding of a republic with a democracy, applying to the former reasonings drawn from the nature of the latter. The true distinction between these forms was also adverted to on a former occasion. It is, that in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.

This is quite presumptuous, since he starts with the dogma that the union has to become a great empire, then acts as if this is self-evident truth as he goes on to “prove” that we can’t have democracy because it can’t scale up, and then accuses opponents, at least many of whom oppose the imperial assumption in the first place, of being confused about the different capacities of democracy and republic to sustain empire. (Madison and Hamilton both consistently take the desirability of this centralized empire-seeking republic for granted, then argue as if they’ve proven it’s the best system and that all they have to do is dispose of some technical arguments. It’s begging the question throughout.)
Well, that’s also a moot argument. America’s imperial days are over. It’s clear today that the only purpose of the empire is to enable corporate looting of taxpayer money, and at the same time only the most larcenous extractions enable the propping up of this empire at all. It’s a monstrous rathole from any point of view. The imperialist strivings of federalism are utterly discredited, and we can declare those arguments dead and buried. Today reality and our political desires are trending in the opposite direction from Madison’s day. We have the bloated tyrannical empire and want to guide its inevitable unwind in such a way as to be as beneficial to the people as possible.
Madison then goes on to describe in detail the geography of the states in order to prove transportation problems aren’t insuperable. It’s interesting that he cites Britain as one of the examples with which the size of the union was comparable, since the US had just won independence in part by exploiting the British empire’s physical extension, which under those economic and military conditions became overextension. (And did he recall how the patriots quickly dropped in their own counsels any serious demand for parliamentary representation, since any effective logistics for that were clearly impossible?) This is so obvious it’s hard to believe Madison was unaware of it as he wrote. At any rate, it reminds us again of the modern US’s extreme military and economic overextension. Hundreds of bases, hundreds of thousands of troops, a dozen aircraft carrier groups to patrol tens of thousands of miles of sea lanes, and all of it to prop up a wealth-destroying system.
That geographical lunacy highlights how, during the Oil Age at any rate, geographical power concentration, the way Madison and Hamilton emphasize, is a misdirectional concept.  For geographical centers we have to substitute power concentrations, as wielded by disembodied corporations*, and the disempowered people for regional extremities.
Having satisfied himself on the geography, Madison goes on to make some political points.
He claims a version of the idea later to be encoded in the 10th Amendment.

In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any. The subordinate governments, which can extend their care to all those other subjects which can be separately provided for, will retain their due authority and activity. Were it proposed by the plan of the convention to abolish the governments of the particular States, its adversaries would have some ground for their objection; though it would not be difficult to show that if they were abolished the general government would be compelled, by the principle of self-preservation, to reinstate them in their proper jurisdiction.

The fact that the federalists furiously resisted the enshrining of a Bill of Rights is already suspicious, and we know how the 10th Amendment turned out in practice: A demagogic political meme at most, something always to be cited and deployed in a purely cynical, hypocritical manner. (Once Bush came in, every Republican suddenly forgot where he put his little pocket Constitution.)
What’s most interesting to me about that Madison quote is how, even though it seems to concede a real federalist spirit, it does so only from the point of view of the interests of the central government. The guarantor of the integrity of state governments is to be how useful and necessary they are for the weal of the federal government. But we true democrats don’t care about the efficacy of government as a value in itself, but only insofar as a more effective government is more effective at promoting our democratic endeavor, the vibrancy of our freedom, and our economic opportunity and prosperity. As James Otis said of the English constitution, “its end, its use, its designation, drift, and scope” must be liberty above all. This was universally agreed among the rebels, who saw how the British government’s actions were abrogating this imperative. So we today recognize the same obligation of our constitution, and measure a system of government by how well it embodies this responsibility, or with what depravity it derogates it. 
Therefore it’s good that Madison moves next to conceding in advance the integrity of our endeavor.

A second observation to be made is that the immediate object of the federal Constitution is to secure the union of the thirteen primitive States, which we know to be practicable; and to add to them such other States as may arise in their own bosoms, or in their neighborhoods, which we cannot doubt to be equally practicable. The arrangements that may be necessary for those angles and fractions of our territory which lie on our northwestern frontier, must be left to those whom further discoveries and experience will render more equal to the task.

Therefore the project is to be considered always in flux, in accordance with the needs of the age. That includes geographical features and it implicitly includes political forms. (As proven by the radical morphological action, for which it had no explicit authority, of the late Convention of whose work Madison and Hamilton were now acting as champions.)
Finally he reiterates the idea of how the benefits of unions as well as the power lines can run directly or inversely with geographical extremity.

[A]lmost every State will, on one side or other, be a frontier, and will thus find, in regard to its safety, an inducement to make some sacrifices for the sake of the general protection; so the States which lie at the greatest distance from the heart of the Union, and which, of course, may partake least of the ordinary circulation of its benefits, will be at the same time immediately contiguous to foreign nations, and will consequently stand, on particular occasions, in greatest need of its strength and resources. It may be inconvenient for Georgia, or the States forming our western or northeastern borders, to send their representatives to the seat of government; but they would find it more so to struggle alone against an invading enemy, or even to support alone the whole expense of those precautions which may be dictated by the neighborhood of continual danger. If they should derive less benefit, therefore, from the Union in some respects than the less distant States, they will derive greater benefit from it in other respects, and thus the proper equilibrium will be maintained throughout.

But as we discussed, we know today benefits, responsibilities, power, have no necessary connection with mere geographical extent. The most far-flung geographical tentacles can nevertheless leverage their influence to extract the most absurd and tyrannical subsidies from the center, or conversely anyplace can become a quarry and a mine and a dump. Just look at what’s happening in Madison’s very core with the Marcellus Shale.
At the end Madison gives his great peroration, calling upon the people to reject the naysayers and heed the call to union. It’s moving indeed, except that today we know much of what the anti-federalist writers prophecied has come true, while much of what the federalists promised has been betrayed.
Madison asks an excellent question: “Why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected merely because it may comprise what is new?” He asked that in the day of a failing system which needed to be replaced.
And we today must and may ask the same question, and demand the same willingness to experiment toward something new.
[* Just to chuck this in at the bottom here, that’s a conceptual parallel with how the Oil Age brought the advent of the rather disembodied quantum physics as an “advance” beyond the more down-to-earth classical physics. And just as these disembodied corporate power centers are phenomena of the Oil Age which must perish post-oil, so quantum theory looks like it’ll return to the realm of mysticism from whence it arose as the oil surplus will no longer be there to enable such extravagant experiments as those of the CERN particle collider.] 


  1. Any solution will have to recognize the innate human desire to self aggrandize and enhance status through the domination of others. Madison and Hamilton had money and they established a society dominated by money. Mortals, not prophets, they were unwilling to destroy their own status. Their system espouses equality yet carefully guards the propertied classes against democratic-inspired leveling. And they were probably influenced by the desire to father an empire that might someday stand among the grand empires of the Old World.

    The Greeks recognized arete, the struggle for excellence. We need a system that honors the natural human desire to compete for status yet simultaneously prevent the use of force to command scarce resources. Since shared cultural values are probably the only way to achieve this we also need something flexible enough to respond to threats from outsiders who don’t share those values. Else those relocalized communities end up dominated by Montezuma 2, whether generated through internal empire builders or external conquerors.

    I suspect that money as a store of wealth and absentee property ownership are strictly at odds with any system that seeks to achieve truly localized communities.

    The greatest feats achieved by man were completed without profit motive by volunteers (they may have received pay but they were not compelled). This is a fact. Regimented control and greed can only destroy. Of course, the power to destroy is very powerful.

    Comment by reslez — July 16, 2010 @ 7:36 am

  2. Yes, you sum up the motivations of the federalists and the nature of their project well. Hamilton, at least, definitely wanted an aggressive empire, as the next several Federalist numbers explicitly say.

    As for the threat of warlordism in a decentralized world, I agree that’s an issue. I haven’t fully thought it out yet. I do think the old taboo against standing armies and reliance upon community militias was a healthy standard for the pre-oil age and could perhaps become so again in the post-oil age. But the question needs a lot more work.

    I agree completely on hoarded “money” and absentee ownership. While I doubt the long-term efficacy of MMT (since the oil-based dollar itself and the whole debt model are doomed anyway), I think the permeations of the idea can be helpful insofar as it subverts belief in the moral authority of money as a “store of value”.

    Of course, the right kind of commentators may have to help it achieve that.

    As for unproductive absentee “ownership”, according to the foundation theory of land ownership itself, the labor theory of property, such parasitic squatting doesn’t constitute valid ownership.

    I’ll take this opportunity to link to two older posts (almost a year old) which discuss this:



    What you said about the Volunteers of history: Excellent.

    Comment by Russ — July 16, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

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