Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
In the midst of discussing questions of tax power and policy, Federalist 35 ventures into a fascinating argument about the nature of representation in a democratic republic – a very relevant question today.
The argument about representation is a response to an Anti-Federalist claim that the House of Representatives will be too small to contain citizens from all classes and occupations, and that this will prevent “a due sympathy between the representative body and its constituents.”
When we first read this, we can’t help but identify with the Anti-Federalists. In 21st Century America there could hardly be less sympathy between our representative body and its constituents!
But upon further investigation, Hamilton argues, we will see that the Anti-Federalists’ argument is “made up of nothing but fair sounding words.” Most significantly, he rejects the call for “an actual representation of all classes of the people by persons of each class.”
There are two related problems with the Anti-Federalists’ argument, according to Hamilton. The first is that it misunderstands the nature of representation. The Anti-Federalists presumed that representation should produce a legislature that is a “mirror” of the public at large. It should look like a microcosm of the people themselves if they could assemble directly for the purpose of making laws. Representation, in this view, is merely a practical mechanism which should reflect direct democracy as much as possible. It should not refine public opinion.
The second but related problem with the Anti-Federalists’ argument, Hamilton claims, is that representatives are not mere guardians of a particular interest. They are supposed to pursue the common good of the whole society. To argue that a legislative body should contain a composite of classes and occupations equal to the society at large is to imply that a cobbler’s interest can only be pursued by a cobbler, that an attorney’s interest can only be pursued by an attorney, and so on.
Such a claim is an affront to the Founders’ principle of equality, because it assumes that it is impossible for representatives to transcend the particular interests of society and pursue the good which is common to all. It implies that our interests are so different that they cannot be reconciled, and that the only alternative we have is a constant struggle of class against class, economic interest against economic interest.
In essence, the basic question is this: are we merely the sum of a variety of interests, or is there something higher than our parts? Should our legislature simply be composed of a variety of classes and occupations, each looking out for itself, or should representatives be chosen who can transcend these particular interests and combine them for the good of the whole?
Hamilton and the Founders were not so naïve as to think that various economic interests will always be harmonious. But they argued that representation would subordinate the pursuit of these particular interests to the pursuit of the general good. The way to do this is not to give every interest a seat at the table, but to keep representatives accountable to all of their constituents.
Hamilton argues, “Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of his people and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow-citizens…should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations and should be willing to allow them the proper degree of influence upon his conduct?” Electoral accountability is the way to ensure that representatives pursue the public good, because it forces representatives to be informed of all of the interests of their constituents.
“This dependence” on the votes of the people, Hamilton concludes “and the necessity of being bound himself and his posterity by the laws to which he gives his assent…are the only strong chords of sympathy between the representatives and the government.”
In today’s politics, it often seems like representatives more often seek to satisfy particular interest groups than pursue the common good of the whole. Some have argued that the Founders wanted it to be this way. But in Federalist 35 Hamilton reminds us that a representative republic allows us to be governed by those who place the public good over the clash of particular interests.
Most importantly, we can only pursue the common good by abandoning the idea of separating ourselves into classes. Dividing ourselves into separate classes overlooks the natural human equality that is the basis of our rights, and it overlooks the common interests and affections that bind us together as Americans.
Joseph Postell is the Assistant Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Dallas.