Friday, July 10, 2009

A balance between oppression and chaos 17/24
   The way of the judge

In 1786 Madison went home to Montpelier to prepare for the writing of a new constitution. He studied every experiment in republican and federal government that he could find. The problems with tyranny were obvious, and to this he added the problems with democracy. One of the “regular faults” he found was that both ancient and modern governments that didn’t have strong central authority were torn apart by jealousies and rivalries among members.

The lesson of the past was always the same: among free people, lack of an authoritative center led to jealousies, dissensions, and disorders among the members. This didn’t lead him to forget his passionate belief, over which he joined a war, that strong governments tended to be actively destructive of liberty. He knew that the key was balance: both freedom and constraint were needed.

He understood that if the parts weren’t free to respond to what they found because they were too constrained by the center, the system would lose contact with reality and crash. But if the parts were too free of central control, the system wouldn’t be able to act as a whole. When it met a crisis, its parts would act without coordination, or they would engage in endless communication, not responding at all, unable to use their resources to respond intelligently. And the system would crash.

Peace could be just as readily destroyed by internal quarreling as by the tyranny of an unjust leader.

The government that Madison and his colleagues built, a republic of laws balanced between the tyranny that results when a small group makes the laws for their own purposes and the chaos that results when law is overwhelmed by the tempests of public opinion, was, as Lincoln told a later generation, “the last, best hope of the earth.” From Lincoln’s position in time he could see that the future of western civilization was taking shape in the great nations of Germany, Russia and America. Otto von Bismarck was destroying the rule of law in Germany and Alexander II was autocratically trying to guide Russia between a feudal past and a brutal revolutionary future.

Lincoln saw in America humanity’s best chance to preserve the rule of law from the constant tendency of civic governments to disintegrate into bickering factions or, through a series of emergencies, to degenerate into slave empires.

These are still the dangers we face. America is still our best hope.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 07/10 at 12:00 PM
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