July 19, 2010

Critique: Hamilton’s Federalist #15


H/T Barry Ritholz
Alexander Hamilton commences Federalist #15 with a contemplation of the intellectual path which is beset by “sophistry” but which also potentially encompasses the “spacious field” of creative political thought and action.

If the road over which you will still have to pass should in some places appear to you tedious or irksome, you will recollect that you are in quest of information on a subject the most momentous which can engage the attention of a free people, that the field through which you have to travel is in itself spacious, and that the difficulties of the journey have been unnecessarily increased by the mazes with which sophistry has beset the way. It will be my aim to remove the obstacles from your progress in as compendious a manner as it can be done, without sacrificing utility to despatch.

Of course the sophistry in question is that of the anti-federalists, those who deny “the insufficiency of the present Confederacy to the preservation of the Union.” For Hamilton, a word like “preservation” always refers to empire, and given that premise his argument is unassailable.

It may perhaps be asked what need there is of reasoning or proof to illustrate a position which is not either controverted or doubted, to which the understandings and feelings of all classes of men assent, and which in substance is admitted by the opponents as well as by the friends of the new Constitution.

And so we today, amid the desolation of this republic, ask the same question and make the same incontrovertible argument. We too must range over the spacious field while rejecting reactionary sophistry. We’re in Hamilton’s same position, we face the same imperative, we make the same argument, and he would have to assent.
He launches into a jeremiad which reads today like a bizarre inversion of our day, now that we live according to the full logic of his empire.

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely anything that can wound the pride or degrade the character of an independent nation which we do not experience. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation.

I feel the need to update some of his questions, and modify some, though not all, of his answers.
Are we being reduced from citizens to debt slaves, and our government to an embezzling wastrel, and all to serve the extractions of gangsters?

These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge.

Has this government hijacked our military and, in conjunction with corporate mercenaries, waged private wars in order to seize territory and wealth for the benefit of these gangsters?

These are still retained, to the prejudice of our interests, not less than of our rights.

Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government.

Are we even in a condition to remonstrate with dignity? The just imputations on our own faith, in respect to the same treaty, ought first to be removed.

“Are we entitled by nature and compact to a free participation in the navigation of the Mississippi [and the Gulf of Mexico]?”
BP “excludes us from it”, with Obama’s government as its hired goon.

Is public credit an indispensable resource in time of public danger?

It has been run up by government embezzlers in order to increase the danger.

Is commerce of importance to national wealth?

No, only to the rent-looting of corporate interests.

Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments?

Everywhere the worthless war increases hostility, creates enemies, while China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others gather all the fruits.
“Is a violent and unnatural [increase] in the [price] of land a symptom of national distress”?

Is private credit the friend and patron of industry?

No answer needed.

To shorten an enumeration of particulars which can afford neither pleasure nor instruction, it may in general be demanded, what indication is there of national disorder, poverty, and insignificance that could befall a community so peculiarly blessed with natural advantages as we are, which does not form a part of the dark catalogue of our public misfortunes?

Yes, all that we read and write compiles and discusses this dark catalogue.

This is the melancholy situation to which we have been brought by those very maxims and councils which would now deter us from adopting the proposed Constitution; and which, not content with having conducted us to the brink of a precipice, seem resolved to plunge us into the abyss that awaits us below. Here, my countrymen, impelled by every motive that ought to influence an enlightened people, let us make a firm stand for our safety, our tranquillity, our dignity, our reputation. Let us at last break the fatal charm which has too long seduced us from the paths of felicity and prosperity.

Our situation is the same, except that we’ve not yet done the work of proposing the new Constitution.
I could continue to rewrite the next few sentences.

It is true, as has been before observed that facts, too stubborn to be resisted, have produced a species of general assent to the abstract proposition that there exist material defects in our national system; but the usefulness of the concession, on the part of the old adversaries of [democratic] measures, is destroyed by a strenuous opposition to a remedy, upon the only principles that can give it a chance of success. While they admit that the government of the United States is destitute of energy, they contend against conferring upon it those powers which are requisite to supply that energy. They seem still to aim at things repugnant and irreconcilable; at an augmentation [or diminution; either way, depending upon whether one’s a liberal or rightist blade of astroturf] of federal [power], without a diminution of [corporate power]; at [the abdication of] sovereignty in the Union, and complete independence [for the corporations]. They still, in fine, seem to cherish with blind devotion the political monster of an imperium in imperio. This renders a full display of the principal defects of the [kleptocratic federal system] necessary, in order to show that the evils we experience do not proceed from minute or partial imperfections, but from fundamental errors in the structure of the building, which cannot be amended otherwise than by an alteration in the first principles and main pillars of the fabric.

This is striking:

Except as to the rule of appointment, the United States has an indefinite discretion to make requisitions for men and money; but they have no authority to raise either, by regulations extending to the individual citizens of America.

Hamilton’s complaint is how under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government has no power to requisition men or taxes. But today, in what must strike Hamilton as a paradox, the federal government has largely renounced both, specifically for the purposes of enabling corporations to amass greater loot while both they and government shed all responsibility.
In his Ancien Regime and the French Revolution Tocqueville discusses how under the Ancien Regime all economic and political power was centralized while all elite responsibility was dissolved. This enraged the people, who remained subject to the obligations of the system while seeing every day how worthless and reckless the elites were; but it also concentrated enough workers in Paris, the manufacturing center, that once their discontent reached critical mass it was an almost effortless motion to topple the monarchy.
Today’s kleptocracy has followed but refined the model. Today’s elites are every bit as worthless and privileged and predatory; but even as economic power has been centralized, the infrastructure itself has been completely disintegrated. Where are “the workers”? Overseas, mostly. What’s still here is mostly a castrated “service” class of flunkeys which is physically dispersed anyway. What’s more important, government has released the “citizen” from all the old obligations. Ending the draft, replacing the citizen army with a professional volunteer force, and rolling back most taxes, replacing them with the more insidious indirect tax of borrow-and-spend, and all the while encouraging debt consumerism as the new model of civilization itself: In these ways the corporatist system has been able to prepare most of its crimes without directly annoying or even alerting the people at all.
So I’d be very interested to see Hamilton’s reaction to this state of affairs, after his impassioned cry that the Articles don’t allow for the federal government to raise money and men the way a responsible imperial government would.
He follows with much talk of coercion. He seems to think the only options all involve rigorous top-down action.

Government implies the power of making laws. It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation. This penalty, whatever it may be, can only be inflicted in two ways: by the agency of the courts and ministers of justice, or by military force; by the COERCION of the magistracy, or by the COERCION of arms. The first kind can evidently apply only to men; the last kind must of necessity, be employed against bodies politic, or communities, or States.

I of course add “corporations”. But this federal government has, since the 19th century, systematically allowed corporations to exist more and more outside the law (except where empowering them to use the law as a weapon of aggression), while using its “coercion of arms” to defend them from the rightful consequences of their actions, to drive peace and justice out of the world.

There was a time when we were told that breaches, by the [corporations], of the regulations of the federal authority were not to be expected; that a sense of common interest would preside over the conduct of the respective members, and would beget a full compliance with all the constitutional requisitions of the Union. This language, at the present day, would appear as wild as a great part of what we now hear from the same quarter will be thought, when we shall have received further lessons from that best oracle of wisdom, experience. It at all times betrayed an ignorance of the true springs by which [corporate] conduct is actuated, and belied the original inducements to the establishment of civil power.

I made substitutions for the words “States” and “human”, which updates the passage.
Here Hamilton gets to the core of things:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint. Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals? The contrary of this has been inferred by all accurate observers of the conduct of mankind; and the inference is founded upon obvious reasons. Regard to reputation has a less active influence, when the infamy of a bad action is to be divided among a number than when it is to fall singly upon one. A spirit of faction, which is apt to mingle its poison in the deliberations of all bodies of men, will often hurry the persons of whom they are composed into improprieties and excesses, for which they would blush in a private capacity.

What we have today is the equivalent of the Article of Confederation (in terms of failure) as a free-fire zone for corporate gangs.
He goes on to lament a centrifugal force he considers inherent to the Articles, how those at the lower levels of that Confederation must always want to “fly off from the common center” if not held in the central government’s firm grip.
However true this may have been then, and however desirable this firm grip was from the federalists’ point of view, what strikes us today in reading the passage is how it’s precisely today’s corporations who fly off from the center in terms of having any responsibilities, accountability, or obligations at all, even as the government continues to allow them to aggressively press privilege, prerogative, and simple brute force, all of it fraudulently dignified with the term “rights”.
Today we have the worst combination of the Ancien Regime, aggressive privilege and “right” completely divorced from any responsibility or restraint whatsoever, and the Articles of Confederation, a central government weak by design in the face of these “eccentric orbs” as Hamilton calls them. And we can throw in the modern police state, ever more aggressive in blocking (e.g. BP) and trouncing (e.g. the Toronto G20) all attempts of the people to demand accountability. The next step can only be kick-in-the-door fascism.
All of this represents the complete and irrevocable corruption of the federalists’ “republic” by and for the corporations. What Hamilton says here of the constituent States under the Articles applies most of all to this federal government.

Each State, yielding to the persuasive voice of immediate interest or convenience, has successively withdrawn its support, till the frail and tottering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads, and to crush us beneath its ruins.

This is no passive collapse, but a corporate-wired demolition. The enemy’s goal is to erect barbed wire and guard towers around the ruins. The time to get out of the doomed edifice is now. 

1 Comment

  1. […] discussed the vice of disobedience and lawlessness among the subordinate levels of a confederacy, but having left corporations out of account, he now moves to discuss the violent consequence of this disobedience.   It seems much of the […]

    Pingback by Hamilton’s Statism (Federalist #16) « Volatility — July 22, 2010 @ 3:54 am

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