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Why We Need Hume’s Wisdom on Factions

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President Trump last week took a daring approach to justifying his administration’s more than $300 billion in tariffs, which American consumers pay except when manufacturers avoid them by eliminating American jobs. He told The Wall Street Journal the tariffs did not exist:

We don’t even have tariffs. I’m using tariffs to negotiate. I mean, other than some tariffs on steel—which is actually small, what do we have? … Where do we have tariffs? We don’t have tariffs anywhere.

Uh, well, yes we do. They may be good policy, they may be bad—actually, scratch that; impeding exchange with taxes that undermine employment is bad—but regardless, they exist. The question is why a claim to the contrary would be seriously entertained, including in places hard hit by tariffs where the president nonetheless remains popular. The reason is ironic: The very power that accrues to the office, the same power President Trump used to impose the tariffs, also breeds cults of personality.

Pick your poison on that: Obama, Trump, Obama and Trump; the show goes on. It was not supposed to be this way. In Federalist 10, James Madison was supposed to have upended David Hume’s taxonomy of factions, elevating those based on economic interest above those based on personality.

In his essay “Of Parties in General,” Hume divided what he called “real factions”—that is, factions based on genuine difference—into those based on interest, principle, and affection. Those rooted in interest were “the most reasonable, and the most excusable,” because they were also the most easily accommodated. The real worries arose from irrational factions, which included those arising from “affection” for political personalities.

Madison reversed this in Federalist 10, noting like Hume that people were prone to disagree over silly and vexatious matters like “an attachment to different leaders,” but arguing that the real problem was factions based on property. The reason is instructive. These factions were “common and durable,” meaning that unlike those arising from the passions, which were naturally fleeting, those based on genuine skin in the game were likely to endure.

What Gene Healy calls “the cult of the presidency” is testing Madison’s reversal, and Hume tells us why: Parties based on “the different attachments of men towards particular families and persons, whom they desire to rule over them” seem “unaccountable,” since people devote themselves to leaders “with whom they are no wise acquainted, whom perhaps they never saw, and from whom they never received, nor can ever hope for any favour.” People are “apt,” Hume continues, “to think the relation between us and our sovereign very close and intimate.” Why? The answer is power: “The splendor of majesty and power bestows an importance on the fortunes even of a single person.”

What Madison could not anticipate was twofold. One was the power of the modern presidency, which ferments cults of personality. The second was the technology of communication, which makes it possible—against Madison’s psychological assumptions—to sustain them. In his limited foresight, incidentally, Madison was not alone. Hamilton’s Federalist 68 says the constitutional process of electing a president, conducted via the Electoral College at one step of public remove, “affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Again, regardless of the poison one picks, this prediction is almost certainly false.

Like Madison, Hamilton could not anticipate either the power of the modern presidency—which is to demagogues what light is to moths—or the intimacy and immediacy of contemporary communication. Hume had said cults of personality were easier to sustain in “small republics,” where “[e]very domestic quarrel … becomes an affair of state.”

The immediacy of Twitter has, in a sense, restored the dynamic of the unstable Italian republics of which Hume spoke—that is, places where passions were easily communicable and sustainable. Madison foresaw this: He wrote that improvements in communication were “equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits….” Such was, Madison said, “favorable to liberty, where these [limits] may be too extensive.” But the careful reader of Federalist 10 will recognize that contracting a republic is not, for Madison, an unvarnished good.

Of these dynamics—the inflation of the presidency and the acceleration of communication—the latter is not going to change. The Twitter presidency, courtesy of Obama and perfected by Trump, is here to stay. Technologies often unfold in accordance with their nature—Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats gave way to television and the image-driven presidency; social media followed in turn—but rarely retract.

But there is no cultural, technological or, crucially, constitutional reason why we cannot consult Hume’s wisdom against Madison’s and depress the first lever: power. It is the mechanism that provides the most pull for depriving the modern presidency of its personality-driven mystique. As long as presidential power grows, so will our obsession with it.

This is hardly a phenomenon of the incumbent alone, but as in most matters Trump, his dial goes to 11. His Progressive critics, meanwhile, have snapped at this bait, insisting on discussing every public issue in relation to the president. In this, they are disciples of their prophet Woodrow Wilson. Approvingly rather than ironically, he wrote:

And in proportion as the President ventures to use his opportunity to lead opinion and act as spokesman of the people in affairs the people stand ready to overwhelm him by running to him with every question, great and small. They are as eager to have him settle a literary question as a political; hear him as acquiescently with regard to matters of special expert knowledge as with regard to public affairs, and call upon him to quiet all troubles by his personal intervention.

In an era when Presidents Obama and Trump alike have shared the gift of their views on the Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud, when chief magistrates live-tweet the World Series, and when the actions of lunatics and criminals must be cast in presidential terms, we can no longer call Wilson absurd.

But this view of the presidency is no less perilous for being so plausible. If power is dangerous, power fueled by personality is especially so. Meanwhile, those who complain of Trump “gaslighting” the nation might contemplate how their own side’s constitutional ideology, which places unrelenting progress and thus an unrestrained presidency at the core of the regime, has facilitated it. If anything, as Christopher DeMuth and Josh Blackman have argued, President Trump should be credited with regulatory reforms that have restrained his office. The problem is that, like his predecessor, he has also cast his mission in messianic and troublingly personal terms.

The only available answer to all this is to return the presidency to some semblance of proper constitutional scale and to restore the Congress to its pride of deliberative place. As long as the presidency remains an outsized locus of personalized power, it will attract popular obsessions and demagogues who exploit them. In this—trigger warning: lèse majesté—Hume’s foresight may prove to be a more valuable guide than Madison’s.

Reader Discussion

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on October 31, 2018 at 13:16:36 pm

The bridge from tariffs to cult of presidency is missing a few cable stays, but let's focus on the tariffs anchor. The writer takes the opportunity he gave himself to pray the Libertarian rosary and recite its Apostles' Creed: I believe tariffs are bad (and immigration is good, and in maximizing utility). Amen.

Naturally a doctrinaire feels no need to venture past the doctrine. In this case, no mention or speculation of why Trump raised tariffs, what could be his reasons. I think it is well known that some of his tariffs, if not all of them, are direct responses to the other guy's tariffs. Now, it's been a long time since I studied game theory, but I seem to recall that tit-for-tat strategies were found to be the most effective. So Trump is being a good political scientist with his tariffs, is he not?

As for jobs, maybe Trump is taking a long view. Rather than just sit by and watch US jobs continue to wither away over time and do nothing, perhaps a strategy of raising tariffs will increase the current job-loss rate in some industries but over a longer period perhaps re-establish conditions under which more jobs can be created and sustained? It's a matter of dispute among dogmatists, I acknowledge. But ultimately it is an empirical matter, not a theoretical one. If tariffs fail, then we'll have the evidence we need, no?

And Libertarian dogma insists on looking at just one side of the staff's headpiece, with the result that it hasn't found the Ark and never will. This country has already solved for the consumer side of the equation. What is driving the despair here is the producer side.

It may be that the writer's low opinion of these of tariffs turns out to be justified. But that will not be settled by faith but by evidence.

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QET
on October 31, 2018 at 16:49:59 pm

Approvingly rather than ironically, [Woodrow Wilson] wrote:

“And in proportion as the President ventures to use his opportunity to lead opinion and act as spokesman of the people in affairs the people stand ready to overwhelm him by running to him with every question, great and small. They are as eager to have him settle a literary question as a political; hear him as acquiescently with regard to matters of special expert knowledge as with regard to public affairs, and call upon him to quiet all troubles by his personal intervention.”

To be sure, Wilson saw the Executive Branch in expansive terms—but not necessarily the President him- or herself. In his book Constitutional Government of the United States, Wilson argued that the public demands ever more of the President, and to meet these demands, the President should seek the counsel of others and delegate. “The duties and responsibilities laid upon the President by the Constitution can be changed only by Constitutional amendment, -- a thing too difficult to attempt except upon some greater necessity than the relief of an overburdened office … and it is to be doubted whether the deliberate opinion of the country would consent to make the President a less powerful officer than he is.” Far from seeking dictatorial powers, Wilson advocates delegation of powers “without attempting the intolerable burden of direct control.” Yet, Wilson opined, “most of our Presidents have taken their duties too literally and have attempted the impossible [direct control]. But … as the multitude of the President’s duties increases, as it must with the growth and widening of the nation itself, the incumbents of the great office will … regard[] themselves as less and less executive officers and more and more directors of affairs….”

The only available answer to all this is to return the presidency to some semblance of proper constitutional scale and to restore the Congress to its pride of deliberative place. As long as the presidency remains an outsized locus of personalized power, it will attract popular obsessions and demagogues who exploit them.

1. What does “available answer” mean? ‘Cuz it appears that Congressmen generally prefer deferring to their own party’s executive. And perhaps they even prefer deferring to the other party’s executive if they can plausibly deny that they have any alternative.

To the best of my knowledge, Congress could bring the Executive and Judicial Branches to a virtual stand-still by eliminating their budgets. (Ok, Art. III prohibits reducing any federal judge’s compensation. But it doesn’t prohibit cancelling payment for clerks, security, or utility services.)

The problem isn’t in the abstract ability to do so; it’s in the will to do so. Congressmen generally lack the incentive to go toe-to-toe with the president or the judiciary. Impotently railing against other people’s wrongdoing is much more gratifying. Exhibit A: The 60+ times the Republican House voted to repeal Obamacare when such votes were purely symbolic, compared to the one House vote to repeal Obamacare now that Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House.

2. I favor reining in the executive. Arguably the executive needs the discretion to take prompt military action to defend the nation. But what purpose is served by giving the executive have unilateral authority over tariffs? In theory Trump has claimed a national security rationale, but why would a president EVER need to take unilateral tariff actions? Tariffs aren’t the kind of thing that requires split-second urgency.

I also favor the War Powers Act, requiring military withdrawal to begin 60 days after deployment unless Congress authorizes an extension.

3. That said, I suspect that winning the White House is such an appealing symbol of affirmation that almost no amount of diminution of practical powers would keep factions from seeking to win it. The more discretionary income people have, the more they invest in status symbols such as Olympic medals, Supreme Court verdicts, and high political offices. So I expect ever more obsessive tribal warfare for these symbols. Only by submerging the office in shame—making it the equivalent of a septic tank cleaner job—might we reduce people’s interest in obtaining it.

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nobody.really
on October 31, 2018 at 17:20:22 pm

The problem isn’t in the abstract ability to do so; it’s in the will to do so.

Exactly. I submit that will is informed by the awareness that Congressional inaction is the surest way to retention of one's seat. Congress' primary occupation is the dispensing of federal money to favored constituencies (Republicans, sadly, no less than Democrats). This being the prize that each party's eyes are constantly kept on (for despite all of the academic nonsense about the role of political parties in a democratic republic, their chief and preferred role is the doling out of money), any real action on the ideological front (other than SCOTUS nominations) simply embroils and entangles and thereby increases the probability that one will displease one's donors or constituents somehow (for who can keep track of the shifting winds of Internet-driven ideological fine points nowadays?) and, in the next election (which is always tomorrow), find oneself either facing a primary opponent or down 5 points in the polls against the other party's candidate.

Let the President take the blame for everything. More credit than blame is doled out in a democracy anyway except in historical treatment long after the fact. That is the formula Congressional leaderships discovered in the 1970s and have observed faithfully ever since.

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QET
on October 31, 2018 at 18:14:05 pm

In digesting the relevance of any scholarly analysis of "factions" , to the actual state of affairs, to the express functions of legislatures and the executive, we come face to face with the fact that "government" is now the Federal Administrative State (FAS), deployed through the mechanisms of constitutionally designated organs.

The functions of the legislators in the FAS have become representation of interests in the structures and operative effects of the FAS (not necessarily congruent with functions in the constitutional mechanism) and the categories of factions may be observed to differ from those in a constitutional "government."

The functions of the executive in the FAS may be seen as a manager of managers with functional assignments and delegations, which has come to differ (and be expanded) from supervision of administering the application of legislation. The "factions" here are probably to be found in the formation of the oligarchies that operate the "bureaucracies,"

Not surprisingly, as the FAS has matured, and its managers (and managerial systems) have become entrenched (in places, even hierarchical), the impact of the persona of the "manager of managers" has become more influential; such as proving power to "control." This has become a natural (and in public perception needed) offset to non-elected, non-responsive operations in an ever-expanding FAS.

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R Richard Schweitzer

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.