The greatest danger, Madison saw, was when the ruling faction was also the majority faction. It was then that what John Adams called “the tyranny of the majority” became a potent danger not only to minority rights but also to the commonweal. “When a majority is included in a faction,” Madison explained, “the form of popular government . . . enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.”
What Madison called “pure democracy” inevitably falls prey to the “mischiefs of faction”: “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
The only workable cure for this form of popular tyranny is a republican form of government in which a small number of citizens are elected to represent the rest. In a large country, Madison thought, this scheme could effectively tame the danger of faction, especially the danger of majority faction.
Madison and his colleagues devised an ingenious system of checks and balances that worked to disperse power and prevent its consolidation in the hands of one party or faction. We have had generations of lawyers and politicians who have expended their ingenuity attempting to circumvent those safeguards the Founders were at such pains to put in place for the preservation of freedom. One result has been the gradual transformation of the Constitution from an instrument whose chief purpose was to protect the individual from the state into a blueprint for the nearly unlimited exercise of state power. Another result has been the formation of a state or regime party in which the interests of one faction successfully infiltrate the prerogatives of executive and judicial power. When that happens, as Edmund Burke observed in writing about a similar abuse in 18th-century England, it is “soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, [are] things not altogether incompatible.” In other words, it is perfectly possible to have a society in which the forms and institutions erected to safeguard liberty continue to exist, but whose actual operation tend to trample on the rights of one part of the population in order to consolidate power in the hands of the regime party.
That, I believe, is more or less where we are today. And contemplating the way out brings me back to my party conversation that began with contemplation of America’s debt and issued in that modest proposal to bring the distinction between the makers and the takers in American society out into the open and give it official recognition.
I don’t think that will work — nor, frankly, would I want it to, since its effect would be to push us even further from the form of limited, constitutional form of government the Founders envisioned. But debt is also a powerful agent of change, as Greece is discovering to its chagrin. “What can’t go on forever, won’t,” the economist Herb Stein famously observed. Our profligate behavior cannot go on forever, cannot even go on much longer, ergo, it won’t. But when that stops, so will the lifeblood that is sustaining the unholy alliance between the state and the faction of takers. What exactly will happen when that stops is beyond anyone’s crystal ball to delineate. It will not, I strongly suspect, be pleasant. The question is, just how ugly will it get before it gets better.