“Men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.” These are the words of Alexander Hamilton that have rung an eternal truth throughout the history of man. James Madison likewise explained:
It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections of human nature. If men were angels, no government would be needed. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
To summarize these quotes, we do not have gods to govern us. We have to figure out a way where we stupid, ambitious, self-interested humans can govern one another without oppressing each other.
So are we humans capable of self-government? If our governors are to come from the citizenry, they must have at least the capacity to do good. If human beings are entirely degraded, selfish, and perverse, then the only thing that can restrain a society would be a despotic authoritarian government. It is impossible to have political self-government if we are incapable of personal self-government, so self-government implies that we have the at least the capacity to govern ourselves.
Publius believed that, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judicial, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elected, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” So the founders of our country decided to separate the powers of government. The problem of the Articles of Confederation was that it was prone to majority tyranny. The founders knew that a democratic majority was not always just, and to believe so would be a “too good opinion of human nature” — for a democratic government could poison Socrates one day, then erect a stature of him the next.
Today I believe this “too good opinion of human nature” has reemerged. Herbert Crowley, a founder of the progressive movement, often advocated that the entire progressive project is dedicated to the idea that human nature can be improved, that over time, government can educate out the unjust aspects of human nature and change the people to the point where checks and balances within government are no longer necessary. Crowley believed the world could “progress” by tampering with the law, culture, economic structure, and the educational system.
The progressives believe that they can create individuals and condition them to have no other interests then that of the public good. Karl Marx himself objected to this notion, as Marx believed that a bureaucracy would institute an interest in of itself. The same selfish and ambitious aspects of human nature that Madison identifies in Federalist 51 would reassert themselves no matter how hard government tried to suppress them.
It is time for us to explicitly attack this claim. The attempt to create a perfect government is impossible — as Hamilton states in the Federalist 6, “It is time for us to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age of perfect wisdom and happy virtue.” We must always remember that we are just humans. While we are capable of self-rule, it would be a “too good opinion of human nature” to not provide “auxiliary precautions.”
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