October 09, 2003

Voting in Droves

Posted by shonk at 03:01 AM in Politics | TrackBack

After reading Curt's argument, I had planned to comment at length on his concern regarding "voting becoming (or being) irrelevant". Somehow, I got sidetracked into an analysis of Federalist 10. As it's late, I have a mid-term tomorrow, and I can't figure out where I was intending to go with this, I'll just post that analysis. Maybe someone will find it interesting in its own right.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes a strong case against pure democracy and in favor of a widespread republic. As Madison says:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.

In other words, if a majority of persons in a pure democracy agree to persecute a minority, that minority will have no recourse. I find this analysis pretty damning, but also have objections to Madison's solution: he argues that what is needed to prevent the oppression of "factions" is a republic. The advantage, supposedly, stems from the following two differences between democracies and republics:

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

In a large republic, Madison argues, the representatives will be more likely to be public-spirited, wise and just than in the small republic. He also argues that, because they must appeal to a larger number of people, the representatives will of necessity be more moderate.

All well and good, but Madison neglects to note two key facts. First, in a large republic, the voter has less incentive to be an informed voter, as his vote is much less likely to make a difference in an election. Second, the larger the republic, the more power the elected representative can potentially wield. Though Madison lived before Lord Acton's time, one would hope he could have recognized the wisdom of Acton's most quoted statement: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Though the power of the representative in a large republic may not be absolute, it is certainly relatively greater than that of the small-republic representative or, more importantly, that of the voter. With these objections in hand, we see that Madison's position is a bit of a pipe-dream based on a Utopian misconstruction of human nature.