Friday, October 30, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 11)


THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 10.    A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Alexander Hamilton is less concerned in Federalist Paper No. 11 with the philosophy of governance than with strategy.  It comes down to a question of size: a state of disunion... It would be in the power of the maritime nations, availing themselves of our universal impotence, to prescribe the conditions of our political existence...they would combine to embarrass our navigation...and confine us to a passive commerce.

Hamilton has an eye to the future.  In 1787 the America he spoke of consisted of 13 states occupying the eastern-most part of a much larger land mass. The balance of that land was colonized by Spain, France and Britain.  It held tremendous untapped resources, had excellent access to the Atlantic Ocean, and useful interior waterways for transport, like the Ohio, Mississippi, St. Lawrence, and Great Lakes. Hamilton could see that the European colonizers were wary of potential threats by this upstart to their commercial and navigational domination. He could envision the potential for a union of states to become a prosperous player through trade. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 10)

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - Part 9.    A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers

In Paper No. 10, James Madison takes the wheel for the first time, addressing the criticism of opponents to the proposed republic that public good and the rights of minorities end up being ignored in conflicts because of "the superior force of an interested and over-bearing majority." I can think no paper of the ten that we have read thus far more applicable to our present political climate.   

Madison parses the mechanisms that motivate and mitigate factions, defined as groups of citizens united by a common purpose that is adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the greater good. The biggest motivator it appears is human nature. 

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.  As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self- love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. 

Egotism clouds judgment? I've never heard of such a thing!  He continues:

Sunday, October 25, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 9)


A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

It is impossible to read the history of the petty Republics of Greece and Italy, without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions, by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.

I read Hamilton's words and it is impossible for me not to reflect on the perpetual vibration of revolutionary moments.  I think of another republic - Weimar Germany - so named because in 1919, at the conclusion of World War I when the monarchy was transformed into a republic, the National Constituent Assembly was convened in the City of Weimar and its constitution drafted there.  The Kaiser left power peacefully, but even this relatively non-violent revolution was accompanied by crippling hyperinflation, battles in the streets of Berlin, and the murder of opponents of the leading socialist party  - the Communist revolutionaries Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht.  At this moment in America, we hear the screams of 'tyranny' from the left and 'anarchy' from the right.  I think that it's fair to say we are experiencing our own form of agitation.  Our framers sought stability for their burgeoning nation as they were coming out of a period of revolution, but time moves ever forward and when governments are incapable of being dynamically responsive to big societal changes, they become brittle and desperate.  Witness politics 233 years after Hamilton dreamed of his united states.

Friday, October 23, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 8)


A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers

 If we are wise enough to preserve the Union, we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us. Her colonies in our vicinity, will be likely to continue to much disproportioned in strength, to be able to give us any dangerous annoyance. Extensive military establishments cannot, in this position, be necessary to our security. But if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or which is most probably, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe - our liberties would be prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other. 

Hamilton again writes about the superior safety of the united over the disunited model, however, he makes a novel point in Paper No. 8.  European nations have a history of maintaining armies perpetually ready to fortify their borders and defend themselves against conquest, he writes. Regular skirmishes erupt to breach borders. The advantage is a recent history not of long violent wars and toppled empires, but of small towns taken and re-taken, a constant drain on resources. But the relative youth of America means that borders are not yet fortified. The result in a disunited America will be the easy victory of more populous over sparsely populated states, and a constant state of war that would be "desultory and predatory."

However, the ultimate cost here is that each American state, like the nations of Europe, will establish standing armies to defend their borders.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 7)


A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Avoiding internecine conflict between states continues to occupy Hamilton's attention in Paper No. 7.  He cites particularly, the likelihood of territorial disputes, given the "vast tract of unsettled territory within the boundaries of the United States," and the prevailing practice at that time of asking states to make concessions to the union that then existed in 1787 "for the benefit of the whole." However, he cautions, disuniting the states would mean that each could apply different principles,leading to more potential hostility without a "common judge to interpose between" the parties. 

 The same difficulty could apply to commercial disputes, and he imagines that significant objections are likely to raised by neighboring states if duties were levied by one against another.  Settling the public debt of the existing Union was a particular concern as states could disagree not only to the rules governing what portion of the debt each would be responsible for, but also to policy regarding the discharging of a debt in general.  

There is perhaps nothing more likely to disturb the tranquility of nations, than their being bound to mutual contributions for any common object, which does not yield an equal and coincident benefit. For it is an observation as true, as it is trite, that there is nothing men differ so readily about as the payment of money. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 6)


A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers.

Alexander Hamilton takes up the pen again in the sixth paper. He writes:

A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations who can seriously doubt, that if these States should either be wholly disunited, or only united in partial confederacies, the subdivisions into which they might be thrown would have frequent and violent contests with each other.  To presume a want of motives for such contests, as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties, situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.

The causes of hostility among nations are innumerable. There are some which have a general and almost constant operation upon the collective bodies of society: Of this description are the love of power or the desire of preeminence and dominion - the jealousy of power, or the desire of equality and safety. 

Masha Gessen reminds us in her recent book Surviving Autocracy of Barack Obama's speech upon the election victory of Trump in 2016.  Obama praised the democratic hallmark of a peaceful transition of power, adding:

The point, though, is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 5)



A link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers

John Jay writes in Paper No. 5 of a letter that Queen Ann wrote to the Scottish Parliament in 1706 in favor of the union of England and Scotland:

An entire and perfect Union will be the solid foundation of lasting peace: It will secure your religion, liberty, and property, remove the animosities amongst yourselves, and the jealousies and differences betwixt our two kingdoms. It must encrease your strength, riches, and trade: and by this Union the whole Island, being joined in affection and free from all apprehensions of different interest, will be enabled to resist all its enemies.

There's a sales job if there ever was one. Buy united elixir! It will remove blemishes, relieve tooth pain, improve the insulation of your home, and generally shower riches upon you - or it certainly will for the salesperson since she will have your revenue.  However hyperbolic Queen Ann's promises, they worked! Scotland and England created a formal political union in 1707.  It took only 150 years for the Scots to start campaigning for Home Rule. An independence referendum was voted on as recently as 2014 and almost 45% of Scots voted for independence.  When the UK voted on Brexit, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU in contrast to the 48% of British citizens overall.  The First Minister of Scotland claimed this as a justification for another independence referendum, but the Prime Minister declined to put it to a vote so soon after the last one.

Jay adds to the arguments he already made by using the example of the history of Great Britain to support why a united nation is preferable to a divided one,  The disagreements between the three nations that previously comprised Britain, he claims, kept them in a nearly perpetual state of war centuries, weakening their ability to defend themselves from the attacks by foreign enemies.  He proposes that multiple nations on the American landmass would create policy and border disputes.  He cautions that these nations will not necessarily be equal in their in their strengths, as if to say, if you welcome war don't be so certain that you won't lose. 

Separate nations would also have separate commercial interests, and their commerce with other countries would be regulated by separate treaties.  So adjacent nations could end up taking opposing sides in a dispute with a third party, risking the dangers of war with each other. 

I have always found it interesting when Americans argue - why should we care what other nations think?  Clearly the founders of our government had a different idea.  They understood that power is defined by the ability to defend oneself and to support oneself via commerce, and those abilities are dependent upon our relationships with other nations.

Here are links to the other installments: 1, 2, 3

Monday, October 19, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About Our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Paper No. 4)

And on we go with THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT.   Here is that link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers 

Did any of you read the opinion piece in today's The New York Times by Michael Albertus about the upcoming vote on Chile's new constitution? I thought it interesting to read in parallel to The Federalist Papers since it is about another populous focused on creating rights and delineating responsibilities of government towards citizens and citizens towards government, but they are doing so in reaction to an autocratic regime of the elite, so they are emphasizing accountability, citizen engagement, and decentralization, whereas Hamilton, Jay, and Madison were arguing for centralization. Chilean citizens vote to ratify or not on October 25.  I wonder what they will choose and whether there are pieces in their newspapers, or other media, doing the work of The Federalist Papers?

 In Paper No. 4, John Jay continues to consider the advantages of Federalism in ensuring the safety of Americans. He reflects on the ubiquity of war under monarchy:

It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenver they have a prospect of getting any thing by it, nay that absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for purposes and objects merely personal, such as, a thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts; ambition or private compact to aggrandize or support their particular families, or partizans.  These and a variety of motives, which affect only the mind of the Sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice, or the voice and interests of his people. 

Leaders who govern based on revenge for personal affronts or aggrandizement of their families and allies?  Outrageous. Thank heavens we don't have to put up with that anymore. That is only when the decisions rest on the "mind of a Sovereign," and having neither a mind nor a Sovereign at the helm of the now united states, we have nothing to fear.   

Sunday, October 18, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Papers Nos. 2 & 3)


Welcome back to THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT, a read-along challenge with the aim of focusing attention during the lead-up and aftermath to the 2020 U.S. election on something more essential than the mess that currently passes for politics.  Here is a link to Project Gutenberg's free source edition of The Federalist Papers. 

Papers numbers two and three were both written by John Jay.  Jay served many roles in the formative days of the United States - he was a delegate to the Continental Congress, President of the Continental Congress, Secretary of State and of Foreign Affairs for President Washington, Governor of New York, and is probably best known for being the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was known to have written only papers numbers two through five. 

Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with requisite powers.  

It's worth remembering that the American Constitution did establish federalism, because the states did ultimately ratify it. This is what we signed up for and yet today candidates regularly run for federal office on "anti-government" platforms.  Jay writes that the plan is "recommended not imposed," he submits it for the voters "sedate and candid consideration," but concedes that such consideration is "more to be wished than expected."  It seems is that the voters of his day may have been, shall we say, as driven by passion and impulse as are some of our own.  

Jay lays out the decision to be made by the voters of the time: do we look to the states to be the separate guarantors of our safety and prosperity, or do we confer that ultimate power on a consolidated union?

His arguments for Federalism begin with his observation that the landscape is physically undivided, as if to say, if god wanted it divided, he would have made it that way.  He shares his belief that "Providence" not only made land and rivers of beauty and usefulness, but that he gave them:

to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government...This country and this people seem to have been made for each other...

My reaction to this is two-fold.  On one hand, I feel disgust at the assumption that this land was made explicitly and exclusively for people only like himself. It was not made for the natives who inhabited it for thousands of years prior to his ancestors' arrival, nor for the Portuguese who settled it in the 16th Century, nor for the Africans who were dragged here against their will. The blithe certainty with which he writes could only be born of religion, which seems to breed certainty when humility would be more appropriate.  One doesn't have to look very far to see the descendants of this sort of opinion in the United States of today. When he claims that "we have uniformly been one people...every where enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection," I can only hear the delusion of someone who believes that their own experience must be everyone's.  

Saturday, October 17, 2020

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS PROJECT - A Commitment to Deep Thinking About our Political Origins in the Presence of Noise (Intro and Paper No. 1)

It has been ages since I have written here, let alone created a series, I fear that I may be out of practice. Back in 2007, I visited a poem every Friday in a series called An Inflorescence. That originated from a hankering to read and think about a form that would counter the statistical and scientific material that I was spending time with while earning a PhD in neuroscience. Similarly, this series is born out of a need to change the channel.  

The clamor of politics these days is reactive, ugly, and lacks the space for reflection on or reference to our political and philosophical underpinnings. Well, nobody is going to do it for me, I thought.  What would I read to counter the noise?  My choice was a return to a 'classic,' that is a work that has been judged to be of established value, and that was essential to our origins as a body politic.  

The Federalist Papers were written in 1787-88 by three founders of the United States government, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, under the joint pseudonym of Publius. They were published in three New York newspapers the Independent Journal, New York Packet, and The Daily AdvertiserThe Federalist Papers are a collection of 85 arguments to the people of New York State that the Articles of Confederation, the original U.S. government charter, quickly written during wartime in 1777, was insufficient in granting the Federal government the authority that it required to govern.  The papers advocated for the ratification of the newly written Constitution that proposed, among other things, the establishment of a federal government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and conferred upon that government the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce.  

Proposition:  With 85 essays, most of them brief, reading about one per day skipping a few upcoming holidays, we should be able to get through them by inauguration day.  I don't know about you, but I need a project that helps focus me on the original positive purpose for the establishment of these united states, that reminds me of the value inherent in a "government of laws and not of men," and that is on-going through what is left of the campaign, the election, and its results.  I invite you to read along with me and share your thoughts in the comments.  This links the full text of The Federalist Papers freely available on line- thank you Project Gutenberg.  

Caveat:  Please be warned, this is my blog. I write what I think here. I am issuing an invitation for reflection on and engagement with a classic work.  This is a space for civil discourse, and what is civil is determined by me.  If your comments are false, excessively whiny, or unkind I will delete them. 

And with the housekeeping out of the way, let's start with Hamilton's first essay. seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there by any truth in the remark, the crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. 

It is striking how seriously Hamilton takes the responsibility of the ratification process towards the future. One must wonder what he would think of the ability of our present society to embody good government, but his point here, I believe, is whether imperfect people can create a government that is better than they are.

It is notable, too, that he begins his consideration not with the arguments for, but instead with the obstacles to passage of the new Constitution:

the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the office they hold...  and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandise themselves by the confusions of their country...

Time and writing styles have changed, but apparently "men" have not, a strangely comforting thought. Blaming men, Hamilton continues, for their biases is a dishonest point of view. These men likely have honorable intentions and are simply making "errors of mind led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears."  There are so many reasons that a "wise and good man" can be wrong, he essentially writes. How elegant to apparently argue your opponent's honor, attributing his opposition only to misunderstanding, and to uncertainty that those who "advocate the truth" aren't motivated by greed, personal hatred or party politics. He paves the way for the role of the essays that will follow in attributing to his opponents the possibility of being influenced by them.

Hamilton is aware of the passion both sides feel in the debate over ratifying the Constitution and he counsels 

nothing could be more illjudged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterised political parties... they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations, and by the bitterness of their invectives.

Ratification in this context is about agreeing to a system of government with centralized powers, something still objected to by some today. Hamilton here makes his point of view clear:

The vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty...

I hope that I will have some reading companions to accompany me on this journey.  Assuming that I do, what were your thoughts on reading the first paper?