December 14, 2003

The Federalist Curve

Federalist #10 lays out a fundamental key to the success of the United States. Prior to the United States, democracies and republics were very unpopular as systems of government. Monarchies were the rule of the day. The problem of democracy was largely expressed as a problem of faction. Factions would ignore the national interest in favor of their own interest, tearing the country to pieces. A strong monarch was needed to order and restrain the destructive tendency of faction.

What Madison notes in Federalist 10 is that things only get worse as you increase the number of factions until you get past a certain point. Weak factions run to the law and are loyal to the idea of equal treatment because in the brutal equation of power politics their weakness would generate worse outcomes for them than an evenhanded rule of law. Strong factions use their strength to take what they can and improve their position beyond what they could get in an evenhanded regime.

But what if all factions were weak? What if there were so many different factions that government was by a shifting mosaic of factions which led everybody to always be simultaneously in the minority and in the majority on different questions? This would not only be more stable than a few faction system. It would be more stable than a tyrant or monarch. On a graph of stability and number of factions, you would end up with a j curve.

History seems to have borne out Federalist 10. The US is running on largely the same constitution that was passed in 1789. There are very few countries today that can trace their political stability that far back and even fewer great powers.

This is one of those baseline truths that should affect all political calculation in writing a modern constitution. Somehow, though, it does not. The most recent public exemplar of missing the point is the weeping and wailing over the enlargement of the EU. The addition of 10 more national factions should be a happy occasion for EU lovers who want a more even handed, fair, and stable EU. Instead there is much gnashing of teeth as small states resent the demands of bigger states to sit down and shut up while the big states feel that they don't get the respect due their size and importance.

This is an old problem that was resolved in the US with a bicameral legislature based on a large state friendly and small state friendly system (House of Representatives and Senate respectively). There is no reason that the same solution would not work in Europe but so far, nobody seems interested in taking the right lessons away from 200 years of political stability with a free society.

Posted by TMLutas at December 14, 2003 01:47 PM