Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Programs for Citizens

Letters From an Ohio Farmer

Men Are Not Angels

March 27, 2012

To My Fellow Citizens:

It’s widely understood that America’s Founders took a realistic view of human nature. In designing a political framework for the new nation they expected that people would more likely be self-interested than self-sacrificing, and they tried to structure the government so that the consequences of self-interested behavior would be, on balance, more beneficial than harmful.

In a famous passage in Federalist 51, James Madison calls “government itself … the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” We are not angels, acting with pure and disinterested motives, he contends, so we do need to be governed. But the people who will be doing that governing aren’t angels, either, so they too need to be controlled rather than permitted to exercise unchecked power over us. Accordingly, the great difficulty in framing a government is that “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Madison did not think that the Constitution‘s architecture of checks and balances was an iron-clad guarantee that America’s republic would succeed where all previous ones in history had crashed and burned. He did think the Constitution’s “policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” significantly improved our chances of survival. Some of the Founders’ contemporaries were considerably more enthusiastic.

In Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant seemed almost to quote from The Federalist Papers: A republican constitution “is the most difficult to establish and even harder to preserve, so that many say a republic would have to be a nation of angels, because men with their selfish inclinations are not capable of a constitution of such sublime form.” Kant, too, saw an architectural response to the problem: It is “only a question of a good organization of the state (which does lie in man’s power), whereby the powers of each selfish inclination are so arranged in opposition that one moderates or destroys the ruinous effect of the other.” In a state so organized, “man is forced to be a good citizen even if not a morally good person.” Making the most sweeping possible claim for the capacities of political architects to overcome the weakness of the human materials, Kant wrote, “The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.”

Madison didn’t go that far. In Federalist 55, after taking up and attempting to refute hypothetical questions about how American government under the Constitution might lend itself to this or that abuse, Madison finally throws up his hands. Yes, the policy of relying on self-interest where better motives can’t be counted on will help sustain a republic. But, no, a nation of devils will not form a successful republic, no matter how intelligent they are or how well their state is organized. “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust,” Madison wrote, “so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

The British scholar and diplomat, James Bryce, traveled extensively throughout the United States gathering material for his book, The American Commonwealth, first published in 1888. Examining the United States during the Constitution’s centenary, Bryce sided with Madison against Kant on the capacity of a republic’s organization to make the virtue of its citizens irrelevant. “To expect any form of words, however weightily conceived, with whatever sanctions enacted, permanently to restrain the passions and interests of men is to expect the impossible,” Bryce wrote. “Beyond a certain point, you cannot protect the people against themselves ….” He ascribed a great deal of the success of the American experiment to our people’s distinctive habits and dispositions: “[T]here is in the United States a sort of kindliness, a sense of human fellowship, a recognition of the duty of mutual help owed by man to man, stronger than anywhere in the Old World …. The natural impulse of every citizen in America is to respect every other citizen, and to feel that citizenship constitutes a certain ground of respect.”

Madison and Bryce are, pretty clearly, the winners of this argument with Kant: Wisely designed constitutional structures can do a good deal – but only so much – to mitigate the political effects of citizens’ moral shortcomings. It is impossible for an excellent constitution to guarantee successful self-government for very long in a nation of devils, or even one populated by louts.

It’s easy to see how a republic draws on the moral and social capital that forms a conscientious, forthright, self-disciplined citizenry. The harder question is how to replenish those habits and dispositions when social trends lead more and more people to be self-indulgent and shortsighted, scornful rather than respectful of their fellow citizens’ concerns and dignity. A foreign visitor to early 21st century America would more likely be struck by the many conspicuous absences of fellowship and mutual respect than, as Bryce was in the late 19th century, the ubiquity of those qualities.

Complicating matters further, the enterprise of replenishing the moral capital of a republic appears to be a social project more than a political one. There’s the danger that a government strong enough to “address” unfortunate, consequential trends like family instability or declining civic engagement would become so strong it would have the ability, and sometimes succumb to the temptation, to interfere with private matters that are none of its business. A big part of the conservative challenge is to conserve the political forms and the social materials necessary for a republic to succeed – and to keep these efforts distinct even though they ultimately serve a common goal.

Ohio Farmer