Real Republican Freedom IV: Dynamic Tension, Research Time, 31/03/2017

I asked yesterday whether there it’s possible to counteract humanity’s gravity forever. Can we build institutions in a society that are truly immune to human corruption?

It’s a tough question. Machiavelli identifies one hypothesis early in his Discourses on Livy, built from his historical model, the Republic of Rome. Set up the governing institutions of a state so that they balance each other’s power, and each is somehow accountable to the people, either through election or ethical obligation.

George Washington is rightly admired for his wisdom and virtue, despite
all his other personal and political flaws. However horrible the terror of
slavery was, Machiavelli would have recognized his and his
contemporaries great wisdom as political engineers. I think I might
read The Federalist Papers as part of my dive through the classics
after I finish Machiavelli.
It’s the most famous such model, because to my mind it’s the only system of government that was specifically instituted in a state for exactly that reason. This time, my example is the second Constitution of the United States of America.*

* Yes, it’s the second Constitution. The first one was a messy, disorganized attempt at a confederation that fell to pieces within a few years.

The second Constitution, the one drafted in Philadelphia, was an intentional feat of institutional political engineering. It was an entirely new form of government for the West – federalism. It’s an institutional structure based on holding conflicting powers together, in tension, and stable because of that tension.

The USA’s original Articles of Confederation were a miserable failure because the document was nothing more than a treaty of friendship among otherwise sovereign states. Each state remained isolated among itself, leaving foreign policy and interstate regulation up to a confederal government that had no money or power to do either.

And no state of the Union was ever going to give up its power to a centralized government.

So the Philadelphia Constitution laid out a state institution held together by conflict. States had autonomy, but received much of their funding and power through the federal government’s money. Replicated through every major level of government was the triangular tension of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial houses.

That tension has maintained its stability – apart from a disastrous Civil War over ending the agrarian slave economy – for two and a half centuries. Although I think it might actually be in trouble now, from a chillingly successful attempt by oligarchical businessmen to take over the American state.

The Mercer family of hedge fund billionaires may be the greatest single
threats to American democracy and its people's freedom and
happiness to come along in decades.
Even so, these institutions aren’t passive, and already the tensions of the American state are flexing their power for the sake of freedom. That’s the remarkable, awe-inspiring power of a culture whose democratic instincts are mature, baked into the fundamental personality of a people.

Machiavelli wrote that success in politics rests on the happiness of the people. When people are free and can prosper, they’ll love their leaders naturally, because their leaders are helping them be free and prosperous.

The Italian’s wisdom is comforting and empowering to people living through the uncertainty of modern threats to democracy. Real love from a people for a leader can only come from freedom and happiness.

Resentment and anger only fuels more such anger, which will always turn on leaders who rose to power through stoking those hatreds. A free, democratic government will always be rejuvenated by the happiness of its people.

The question now is this. What will we do about despair? . . . To be continued

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