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Monday, August 11, 2014

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS 10 (Special Interest Groups)

Americans hear a lot these days about “special interest groups” having too much power and influence over politicians. Who are these people anyway? And what do they want? In Federalist Paper 10 James Madison calls these people “factions” and tells us what it is they want. Madison’s definition of a faction is this: “By a 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, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” This is superb English prose. But it’s not easy to understand; partly because of Madison’s elevated writing style, partly because of the complexity of the problem. Federalist Paper 10 is a good place to start if we want to understand the role of special interest groups in America.
First of all, Madison says factions are composed of citizens. In the United States these would be American citizens. Citizens of Canada or Mexico may have shrewd political insights, but they don’t vote. Special interest groups share a common goal and they want to turn American votes toward that goal. And the goal they want may be “adversed” (against) the interests of the rest of the community. Or, it could be that this group is more concerned with short-term or regional benefits instead of the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the whole country. But special interest groups (factions) generally believe passionately in what they’re doing. Otherwise, they’d be doing something else. The problem Madison is trying to solve in this essay is what to do when these factions come into conflict. How can we hold the country together if everybody is passionately pulling in different directions?
For example, I may think my own faction is good for the country. It may be true I’m making lots of money or gaining power because of certain national policies or regulations. But I would tell you that’s not the main reason I support my faction. I would say I just want what’s best for the country; like Henry Ford’s old saying: what’s good for Ford is good for America. But I may think your faction is driven purely by greed or its cousin, envy. You’re just trying to get special tax breaks or more tax dollars. Or you want things that aren’t yours. In short, my faction is patriotic and good, your faction is self-centered and bad.
This is only a slightly immature interpretation of a much deeper, and more serious, political problem. The United States fought a bloody Civil War because competing factions had competing visions of America; not just over what was good for the country, but a deep divide over the role of national government in our daily lives. Madison knew there would be a lot of money and a lot of power at stake under a federal government. Any time there are big changes there will be big winners and big losers. But Madison also knew factions contain many of the country’s best people, at least in the political sense. Factions are formed by citizens motivated enough to engage in public debate and they’re passionate enough to contribute personal time and money in the formation of public policy. Madison doesn’t think this is necessarily bad. In fact, he seems to think America should encourage this kind of participation in the political process. He says “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire…” The way to make factions go away in America is to take away the liberty of its citizens. But take away our liberty and America will suffocate. Madison doesn’t believe we’re just a random collection of individuals roaming the same geographical area. He wants a unified America. In that sense America is a big special interest group within itself.


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