November 13, 2014

The American people aren’t stupid.  We in the academy don’t do ourselves any favors by suggesting otherwise as we try to explain the policymaking process.

My colleague, Jerold Duquette, isn’t impressed with the overwrought response to Jonathan Gruber’s off the cuff comments. 

I’m not impressed with how Gruber lazily chose to characterize a great people as he explains the development of the ACA. 

His comments were not only foolish and politically unhelpful to his allies, they was wrong because they painted with a very broad stroke. 

But calling out Gruber for his comments doesn’t mean that a free and democratic people are always enlightened or infallible. 

We are certainly capable of errors in judgment, to put it mildly.  A democratic people are also capable of mob rule.  The systems of checks and balances exist in the Constitution not only to check the power of each institution, but also to stymie the passions of the people.

The Framers of the Constitution understood that human nature could lead a free people to dangerous decisions. They feared a direct democracy would encourage degenerate form of egalitarianism and trample individual rights.

They were really quite skeptical that the classical tradition of democracy could achieve virtue.  They subscribed to the modern concept of justice, which held that the individual should be left to pursue his or her definition of happiness.

They also worried that pure democracy could easily descend into anarchy.

The cure for the ills of a democratic society?  A republican Constitutional system.

The system, the brainchild of James Madison and heavily influenced by the Massachusetts Constitution of John Adams had two main characteristics:

The first is representation, the people would not rule directly.  This would keep power just far enough way from our passions.  There would be constitutional space to govern.

The second is size.  Because of the scale of the country at the time, democracy would have to take place in a large and diverse society.  In a small territory, a majority faction would too easily form.  Federalist No. 51 tells us that in an extended republic a coalition of a majority could seldom take place on principals other than justice and public good. 

Madison proposes here to again separate people from power.

The people, Madison believed, if gathered in a small setting would too easily run roughshod over the rights of the minority.  But in a large, extended republic, a majority that would disregard the rights of the minority would be unlikely to form. 

This type of republic was called the democratic variant of divide and conquer.  And on the 4th of October, 1787, Madison wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson and said that to divide and conquer is sometimes the only way a "public can be safe."  

The Framer’s of the Constitution had a more sober view of human nature than those who claim fidelity to their views. 

They’d probably be no more impressed by those who claim the American people are stupid than those great demagogues our day who establish an electronic relationship with the masses and flatter them as the “best and the brightest.”

ACA, James Madison, Jonathan Gruber, the Constitution

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