Centinel's Criticism of Checks and Balances

Antifederalist author “Centinel” (most likely Pennsylvanian Samuel Bryan) takes on a version of the well-known claim in Federalist 51 that the Constitution’s separation-of-power system channels the selfish ambition of politicians to serve the public good. In doing so he criticizes both the design of the then-proposed Constitution as well as the idea that republican institutions can be designed in such a way as to overcome deficiencies in human character.

Centinel takes on a variation of James Madison’s Federalist 51 claim, he did not develop his argument as a specific rebuttal to Madison’s argument. Centinel publishes this criticism of the Constitution in early October 1787. Madison did not publish Federalist 51 until February 1788. Centinel’s foil in his first letter is John Adams.

One part of Adams’ constitutional theory does not neatly fit with the then-proposed national Constitution. Adams drew on traditional arguments for mixed-government constitutionalism, albeit amended in application to republican government in the United States. In classic mixed-government theory, however, it is three social estates—monarchy, aristocracy, and the demos—which interact to check and balance each other. In contrast, as is well known, the moving parts in the U.S. Constitution are the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) which check and balance each other.

Nonetheless, Centinel’s criticism of the idea that institutions can yoke the self-interest of politicians to promote the public good applies as much to this central feature of Madison’s argument in Federalist 51 as it does to Adams’ argument. Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51 that institutions can be designed such that “ambition . . . counteract[s] ambition.” Adams’ posited that “power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest.”

It is this common feature of Madison’s and Adam’s thought that Centinel criticizes. Both basically posit a political variant of Adam Smith’s invisible hand argument by which in market economies pursuit of self-interest advances the common welfare.

However, Centinel rejects the notion that in politics individual vice can be made to serve public virtue. He writes, “If the administrators of every government are actuated by views of private interest and ambition, how is the welfare and happiness of this community to be the result of such jarring adverse interests?”

Centinel also denies the idea that mechanism design can substitute for citizen virtue in republican political systems. Mechanically self-regulating political systems are chimerical. Only politically-attentive citizens—actual people, not systems—can hold politicians accountable and induce them to serve the people’s interest rather than their own. Centinel writes:

A republican or free government can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous and where property is pretty equally divided; in such a government the people are the sovereign, and their sense or opinion is the criterion for every public measure. When this ceases to be the case, the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, or monarchy or despotism will rise on its ruins.

Centinel’s bit about the need for a roughly equal division of property in republican polities takes aim at Adams’ institutional accommodation of the rich and powerful on one legislative chamber—albeit as much to minimize their influence if the legislature were a unicameral one as to accommodate their interests directly.

More critically for the debate over the Constitution is that republican government requires virtuous citizens closely to monitor politicians for perfidy. He denies institutional design can substitute for the monitoring. Centinel argues that it’s too difficult to calibrate systems of institutional checks and balances successfully to channel the efforts of self-interested politicians into advancing the public good. He writes that Adams’

hypothesis supposes human wisdom competent to the task of instituting three co-equal orders in government, and a corresponding weight in the community to enable them respectively to exercise their several parts, and whose views and interests should be so distinct as to prevent a coalition of any two of them for the destruction of the third.

Again, Adams’ views are not identical to Madison’s. Yet the common element between the two, the element to which Centinel responds, is their shared belief that institutions can be arranged so that politicians’ self-interest would lead them, as if by an invisible hand, to promote the common good. It is this common theme that Centinel attacks. Institutional mechanisms cannot remedy deficiencies in human virtue. We cannot trust, he suggests, institutional arrangements autonomously to promote the common welfare when citizen monitoring and engagement falls short.

Centinel subsequently applies his argument to criticize the Constitution’s creation of a bicameral Congress. Far from promoting the common welfare, bicameralism, he argues, is actually democratically debilitating. It hinders even a virtuous citizenry from its ability to provide effective restraints on the behavior of self-interested politicians. I plan to discuss this part of Centinel’s piquant criticisms of separation-of-power theory in my next post.