10 April 2014

James Madison vs. Plutocracy?

A local paper has reprinted a recent editorial from the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts denouncing the Supreme Court's decision in the McCutcheon case to strike down more controls on campaign donations. The Eagle argues that the Roberts majority, by further empowering the wealthy, defeats its stated purpose of protecting the right to "participate in electing our political leaders" if the consequence of McCutcheon is the drowning out of ordinary Americans by those who can afford the loudest megaphones and buy up all the airtime. You can read the same sentiments all over the place, but the editorial writer in this case must have felt that it would really show up Chief Justice Roberts to cite the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison.  The Eagle quotes Madison as having written: "Government should prevent an immodest accumulation of riches." The editorial writer interprets this as a warning to prevent the corruption of government itself through the influence of immoderate wealth, noting sadly, "His fears were realized long ago."

As longtime readers may have guessed, it's time again to ask whether a famous person actually wrote or said something credited to him in an opinion piece. I usually catch Republicans citing counterfeit quotations, although they usually do so unwittingly, but Democrats can fall into the trap as well. In this case, however, the Eagle editorialist is guilty of no more than a condensation of Madison's opinion. In 1792 Madison wrote a newspaper essay noting the emergence, against his hopes, of political parties in the new American republic. As he was largely responsible for this development, having become an opponent of the Washington administration, or at least of its financial policies under his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, Madison had some explaining to do. His own view was that Hamilton was turning the administration into a party or faction in its own right, using his economic policies to win the support of bankers and wealthy merchants. How could the republic combat this evil? Madison had several suggestions; here's one of them:

By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 

You'll notice that the Eagle left some words out, along with some superfluous-looking commas. My attempt to translate Madison into 21st century American goes like this: government shouldn't do anything to make the rich richer at everyone else's expense unless there's no other way to get something done. Madison and his friend Jefferson felt that Washington and Hamilton were robbing Peter to pay Paul on the pretext of building an American economy, benefiting merchants, bankers and early industrialists at the expense of landowners and the white working class. Notice, however, that Madison isn't talking about the rich influencing government, but about government using the people's money to create a rich client class -- but it's implicit that those enriched by unfair government policies would then use their wealth to help their political patrons.

Madison makes it more clear later in the essay that he considers excessive wealth a problem in its own right. He proposes combating the evil of partisanship "By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." I'm not entirely sure what Madison meant by "silent operation of laws," but I presume he wants an alternative to blatant acts of confiscation familiar from ancient history and possibly happening already in revolutionary France. Most modern readers take this as Madison's advocacy of progressive taxation, which would probably come closest to passing the "silent operation" test. In any event, if the means seem ambiguous, the end is clear: not just to "reduce extreme wealth" but also, to the horror of many who think themselves Madison's heirs, to "raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." Madison concedes that this may not look perfectly reasonable, but " if this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism."  Some may still say that limits on campaign donations don't follow from Madison's suspicion of immoderate wealth, but Madison himself may have their answer. Later still in the essay he describes an alternative approach to his that would encourage inequality on the assumption that a wider range of social distinctions would increase the checks and balances in politics. In his summary, "This is as little the voice of reason, as it is that of republicanism." That sentence becomes false only by putting a capital R in the final word.

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