Guest Essayist: Richard Wagner


Federalist No. 10: Controlling the Violence of Faction

The central idea behind the American constitutional republic is expressed in her first constitutional document, the Declaration of Independence: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. This idea is simple to state and hard to implement.

We must recognize that ideas can’t implement themselves. They can be implemented only within some political structure. All political structures entail a tendency for governments to act on behalf of factions within the population, and then to assure us that they are promoting the common interest all the same.

In Federalist No. 10. Madison tells us that “by 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, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison was referring to the ability of some people to use the powers of government to their advantage by imposing disadvantages on other people. Faction is a quality of human nature that resides in our abilities to see our favored projects as especially beneficial for society. Someone might think a marshland would make a wonderful wildlife refuge. That person could always buy the land to create the refuge, perhaps forming a corporation to do so. Doing this, however, would be costly to those who desire the refuge. A cheaper alternative might be to petition a legislature to fund the refuge. In this way, taxpayers who do not value the refuge would be forced to support the refuge. This situation illustrates faction at work: a small but influential group of people can secure support for their favored projects by forcing other people to pay for them.

To some extent, virtue within the citizenry can limit the reach of faction as people refrain from using their powers to exploit other citizens. Yet interest could always override virtue, due to the ability of people to convince themselves that their pet projects are invariably publicly beneficial. For this reason, Madison looked to the constitutional structure of government as an instrument for limiting the reach of faction.

In this respect, the American Constitution featured a strong preference for local government, where people knew one another, over national government where most people were strangers. The American Constitution sought to limit faction by explicitly enumerating the powers of the federal government, with everything not enumerated being limited to states and to individual citizens. For the past century or so, however, this Constitutional limitation has pretty much given way to plenary authority by the federal government.

Between the Revolution initiated in 1776 and the Constitution established in 1789, America was governed under Articles of Confederation. The Articles recognized 13 independent states along with establishing a Continental Congress. That Congress, however, had no ability to tax and regulate individual citizens. All it could do was request support from state legislatures. In February 1787, the Continental Congress established a Convention to meet in Philadelphia to recommend repairs to the Articles. What emerged from that Convention, however, was not repair but a new Constitution that established a national form of government.

What ensued was a two-year period of intense controversy over ratification of the new Constitution. The 85 essays that comprise what we now know as The Federalist were a series of newspaper articles written to support the Constitution against opposition from those who wanted to continue with the Articles. Despite the ensuing controversy, we should note that both proponents and opponents of the new Constitution agreed that the prime purpose of government was to secure individual liberty. They also recognized that intrusive government was the prime danger to liberty, even though it was also recognized that some government was necessary to preserve and protect the American system of liberty.

Madison sought to explain how the proposed Constitution entailed a structure of fragmented and limited powers that would limit the damage created by faction. In being founded on a Constitution of liberty, the American republic expressly rejected the system of feudal duties and obligations that characterized the European societies of the time. Starting around the time of Theodore Roosevelt, however, the Progressivist movement within America has been striving to reinstate some of the status-based relationships of feudal times. This fits the Progressivist vision of government as the principle source of goodness in society. A battle for the soul of America has been underway for about a century, with the principle fault line being whether government is a virtuous artifice that is central to human flourishing, and with faction enabling governments to do their inherently good work, or whether government is a necessary evil that is always in danger of trampling on individual liberty.

Richard E. Wagner is Holbert Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

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1 reply
  1. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    The meaning of “interest” is central to what is impartiality: to be impartial means to be without any conflict of interest. This goes to the saying in the law “Nemo Judex In Parte Sua” meaning no one ought to be a judge in his own cause quoted in Madison’s Federalist #10:

    “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.”

    This is not the same as the prevalent misconception that impartiality is the same as unbiased. One speaks to what someone has to gain out of a question or issue, while the other pertains to belief. One can be both impartial and biased. But because the two separate qualities are confounded with each other, bias receives a negative connotation for corruption. But if we read Madison’s view on faction, bias has a purpose be way of attachment. A citizen is supposed to be biased with their own country, state, and community by reason of attachment. A system of republic government rests on its constituents having attachment in the making of laws that pertain to their being.


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