United States Government/Civic Society/Natural rights and Classical Republicanism in America

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Mr. Emore's Class : Heffernan vs. Classical Republicans

(a dialogue)

GENERAL TENDENCY OF THE LAWS UNDER AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, AND INSTINCTS OF THOSE WHO APPLY THEM. Defects of a democratic government easy to be discovered--Its advantages discerned only by long observation--Democracy in America often inexpert, but the general tendency of the laws is advantageous--In the American democracy public officers have no permanent interests distinct from those of the majority--Results of this state of things.

THE defects and weaknesses of a democratic government may readily be discovered; they can be proved by obvious facts, whereas their healthy influence becomes evident in ways which are not obvious and are, so to speak, hidden. A glance suffices to detect its faults, but its good qualities can be discerned only by long observation. The laws of the American democracy are frequently defective or incomplete; they sometimes attack vested rights, or sanction others which are dangerous to the community; and even if they were good, their frequency would still be a great evil. How comes it, then, that the American republics prosper and continue?

In the consideration of laws a distinction must be carefully observed between the end at which they aim and the means by which they pursue that end; between their absolute and their relative excellence. If it be the intention of the legislator to favor the interests of the minority at the expense of the majority, and if the measures he takes are so combined as to accomplish the object he has in view with the least possible expense of time and exertion, the law may be well drawn up although its purpose is bad; and the more efficacious it is, the more dangerous it will be.

Democratic laws generally tend to promote the welfare of the greatest possible number; for they emanate from the majority of the citizens, who are subject to error, but who cannot have an interest opposed to their own advantage. The laws of an aristocracy tend, on the contrary, to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the minority; because an aristocracy, by its very nature, constitutes a minority. It may therefore be asserted, as a general proposition, that the purpose of a democracy in its legislation is more useful to humanity than that of an aristocracy. This, however, is the sum total of its advantages.

Aristocracies are infinitely more expert in the science of legislation than democracies ever can be. They are possessed of a selfcontrol that protects them from the errors of temporary excitement; and they form far-reaching designs, which they know how to mature till a favorable opportunity arrives. Aristocratic government proceeds with the dexterity of art; it understands how to make the collective force of all its laws converge at the same time to a given point. Such is not the case with democracies, whose laws are almost always ineffective or inopportune. The means of democracy are therefore more imperfect than those of aristocracy, and the measures that it unwittingly adopts are frequently opposed to its own cause; but the object it has in view is more useful.

Let us now imagine a community so organized by nature or by its constitution that it can support the transitory action of bad laws, and that it can await, without destruction, the general tendency of its legislation: we shall then conceive how a democratic government, notwithstanding its faults, may be best fitted to produce the prosperity of this community. This is precisely what has occurred in the United States; and I repeat, what I have before remarked, that the great advantage of the Americans consists in their being able to commit faults which they may afterwards repair.

An analogous observation may be made respecting public officers. It is easy to perceive that American democracy frequently errs in the choice of the individuals to whom it entrusts the power of the administration; but it is more difficult to say why the state prospers under their rule. In the first place, it is to be remarked that if, in a democratic state, the governors have less honesty and less capacity than elsewhere, the governed are more enlightened and more attentive to their interests. As the people in democracies are more constantly vigilant in their affairs and more jealous of their rights, they prevent their representatives from abandoning that general line of conduct which their own interest prescribes. In the second place, it must be remembered that if the democratic magistrate is more apt to misuse his power, he possesses it for a shorter time. But there is yet another reason which is still more general and conclusive. It is no doubt of importance to the welfare of nations that they should be governed by men of talents and virtue; but it is perhaps still more important for them that the interests of those men should not differ from the interests of the community at large; for if such were the case, their virtues might become almost useless and their talents might be turned to a bad account. I have said that it is important that the interests of the persons in authority should not differ from or oppose the interests of the community at large; but I do not insist upon their having the same interests as the whole population, because I am not aware that such a state of things ever existed in any country.

No political form has hitherto been discovered that is equally favorable to the prosperity and the development of all the classes into which society is divided. These classes continue to form, as it were, so many distinct communities in the same nation; and experience has shown that it is no less dangerous to place the fate of these classes exclusively in the hands of any one of them than it is to make one people the arbiter of the destiny of another. When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always endangered, and when the poor make the laws, that of the rich incurs very serious risks. The advantage of democracy does not consist, therefore, as has sometimes been asserted, in favoring the prosperity of all, but simply in contributing to the well-being of the greatest number. The men who are entrusted with the direction of public affairs in the United States are frequently inferior, in both capacity and morality, to those whom an aristocracy would raise to power. But their interest is identified and mingled with that of the majority of their fellow citizens. They may frequently be faithless and frequently mistaken, but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority; and they cannot give a dangerous or exclusive tendency to the government.

The maladministration of a democratic magistrate, moreover, is an isolated fact, which has influence only during the short period for which he is elected. Corruption and incapacity do not act as common interests which may connect men permanently with one another. A corrupt or incapable magistrate will not combine his measures with another magistrate simply because the latter is as corrupt and incapable as himself; and these two men will never unite their endeavors to promote the corruption and inaptitude of their remote posterity. The ambition and the maneuvers of the one will serve, on the contrary, to unmask the other. The vices of a magistrate in democratic states are usually wholly personal.


Voice 1: This philohsophy represents how the individual over society, whereas classical republicanism advocates the betterment of society even when restricting personal liberty. Both these systems influenced the framers. Natural rights citizens form a social contract, consenting to form a government designed to protect their own interests. They participate to ensure the protection of their rights. Further, citizens can change the government if it fails to protect those rights. In Classical republicanism, citizens accept their obligation to the good of the whole. They participate because it is their civic duty. Citizens could rarely enter republics which effectively constrained them from leaving their own.

Voice 2: Ben Franklin believed the citizen’s rights often outweigh priorities of government. He said “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Conversely, the Greek orator Pericles said, “The merits of a citizen outweigh the demerits of an individual.” To him and other classical republicans, sacrifices made for community were significant enough to offset personal errors.

Voice 3: The belief at the Convention was that classical republicanism would only work in small, homogeneous societies where citizens had similar goals. Therefore natural rights philosophy is more clearly exhibited in the Constitution, as in Article one Section nine, which prohibits the government from suspending important rights.

Voice 4: My definition of common good is the promotion of the good of society seen as a whole, as in classical republicanism.

Voice 1: The common good in respect to natural rights philosophy is the maximum amount of liberties for the individual. This is my definition of common good.

Voice 3: In my opinion each system is fatally flawed, they isolated paths to reach the common good. Classical republicanism discouraged individuality, punishing it by exile or death, as shown by the example of Socrates, who was executed for teaching people to question society. Natural rights societies do not ask their citizens to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Today’s drive for private gains ignores community goods like clean air, schools, and parks.

Voice 2: We purpose that the simultaneous advancement of society and the individual is the real common good. This is not a compromise or an average between classical republicanism and natural rights, the benefits of both systems are included entirely. In short, the common good is a fusion of these two extremes.

Voice 3: Historically politics has not used our definition due to its difficulty to attain. Instead they are compromises including some of both systems. In actuality, the common good is more than a perfect compromise, it is what is best for both at the same time. The framers understood this ideal; Madison said “the public Good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; no form of government… has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.”

Voice 1: My idea of common good, the natural rights theory, can be determined only by every individual deciding what is best for themselves.

Voice 4: I disagree. I believe in the classical republicanism take on common good, which is determined by the selfless wise for the benefit of society.

Voice 3: No, the common good is the selfless wise weighing the opinions of the masses to maximize the individual and collective goods.

Voice 2: Self-interest is looking out for ones own well-being. In contrast, enlightened self-interest is the idea that by helping society we in turn help ourselves. A simple way to distinguish between the two is by asking– Who is directly benefiting and for what reasons? As Du de la Rachefoucauld said, “However brilliant an action it should not be esteemed great unless the result of a great motive.”

Voice 4: Enlightened self-interest is disappearing from our society. It is largely due to social disconnect, lack of trust, feeling of powerlessness and because of the prevailing individualistic attitudes of Americans. The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell reveals that to create ideological epidemics one must solve the minute aspects of the problem. In short, to encourage enlightened self interest we should encourage domestic vacationing, labeling state origins of products, promote switching schools, teaching natural leaders to be civic, advocate public forums, providing tax benefits as a reward, and educating about benefits of enlightened self interest.