“Physician, heal thyself,” the saying goes. That’s not an easy order, the self-cure. I recall hearing about an explorer who performed an appendectomy on himself, but that doesn’t seem like a practical solution for most of us.
“Government, govern thyself” seems to be in about the same category. The Founders, skeptics about human nature, set up a government with three branches to counteract each other, and the legislative branch even has two bodies that often neutralize each other’s action. And then the states hold their own powers up against the feds; and municipal and county governments don’t always fall in line with what the state says.
I recently visited Yorktown VA, site of the definitive American and French military victory over the British and hired German forces. The Virginians George Washington and James Madison justly occupy a large part in the Yorktown iconography.
Washington was more a man of action but Madison was the chief theoretician of American independence and the constitution.
My attention was caught by a phrase, perhaps more of a quip, by Madison: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
I said to myself: “Well, how about the people controlling the government: isn’t that what democracy is about? Why didn’t Madison say that?”
Well, it turns out that he did say that. The Federalist, No. 51 (1788) is precisely about the checks and balances between the different branches (which he calls “departments” of government. Near the beginning, Madison wrote:
…the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. 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 on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 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. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
As the context shows, the famous desiderata about government controlling itself is not the heart of the matter, but is subsidiary to the main source of control: the people. Madison was quite right to envisage that government might tend to resist the power of the people; but unfortunately, the solution that he and the US constitution posit, the separation of powers, has proven unequal to the task.
That complaint explains why political enthusiasts who seem to have little in common can agree that government has gone astray. Sanders supporters may urge more government action in health care and education; and Trump supporters may deride government attempts to improve the lives of the unfortunate; but both sides agree that government has become corrupt and fossilized in power, that it responds to wealth and the oligarchs rather than to the ordinary people who make up the country; and that revolutionary change is needed to make government responsive and responsible again.
2016 is indeed a critical year, 228 years after Madison set down his ideas on separation of powers. As he feared, the legislative branch, with both of its bodies dominated by a common ideology, has consistently sought to diminish the executive by refusal to collaborate with it and to control the judiciary by applying the “advise and consent” clause with regard to political philosophy rather than qualifications.
Voters sense that politics as usual is not working well. Will this year’s election recommit us to the rule of the people? Or perpetuate the de facto status quo of money and media ruling? The stakes are higher than they have been for a long time; and James Madison probably would be distressed, but not surprised, that the three branches of government, in their eternal quest for power, are increasingly ignoring the needs and interests of their true master: the people.