I have been pondering various bits of wisdom from James Madison recently, not least this melancholy observation from Federalist 51:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. 

It seems to me that it could have been written, not in the 18th century, but yesterday. We’ve done pretty well seeing to the first bit: who cannot contemplate the coercive arm of the government without uneasiness? But what about the second bit? How are we doing about obliging the government to control itself? To ask the question is to answer it.  And Madison’s succeeding observation is equally to the point:

A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

“Auxiliary precautions.”  What do they look like? It is here that Madison lays out part of his brilliant scheme of balancing the various interests of society against one another so that no one can predominate. “This policy,” says Madison,  “of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” He continues:

We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other — that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

Indeed. And there are many examples one might point to close at home that dramatize what happens when those “inventions of prudence” lapse. What brought me up short today, however, was a news story from a friend about a worrisome development in Germany.  The homeschooling movement is a vibrant and growing force in this country. Leftists don’t like it, because it presumes to challenge the indoctrinating powers of the state with the civilizational imperatives of parents, informed by churches, local communities, and moral commitments foreign to the left-liberal narrative.

Leftists — there is nothing “liberal” about them, so I am trying to avoid using that much abused term — leftists in the United States don’t like the homeschool movement, but so far anyway, it has thrived, and is indeed one of only a few bright spots in the story of primary and secondary education in this country.

Things are different in the Fatherland of Germany, where a judge recently ordered that parents may not have custody of their children because “the family might move to another country and homeschool, posing a ‘concrete endangerment’ to the children.”

Got that? Let me repeat it just in case. A German judge took children away from their parents because “the family might move to another country and homeschool, posing a ‘concrete endangerment’ to the children.”