Tag Archives: James Madison

Why We Fight

I'm reminded today of a set of arguments that I find both compelling and well-executed, a set of arguments that is sadly under-appreciated (in my view, anyway). And while much of what we do here is criticism, today we turn our attentions to some good arguments. We've commented recently on certain views on American patriotism, as well as on various uses and abuses of the term "fascism," especially as they are applied to those who might offer up dissent to the policies of the current administration. A troubling trend in recent political op-eds is that fascism–and its (erroneously so-called) cousins, communism and terrorism–has been posited as the binary opposite of patriotism. So, today we discuss dissent. And there could no more fitting day than the anniversary of this manifesto of dissent. The men and women who founded this country were concerned about dissent. After all, its very founding was an act of dissent. And so, once it was born, they worried what might happen if some recalcitrant groups of citizens decided to up and overthrow them.  One of them had an answer:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. 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. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

I'd like to note two things here: one, Madison begins by clearly defining his terms. He avoids any equivocation and the likelihood of misinterpretation by getting his terms clear from the start. Two, the argument here is clearly and deftly stated. No tricks, no semantic sleight-of-hand, just premises and conclusions. Read it through, please. It's a wonderful piece of argument. On a deeper level though, notice that differing opinions are not only to be tolerated by the government, but cultivated by the government. As Madison will go on to argue, it is only the effects of faction that need to be controlled, and this will happen naturally, as a function of widely differing opinions. This is not the language of fealty and demagoguery; it is the language of free expression and independent thought.

Here's our bit: this was written in a newspaper. It is no small shame that such elevated and concise discourse does not occupy the op-ed pages of today's newspapers. Instead we have partisan-baiting, ad hominem attacks, and rhetorical trickery. Our national discourse is in shambles and we bear the burden of bringing it back up. Don't settle. Demand something better. That's why we do what we do here. Not because we like to titillate ourselves with the cleverness of our ratiocinations, nor because we think the refutation of some pundit's stance on a particular issue proves the veracity of our own privately-held view. We do it because it is in the best American spirit to speak out. So, we'll be here, gentle reader, keeping up the fight. We wish you and yours the very best on this Fourth of July.