Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Thursday, September 04, 2014

FEDERALIST Papers 70 (Justice and Power)

In Federalist 51 James Madison wrote that “Justice is the end of government.” Now in Federalist 70 Alexander Hamilton writes that “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Why is “energy in the Executive” so important? Strong leadership is an essential component of governing well. And Hamilton says “It is essential to the protection of the community…to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property…to the security of liberty…” Evidently Madison thinks justice is the purpose of government but it sounds like Hamilton believes the purpose of government is security. Are justice and security just different words for the same thing? Let’s examine Justice and (executive) Power in relation to another Great Books reading.
Justice and Power are primary themes in the story of Billy Budd (GB Series 2). Billy is a good sailor and an all-around good guy. His only enemy is the ship’s Master at Arms, Claggert. Claggert has it in for Billy from day one. We never know why. Claggert probably doesn’t even know himself. But halfway through the story Claggert falsely accuses Billy of mutiny. Out of frustration Billy hits Claggert and accidentally kills him. Then the case goes to Captain Vere. Vere’s assistants all believe Billy is innocent. The crew believes Billy is innocent. But facts are facts. Billy killed Claggert. The penalty is death. Vere likes Billy but Vere is also the Captain and must make his legal decisions based strictly on the facts of each case. In the end Vere has Billy executed, knowing his decision would be unpopular. Many readers believe an INjustice has been done, not justice. But for Vere, Justice isn’t always fair.
What does all this have to do with the Federalist Papers? When Madison writes “Justice is the end of government” does he mean that government should insure an outcome everyone thinks is fair? Or does he mean the legal process should function properly, regardless of subjective feelings such as fairness? Most readers believe Billy got a raw deal. But they can’t deny he got a fair trial. Within the context of Federalist 70 the point is this: Vere was a strong leader. He didn’t use his authority for his own benefit. He didn’t use power so things would turn out the way he thought they should turn out. Captain Vere used the authority granted him to do the job he was given to do; which was, to run a tight ship.
Leaders with executive authority must be willing to (literally) execute, if that’s what the situation calls for. This is hard and that’s why very few people qualify for this level of leadership. The President of the United States can’t afford to be a weak leader. Hamilton put it this way: “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” It makes no difference whether we think the purpose of government is justice or if we think the purpose of government is safety and security; either way, bad government flunks the test. And a weak President is sure to lead to bad government. This leads to an interesting question: which is more important, the formal structure of a government, or the way it is actually administered?
The Federalist Papers would answer, both. We can’t alter the structural foundation of the Constitution without altering its administration. The President needs enough power to do the executive’s job but not so much power to be able to take over the whole governing apparatus. That’s the problem facing the Founding Fathers. How do we walk this fine line? Hamilton has his own opinion in the matter. He says there’s a “maxim of republican jealousy which considers power as safer in the hands of a number of men than of a single man…” That’s what many people wanted to do; distribute power in the hands of several people. Hamilton doesn’t agree with that approach: “…But I do not think the rule at all applicable to the executive power…it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people…” His argument is this. If power is disbursed equally through several people then when something goes wrong the blame will also be disbursed. We won’t know who to hold accountable and every problem will become, in contemporary terms, a “systemic problem.” In other words, no one is to blame. It’s the system’s fault. For Hamilton that won’t do. He wants a strong leader who can make the tough decisions; especially unpopular decisions. He wants someone like Captain Vere at the helm who can handle both justice and power without letting personal feelings sink the ship of state.


Post a Comment

<< Home