Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Government

The New York Times published on Friday, February 12th, a poll that revealed, to no one's surprise, that the American people have lost their faith in their government and especially in the Congress. Only 15% of the respondents approved of the way the Congress is handling its job. Only 42% thought the Democrats in the Congress understood the problems of Americans and only 35% thought that the Republicans in the Congress understood the problems of Americans. As far as offering solutions to the our economic problems only 29% thought that Democrats have reasonable solutions and only 22% thought that Republicans have such solutions.

Now what is most interesting to me is that the underlying tone of this poll seems to be that the unresponsiveness of the Congress is not endemic to the institution itself. That is, the American people seem to think that this unresponsiveness is due to factors that can be changed within the framework of the Congress as it exists today. But it is far more likely that the phenomena we are experiencing are endemic to the Congress as an institution, not to the demographics of the current Congress. Here a little bit of Anti-Federalism goes a long way.

The Anti-Federalists argued when the Constitution was being ratified that the Congress could not possibly be a genuinely representative institution. For starters, it was just too small to be able to reflect, that is, "re-present", the American people. Moreover, given the length of the terms of office and the lack of any term limits, the Anti-Federalists predicted that the new government would be manned by people who were, above all else, ambitious. And the interesting thing about the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists is that the Federalists agreed with the Anti-Federalists' predictions of what would happen. They just disagreed about whether it was a desirable state of affairs, thinking and saying that ambition and the ambitious in government was a good thing, while the Anti-Federalists thought it would be a detrimental thing. As James Madison said in Federalist #51, "Ambition would counteract ambition" which would, in his mind then, render the new government "safe". For the Anti-Federalists, ambition in public officials was more often than not a dangerous characteristic and they predicted that a governmental arrangement that sought to draw the ambitious into the government, as the proposed constitution did, would be defective. It would seem that they, the Anti-Federalists, had it right. And now we have a government populated by ambitious types, those who hunger for fame or, at least, popularity and celebrity status, who are, as the Anti-Federalists predicted, out of touch with the people. Amazing what the Anti-Federalists could see even before the Constitution was ratified. They saw what we see even before we saw it.

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