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7: “A war, not of parchment…”

7: “A war, not of parchment…”

The Federalist 7: The Same Subject Continued: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States. First published November 15, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Stop. Just pause and take a breath. Every second day a headline is screaming at you about the dysfunctional debt ceiling/fiscal cliff/entitlement reform/tax expenditure/fiscal slope debate. It’s all worse than it’s ever been, right?

Well, hold on a minute. Let’s just stop and be thankful we have a national debt at all.

This may sound insane. But at least one world government is unlucky enough to not have a national debt: the European Union.

Now, if you’ve been following the news, you know the E.U. is in fact amply supplied with debt. That’s the whole problem for Europe. Excess debts in the “Mediterranean” countries have raised doubts about those countries’ ability—or indeed willingness—to repay those debts. Meanwhile, the more responsible Northern countries are able to pay their own debts, but reluctant to bail out their Southern neighbors.

Common_face_of_one_euro_coin

Every so often, investors get particularly spooked and begin a run on Mediterranean debt, which prompts tortured negotiations between the South, the North, and EU bureaucrats. So far, these negotiations have prevented a complete collapse of the Euro; but they have done little to convince investors that Europe’s problems are at last solved.

America risked the same basket-case diagnosis 200 years ago. Indeed, had the United States reneged on its debts, the consequences might have been more serious: As Hamilton alludes to in Federalist 7, this was an era in which countries went to war to reclaim money owed.

America had a large public debt inherited from the war. The national war debt was accompanied by state debts—and as in Europe, some states had been careful with their money, and others had borrowed recklessly.

In fact, America was suffering the same sort of money-induced paralysis Europe is now undergoing. The less-indebted states were naturally resentful of assuming their neighbors’ debts. And the Articles of Confederation (America’s previous constitution; see Introducing the American Bible) did not allow the federal government to collect taxes; only to ask for contributions from states. This had predictably mixed results. As Hamilton wryly notes:

For it is an observation as true, as it is trite, that there is nothing men differ so readily about as the payment of money.

The new Federalist constitution, on the other hand, neatly simplified this debate. The debt became the entire province of the national government; its payment, too, was left in federal hands. We need only to look at Europe’s debt debate to see what a momentous decision this was. Europe’s politicians are paralyzed by grandstanding, torn between local voters and European stability.

Imagine, if you will, an early-19th century America torn apart not only by slavery and states’ rights, but by debt payments and voluntary taxation. We would have torn ourselves apart far before 1865!—and been much easier prey for imperialist foreign powers, given how much less developed we would have been.

LineartPresRev

Or imagine our modern debt debate, complicated not only by Boehner, Obama, Reid, McConnell, and all the other national politicians, but by dozens of regional politicians, each grandstanding in favor of local causes, and appealing to local prejudices. Imagine that state governors could stop their donations to the national government. If just a few banded together, they could force a default. Can anyone doubt this would have been every bit the disaster that Europe has now become?

It is striking, in this light, to see how America and Europe have fared in the recent financial crisis. America was hit hard at first, as its banks contracted and its companies fired millions. But America’s unified national government stepped in, borrowed money without having to talk around 50 fractious state politicians. This money bought America stability, if not growth. Europe, by contrast, has stumbled and negotiated and bickered, and seems no closer now to solving its crisis than it was last year.


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“6: Fallacy and extravagance…”

6: “Fallacy and extravagance…”

The Federalist 6: Concerning Dangers from Dissensions Between the States. First published November 14, 1787. Author Alexander Hamilton. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Reverence for the Founders is an established American devotional activity. All countries have hagiography, to be sure—Turkey has its Ataturk, Chinese their Mao, Yugoslavs the beloved Tito. Yet as the above sampling indicates, most countries must regard these founding fathers (for, sadly, they are nearly all men) with ambivalence.

Yugoslav founding idol Tito

Yugoslav founding idol Tito

Ataturk, for all his liberal virtues, had an autocratic tendency and a devotion to alcohol which led to his early death. The man who secured Turkey’s secular future also bred into its generals a devotion to secular principles so deep that they would imprison numerous democratically-elected Islamists, and ban the holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Today, Turks remember him with a mix of manic devotion (secularists, the army) and a faint discomfort (Islamists).

Mao, of course, is a world of complication unto himself. To be sure, he birthed China through innumerable difficulties. Yet he did so at a cost of untold millions of lives lost to mismanagement, intolerance, and outright slaughter. What price nationhood?

As for Tito, he is still widely revered throughout the former Yugoslavia. To be sure, he presided over years of solid economic growth, and held together the fractious Yugoslavian republics. He even managed to play the two superpowers off one another to Yugoslavia’s benefit, always managing to deftly avoid too much outside interference. Yet financing the Yugoslav dream required fat soft loans from Western governments and banks, and Yugoslavia’s deteriorating finances from the 1980s onward helped lead to the disastrous 1990s. Not to mention, of course, the Goli Otok prison camp where political prisoners were beaten, starved, and sometimes even worked to death.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk is so beloved that his first name has become an adjective for Turkey's secular, Western-style government: "Kemalist"

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk is so beloved that his first name has become an adjective for Turkey’s secular, Western-style government: “Kemalist”

And so, how do America’s Founders stack up? They, too, have their guilty legacies. Uppermost among these, of course, is slavery—the American original sin, enmeshed in the Constitution itself and practiced by some of our most figures. If slavery was the most pressing moral test of the times, then many of our beloved Founders flunked.

Thomas Jefferson repudiated slavery, but largely in private notes and letters where it would not cost him anything. James Madison was said to have refrained from physical violence towards his slaves; but I think we can agree that is a low bar indeed. George Washington famously released his 317 slaves—in his will.

But beyond this singular sin, America does seem to have been blessed with an unusually virtuous lot of founding heroes. Beyond slavery, perhaps their next greatest “failing” was that so many of them were rich (many), male (nearly all), and white (essentially without exception). Yet if that was a failing, it was a failure of the entire era, and I think we can forgive them that.

George Washington, America's first president

George Washington, America’s first president

And against this, we must set their most astonishing virtue: They stepped aside. The other geniuses I mentioned above—Ataturk, Mao, Tito—all clung to power as long as their bodies held out. Each, as a result, doomed their countries to years of instability when death finally pried their hands from the scepter. Nor are they the only brilliant, devoted founders who eventually gave in to the desire to power. On the contrary, history is littered with such men: the brothers Castro; Bismarck; even Muammar Gaddafi seems to have begun his career as something of an idealist.

And yet, beginning with Washington leaving voluntarily after his second presidential term, all of America’s early leaders eventually stepped aside to allow young blood a chance. Even today, it seems, leaders are willing to throw away their chance at posterity to hold onto power just a little longer. Even as I write, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Muhammad Morsi, is ramming through a new constitution that grants him Mubarak-like powers. His country is once more on the brink of chaos, due to his simple arrogance and disregard for his opponents.

Perhaps America’s founders were special, then. They had a quality extremely uncommon in such special men: humility.[1]


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  1. Today’s column is, the reader may notice, only barely-related to the Federalist papers. Hamilton’s return column largely reiterates what Jay has said in previous weeks; but a brief aside of his on the willingness of powerful men to “sacrifice the national tranquillity to personal advantage” reminded me of how lucky America is to have been founded by people smart enough to not trust themselves.  ↩

5: “Formidable only to each other…”

5: “Formidable only to each other…”

The Federalist 5: The Same Subject Continued. First published November 10, 1787. Author John Jay. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

What if there had been three United States? Or even four? The idea sounds frankly bizarre, but Jay is preoccupied with it. In his prior three entries he’d dropped dark hints of his pro-confederacy opponents. Now, Jay chooses to end his section of the Papers[1] dismantling the idea, as a sort of final foreign policy coup de grĂ¢ce.

"Cascadia," a proposed union of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

“Cascadia,” a proposed union of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

If Jay’s preoccupation seems bizarre, the fact that a man as intelligent as Jay apparently considered this a very real possibility seems even stranger. The modern US is home to a few bizarre breakaway movements, to be sure: My own dear state of Oregon is home to the wonderfully odd Cascadia movement. Cascadians advocate the secession of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia from their respective nations to form the green, happy, and presumably deeply liberal nation of Cascadia.

Still, the thought of three, four, or more United States is an odd one. It’s a parlor game, or a thought experiment. All but the most devoted “Cascadians” would admit Cascadia is more of a fun fantasy than any serious aspiration. And while a recent whitehouse.gov citizen petition to allow Texas to withdraw from the United States garnered plenty of press, even the 118,000 signatures it received represent less than half of one percent of the Lone Star State’s people.

No, when modern Americans think of division, a different number comes to mind: two.

Civil War Map

Civil War Map

Two is, of course, the number of nations America divided into in 1865. And, indeed, the war has left divisions that haven’t yet healed over (as Tony Horwitz engagingly documents in the delightful Confederates in the Attic). From our earliest days of Federalist vs Anti-Federalists, in fact, two seems to be our natural breaking point.

Modern America, too, is divided in twain. Even the famous “purple state” maps of M. E. J. Newman tell a divisive story. The Newman maps are often cited in discussions of our “purple” country—the idea that our differences are much exaggerated, and that America is a purple state underneath.

Newman’s methodology is simple. His maps divide the US up by county, then colour each county according to what share of the vote it gave to each presidential candidates. Finally, Newman resizes each county according to population, producing a fascinatingly distorted view of American politics.

Purple States?

The picture isn’t pretty. While the country still averages to purple, the general trend is clear: Cities are blue, rural and exurban areas red, and the purple suburbs divide the two. There are mixed areas, to be sure. But nonetheless, it’s clear that Americans generally live near people who think like them.

As I’ve written before, this is where the roots of America’s political dysfunction lie. This dysfunction may not be permanent. But if 1861, 2000, and 2010 have taught us anything, it is that we need not have worried about three or four Americas. Two, it seems, can provide quite trouble enough.


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  1. Actually, Jay has one more. But it will be some time before we get that far.  ↩

4: “We are rivals…”

4: “We are rivals…”

The Federalist 4: The Same Subject Continued. First published November 7, 1787. Author John Jay. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

Jay (once again this week’s Publius[1]) clearly expects a war. This is perhaps not an unnatural expectation. Jay himself had only just negotiated an end to the Revolutionary War four years before. While Britain had formally given up all its claims to American territory, many Americans suspected Britain’s Canadian holdings would be the thin end of the wedge—and indeed, American and Britain would war again just 25 years later.

All around him, Jay sees predatory nations eager for a piece of a still-new continent. Britain, France, Spain: All would devour a young United States if given the chance. Indeed, Jay argues this is why we must have a United States. Thirteen sovereign nations—or “three or four independent bodies”, a possibility he mentions with unexpected frequency—could too easily be turned against each other.

In fact, as Jay himself notes, they would not even need to betray one another. A foreign power might simply buy New York’s neutrality as it conquered Rhode Island. And even if they all fought together, problems of command and coordination would plague the effort. One needs only look to medieval history to see the benefits of a unified command. Countless medieval battles were lost, not by inferior arms, but by competing egos and interests. There is little reason to think Americans would have risen above such pettiness.

Yet while Jay’s arguments are compelling, it is fascinating how unfamiliar his spirit is. Jay is so untrusting of other nations. Indeed, Federalist 4 is a testament to what a lucky age we live in. Jay writes that American states might betray their neighbors, for “although such conduct would not be wise, it would nevertheless be natural”. It is impossible to imagine America going to war with itself today. It is impossible, too, to imagine it fighting Mexico or Canada. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine the powers Jay so distrusts—England, France, and Spain—warring on their neighbors. We live in a more peaceful era.

We also live in a richer one. In Jay’s time, it was generally assumed that trade had a “winner” and “loser”. “Winning” countries exported; “losers” imported. Jay himself makes a similar assumption, writing of trade with Asia that “our carrying trade cannot increase without in some degree diminishing theirs”.

Jay wrote 30 years before David Ricardo revolutionized economics with his proofs that trade actually had two winners, and no true losers:

The very best distribution of the capital of the whole world, … is never so well regulated, as when every commodity is freely allowed to settle at its natural price, unfettered by artificial restraints.[2]

Ricardo laid the foundation for the economic revolution that underlies our modern, rich, and globalized world. Hans Rosling offers a quick explanation of the benefits 200 years of economic liberalization have brought:

Nor is Rosling alone is his optimism. As Planet Money has pointed out, the average American today is richer than than any person who lived in Jay’s time. Nor are the benefits confined to America: China, Russia, even African and Middle Eastern countries are much better off. While much of this is due to technology, it is also due to ever-growing trade: Trade has allowed us to specialize, and to benefit from each others’ expertise.

So if the Founders brought us one revolution to be thankful for, we ought also to remember the one that followed. The capitalist revolution of the 19th century, when married to the democratic revolution ignited in 1776, have brought us greater prosperity and peace than even America’s founders could have foresaw.

Even 100 years ago, the world’s richest countries were still full of poverty, and inclined to idiot wars. In a time when faith in capital and liberty has been shaken by crisis, let’s be careful not to sabotage this lucky world we live in: A world where dozens of countries can no longer imagine either war or poverty.


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  1. Though we’ll be done with Jay entirely in two weeks’ time. It’s Madison and (mostly) Hamilton from here out.  ↩

  2. See this section of On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation  ↩

Updating Tomorrow

I’ve just come back from picking up my newest Czech visa, a process that involved sufficient hours on a night bus to turn even Publius’s brain to goop (let alone mine!). Update tomorrow on Federalist 4; have a great Monday!

3: “An erroneous opinion…”

3: “An erroneous opinion…”[1]

The Federalist 3: The Same Subject Continued. First published November 3, 1787. Author John Jay. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

It is likely that Publius has no living reader as influential—and few as devoted—as Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia is known as the leading advocate of originalism, the doctrine that interpreting the Constitution requires considering the intent of the Constitution’s authors.

Asked earlier this year why he is “so convinced these guys [from] over 200 years ago were right”, Scalia answered with praise for Publius (and a dig at modern politicians):

You have to read the Federalist Papers to answer that question. I don’t think anybody in the current Congress could write even one of those numbers. These men were very, very thoughtful. [2]

Scalia’s commitment to originalism sometimes leads him to take unpopular stands, in ways that attempt to move American law away from what Scalia sees as unconstitutional innovations. For one example, take his decision this year in the explosively controversial Arizona v. United States.

This case considered the legality of an Arizona law intended to crack down on unauthorized immigration. The law, SB 1070, was intended to make life in Arizona so unpleasant for unauthorized immigrants that they would leave on their own—a policy the bill’s own preface refers to as “attrition through enforcement”.

The Obama administration announced it would sue Arizona to prevent the law from going into effect. Unexpectedly, however, it did not do so on civil rights grounds. Instead, Obama’s lawyers argued that Arizona’s decision to implement its own immigration policy interfered with national immigration policy. Immigration is a national matter, they said, and Arizona could not “preempt” federal law.

In a 5–3 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the Obama administration. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the federal government has “broad, undoubted power over immigration” which allows Congress to “preempt state law”.

Justice Scalia, however, disagreed. In a characteristically incisive phrase, he wrote that if the writers of the Constitution could have known such a ruling was coming, the “delegates to the Grand Convention would have rushed to the exits.”

Yet Scalia’s strong dissent sits uneasily with the actual words of the Federalist. In Federalist 3, John Jay argues that a strong union is a necessity so that American foreign policy can be unified. Jay wrote from experience. As an ambassador in Europe, Jay had been critical in negotiating peace with England. Afterward, he served as America’s second Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation.

Jay became a frustrated critic of the Articles, writing elsewhere that the authors of the Articles created a government “fit to give advice, […] yet destitute of power, and so constructed as to be very unfit to be trusted with it.” Biographers of Jay suggest that this frustration was a direct result of his own frustration at the limits of his office.

As a result, Federalist 3 praises the national government’s preeminence in foreign policy. States, Jay, considers, are prone to “temptations” to “swerve from good faith and justice”. Because a state is so small, and so easily dominated by a single governing party, its local politics are prey to all sorts of extremes. This may be fine for domestic politics, but Jay suggests that foreign policy requires a steadier hand.

National government provides that steady hand. Insulated from the passions of the people, foreign policy experts (like, presumably, John Jay) would be able to present a unified front to the world. In an age of European empire, with the Revolutionary War only just concluded, Jay saw that unified front as America’s lifeline.

Jay’s argument is sound—and born of personal experience. Jay’s opposition to the Articles came from having his own wings clipped. Although he would later decline Washington’s offer of Secretary of State, it’s nonetheless likely Jay was considering his own political future as well as the country’s fortunes.

Given its self-interested nature, then, perhaps Justice Scalia was right to ignore Federalist 3’s argument. Or perhaps he ought to recall that Publius, like all men ancient and modern, worked from a mixture of idealism, practicality, and selfishness. In that light, perhaps The Federalist and its contemporaries ought to count as just one more avenue to understanding the Constitution, rather than an infallible guide.


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  1. The observant reader will note the subtle pun.  ↩

  2. Quotation edited for clarity.  ↩

2: “Politicians now appear…”

2: “Politicians now appear…”

The Federalist 2. First published October 31, 1787. Please see Introducing the American Bible for an introduction to this project.

If one sentiment is shared throughout history, it is disdain for politicians. In our own times, nearly every congressperson promises to clean up Washington and move past politics as usual. If there’s one thing Obama and Boehner can agree on, it is that politicians, not people, are the problem. The people want politicians to get things done; it’s those politicians on the other side acting all political that’s the problem.

Publius picks on the same bogeyman. Indeed, Publius uses the very word “poltician” in a strikingly modern manner. Early in Federalist 2, he writes darkly that “Politicians now appear [… who seek] a division of the states into distinct confederacies… Certain characters who were much opposed to [confederacy] formerly, are at present [in favor].” One can hear the same voice President Obama uses to talk pointedly of “the other side”. Publius—and the President—need not name names. Simply noting that their opponents are politicians is indictment enough.

There is only one problem with this easy line: It’s simply not true. Politicians are not the problem. We are.

A scary truth underlies our present division. Voters are the drivers behind partisan politics, not our leaders.

My lifetime has seen a sharp widening of the partisan gap among ordinary voters. Those Americans who still identify themselves by party label are more divided now than at any point in the last 25 years, according to a study by the widely-respected Pew Research Center (see graphic).

This partisanship shows up in the astonishingly partisan districts many Americans now call home. More and more Americans live in areas like mine, Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District. My hip, city district has not elected a Republican since 1955. In 2012, incumbent Earl Blumenauer won an astonishing 74% of the vote. .

Of course, gerrymandering accounts for some of this sort of lopsided result. But not all of it. The politicians are also following the peoples’ lead. Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into politically comfortable neighborhoods and friend groups. That is not our politicians fault.

Nor is the rise of “independents” as comforting as it sometimes seems. To be sure, the number of Americans calling themselves “independents” has risen steadily. But telling a pollster you are “independent” may not say much about how you vote. Indeed, 28% of Tea Party members identify as Independents—yet Tea Partiers are hardly likely to swing between Democrat and Republican, in the way most of us picture an “independent” voter.

And indeed, studies bear this out. Pew’s partisan culture gap has risen by eight points between self-identified Democrats and Republicans. But it has also risen by seven points between people who “lean Republican” or “lean Democrat”. Clearly, independents are not as independent as we might think.

So if the root of our problem is the voters, is there any hope for today’s hyper-partisan, hyper-dysfunctional American government? Publius may just have the answer. After his cheap dig at politicians, Publius offers a suggestion highly unusual today: Trust them anyway.

To be sure, Publius talks dismissively of his “politician” opponents. Yet in the end, he calls for his readers to trust the “many wise and experienced men” who wrote the Constitution. He notes that they spent many months debating its points, and implies that this detailed study may make them better qualified on its merits than the man on the street—let’s call him a typical voter.

There is, in fact, a virtue to elite backroom politics. Voters should not be blind. Politicians are accountable to the people for good reason, after all. The people know their own interests best.

But perhaps us modern voters should consider being a little more humble. Our politicians work hard to make hard choices. A little bit more deference on our part might just get us that compromise Americans always say we want.


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