We don’t imagine that the trusts are going to drift naturally into the service of human life. We think they can be made to serve it if the American people compel them. We think that the American people may be able to do that if they can adjust their thinking to a new world situation, if they apply the scientific spirit to daily life, and if they can learn to cooperate on a large scale. Those, to be sure, are staggering ifs. The conditions may never be fulfilled entirely. But in so far as they are not fulfilled we shall drift along at the mercy of economic forces that we are unable to master. [Lippmann, Drift and Mastery, 145-6.]
A century after the American and French revolutions seemed to define the rightful, limited role of governments, John Stuart Mill felt the need to write an imposing essay on liberty. With the Confederacy insisting that government could have the right to impose slavery and the fascist era lurking over the horizon even as he wrote, clearly the need was indeed there. Mill’s purpose he stated clearly:
…to ass ert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to other. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or entreating him but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” American State Papers, in Britannica Great Books, V. 43, 271.]
This very strict standard of liberty remains far from being understood, much less implemented, in great part because of “an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation….” Even in the mid-1800’s, Mill could see the troubling force of this troubling dynamic, “as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear….” Indeed,
The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power…. [273.]
Tyranny of the regime, of the majority, or of society: liberty requires defense against all three.
…in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past….In time, however,…[it was] perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number;” and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power….”the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. [John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in Britannica Great Books 43, pp. 268-9.]
A century and a half later, amid calls to blame all the world’s Muslims for the behavior of its extremists without any admission of the foundational role of our own extremists in the generation of theirs, it remains clear either than we have yet to learn this lesson or that we have forgotten it and need to learn it once again…hopefully without such bitter classes as were offered by the French Reign of Terror (during the rise of democracy) or the McCarran-McCarthy purges (during democracy’s supposed heyday).
This quest for a legal structure to protect all of us as individuals from the tyranny of the majority, however, is but the first step in an arduous journey yet to be completed, one suspects, by any large society of humans. Far more difficult to achieve because of its subtlety, and more threatening to 21st century democratic societies, is conformity (neatly termed “social tyranny” by Mill:
…when society it itself the tyrant–society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it–its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does issue its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism. [ 269.]
Brilliance, in governance, is expressed in one’s ability to take the long view, and few Americans have ever surpassed a certain old political scientist’s gift for abstracting and deriving lessons from current events:
…perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad. [James Madison, as quoted by Ralph Ketcham in James Madison: A Biography, 393.]
The context of Madison’s remark was the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts which directly attacked that critical definition of American values, the Bill of Rights, by seeking to destroy freedoms of speech and assembly by making illegal democratic activism against “measures of the government” or bringing the Federal Government “into contempt or disrepute” [see Ketcham, 394]. Democracy (the method of governance) as well as liberty (the goal and value) were imperiled right at the start of the new American experiment in free government by one of autocracy’s favorite weapons, the assertion that “I, Autocrat, cannot be criticized…and am thus above the law.”
In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers: the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace….
The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue, which would make it wise in a nation, to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate, created and circumstanced, as would be a President of the United States. [James Madison, Helvidius No. IV, Sept. 14 1793.]
If “unanimity is not to be expected in any great political question” because of the fallibility of man, then the power to start a war should surely, above all other powers, be protected from the control of any single person.
Commenting on the debate over ratification of the proposed U.S. constitution, James Madison observed:
…the diversity of opinion on so interesting a subject among men of equal integrity and discernment is at once a melancholy proof of the fallibility of the human judgement and of the imperfect progress yet made in the Science of government….Companies of intelligent people equally divided…[urge] on one side that the structure of the government is too firm and too strong, and on the other that it partakes too much of the weakness and instability of the Government of the particular states. What is the proper conclusion from all this? That unanimity is not to be expected in any great political question. [As quoted in James Madison: A Biography, Ralph Ketcham, 237.]
As bitter as the pill of compromise may be to swallow for those genuinely aspiring to achieve progress, as opposed simply to personal advantage, the existence of opposition from both extremes simultaneously may be taken as evidence that progress is indeed being made. Unfortunately, the sad tendency of humans to achieve compromise by first compromising principles in a shortsighted descent into lowest-common-denominator deals of convenience that undermine rather than facilitate genuine progress should give pause to one facing such temptation. Madison’s own crucial mistake of accepting slavery as the price of union, the horrifying bill for which came due four score and seven years later and continues in the 21st century to be paid by American society in its seemingly endless fight against the poisonous and still rampant closed-mindedness of the white South powerfully exemplifies the danger of such unprincipled compromises of convenience (rather than compromises of reason based on the modest admission that no one, it seems, is ever likely to understand things perfectly).
If humans are fallible, and every politician who has ever lived has demonstrated this eternal truth, then we should not just anticipate but welcome compromise; when all are fallible and all agree, then the chosen path can only be in error. The danger is not compromise, for the very existence of disagreement should but underscore the inevitable need for course correction; the real danger is the basis on which we find compromise. A reasoned compromise that offers fundamental benefit to both sides by means of creative redefinition of the problem should strengthen the moral foundations and practical durability of the adopted course of action. Madison’s breakthrough insight that a republic need not sacrifice liberty as it gained in size–because greater size would increase the likelihood of having many factions balancing each other off such as to minimize tyranny of the majority [see Ketcham, 241]–illustrates the potential of a compromise of reason (instead of a compromise of convenience, e.g., agreeing to limit liberty or limit the maximum size of the new U.S. republic, devise a compromise of reason that accepts great size but with the strongest possible structural defenses of liberty, e.g., a powerful and independent Supreme Court, a bill spelling out the implied rights of citizens).
The debate every four years in U.S. presidential elections between those who aspire to elect a true reformer and those who cynically if accurately warn that failure to support “better than nothing” will simply give power to “worse than nothing.” Clearly, we are making very little progress toward the invention of a “Science of government.”