Sunday, January 24, 2010

Locke's Russian Dolls

(fm the BC thread "Magic")

This really is a debate over semantics rather than content. On occasion I have made the same point that you do. The problem is that doing so works up to a point as a debating tactic but it elides a basic principle we should focus on.

The sovereignty of the people, after that of God, is the basis of the polity in a Lockean system. The people express their sovereignty through the legislature. In the original American Constitution that was done through the House of Representatives biannually and in state legislatures elected annually. No district exceeded the size of the ideal polis, about 60,000. With only a fraction qualified to vote politicians were closely tied to their communities. That made us a Democracy.

The Founders were schooled in the schema laid out in Aristotle's Politics and Polybius’ Histories. They did not want a pure Democracy because they were very aware that Aristotle said that was a degenerate case of Constitutional Rule and even if your basic principles were less Aristocratic then as Polybius described Democracy tends to degenerate into Ochlocracy or Mob Rule. They were rejecting Monarchy, which posses the virtues of decisiveness and unity or freedom from faction. The vice it is associated with is a tendency to arbitrary rule that degenerates into Tyranny.

The traditional 3rd way between Monarchy, in which according to Hobbes sovereignty is conferred down by God to an anointed ruler, and Democracy, based on sovereignty conferred on humanity by God in biblical times, was the Republic. The American system is a functioning Republic.

However the classical ideal of the Republic in Rome failed and lapsed back into a Monarchy. Why did that happen? The problem is that every Republic before America was an Aristocracy based on the sovereignty of a narrow and artificial elite. In Aristotle's schema they degenerated into Oligarchy. The virtues of an Aristocracy are the leisure, wisdom and loyalty of the rulers. The vices of an Oligarchy are corruption, intrigue and the fundamental illegitimacy of the system in a theological sense. God may anoint a king or may have anointed all Believers but he never anointed the Lords. The most aristocratic elements in society are the judges and the Officers of the State. In Madison’s Constitution the most overtly aristocratic component was the Senate but the Senators were themselves selected by the most Democratic element in the system, the state legislatures. Officers, civil and military and the members of the Judiciary, are all subject to confirmation by the Senate. Similarly the component closest to Monarchy in the Executive branch was chosen by Electors chosen by those same most democratic bodies, the State legislatures.

The genius of Madison and his peers was that they crafted a system in which the virtues of all 3 archetypes are brought together in a balance that checks the vices and tendency to degenerate that each are prone to. The legitimacy of all elements are rooted in popular sovereignty. That was the great innovation that distinguished the American system from that of the idealized but failed Roman Republic. The Executive is a limited Monarch based on the authority of Republican Electors and with officers confirmed by the Republican Aristocracy of the Senate, as are all members of the Judiciary. The authority of the Senators and Electors themselves rested on the legitimacy of the State legislatures who derived their authority directly from the Sovereign people. That is why we are a Democracy embedding a Constitutional Republic, with a controlled Monarchial element. Each is nested within the legitimacy of the element that precedes it.

The Electoral College is a subject that I have seized upon with particular enthusiasm. Mark Steyn has said he gets to be a Demography bore and everyone else gets to choose their own peculiarity. Regular visitors to the Club have heard my suggestions as to how to restore the original intent of the Founders on this topic in boring detail.

My hope that this possibly entertaining digression will not become another occasion for a sterile dispute between people who agree about more important matters.

Your position seems right to me. The concept was originally to have voting by Heads of Households. Servants, especially indentured servants, who could be white, did not vote in elections for colonial councils. Slaves were a bastard concept of permanent inherited indentured servitude. It would be worth researching how independent women who were Heads of Households and Free Blacks were viewed in different parts of the country. My argument was that until very recent times, and for some of us even now, saying that the electoral franchise would be exercised by households was the point of the Census and was seen as making America a Democracy consistent with the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty.

Jan 25, 2010 - 11:02 am

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