Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS 15 (Government and Justice)

The Great Books cover a wide range of subjects. But of all the subjects we’ve read about and discussed, Government is surely one of the most complicated in the whole series. Why? In Federalist Paper 10 Madison said “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man…” Madison makes the point that the subject of Government is complex because the nature of Man is complex. Factions are just one small problem in this much larger and broader idea we call Government. The over-arching question posed by the Federalist Papers (and by extension, the question of America itself) is whether ordinary people are capable of governing themselves.
Federalist Paper 15 tries to answer this question from several different perspectives. And these perspectives in turn raise counter-questions of their own. For example, Hamilton (the author of this essay) says, “If the road over which you will still have to pass should in some places appear to you tedious or irksome, you will recollect that you are in quest of information on a subject the most momentous which can engage the attention of a free people…” Remember, the over-arching question is: can ordinary people govern themselves? Here’s the counter-question: will ordinary people stay very long on a road that even Hamilton admits is “tedious and irksome”? Thinking about Government is hard work. Reading the Federalist Papers is hard work. Some people will actually take the time to read the Federalist Papers and study the Constitution. They understand what it takes to be a “free people.” Will ordinary people do that? Is it necessary for ordinary American citizens to read the Federalist Papers and know how the Constitution works?
It may not be necessary to fully understand the Constitution in order to know how the United States Government is supposed to work. Hamilton says we can also learn “lessons from that best oracle of wisdom, experience…” Most Americans have not read, and will not read, the Federalist Papers. But we’ve basically learned from experience what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. We know if we get caught robbing a bank we’ll end up in jail. We know instinctively, without having read the Federalist Papers, the reason we have Government is to stop people from doing things like robbing banks. Hamilton puts it this way: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” Is it really a primary purpose of Government to restrain the passions of its citizens? Once again we find ourselves talking about the nature of Man. What are ordinary people like? Would we rob banks if there were no laws and police (Government) to stop us? Do we have to be forced to follow reason and justice?
We find ourselves moving from one complex idea (Government) to another one (Justice). We ask a simple question: what is the purpose of Government? Instead of a simple answer we get a complex question: what is Justice? We can’t understand the purpose of Government until we know what Justice is. Ok, then what is Justice? It’s not the purpose of Federalist Paper 15 to answer that question. However, Hamilton does point out how the idea of Government and the idea of Justice are closely related to one another. Government and Justice are not just vague philosophical ideas. They’re related down on the ground level of ordinary human experience. Hamilton knows ordinary Americans will ask “Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden?” Why should I pay more taxes than you? Why is my son going off to fight a foreign war while your son gets to stay safe at home? Federalist Paper 15 may not have all the right answers. But it does ask the right questions.


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