Commentary

Madison’s Angels

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” —James Madison, The Federalist No. 51

If men were angels, there would not have been the horror of Sept. 11. Indeed, there would not have been the horrors of the 20th century, the cruelest in history. But if, but if …. Now, again, we are at war — only 57 years since the Third Reich, 22 years since Vietnam, and 11 years since Desert Storm — and building for more war with a Homeland Defense department, myriad national security laws, and billions of dollars being spent to defend Americans and bring outlaws to justice. This is the government’s job, given that men rule and not angels.

So what did Madison, a founding father of this republic, have in mind when he wrote about angels, and men, and government? And why is it relevant today, as America approaches another 4th of July?

In his passage on angels and men Madison provides a justification for government itself and, at the same time, offers the reason for constitutional constraints on political authority. Government is necessary, but it must be restrained.

Yet Madison, in explaining the need for limited government, tried to explain the ideal: a society of angels. He did not intend to refer to the beings called angels in modern dictionaries. There, angels are defined as beings that possess superhuman attributes or qualities. Such a definition, in Madison’s construction, would rob the passage of much of its meaning. By “angel” I think that Madison referred to a being recognizable as human but who does indeed treat others in a fashion that would eliminate the need for governance. All of us can, I think, imagine such persons to exist, as ideals toward which we might strive but not as divinities of unattainable perfection.

This interpretation of Madison allows us to place ethics alongside politics as alternative and complementary means to move beyond the ever-threatening Hobbesian jungle. We may note, in particular, that Madison remained unclear about the particulars of the behavioral requirement. He did not say that government would be unnecessary if only all persons behaved like angels all of the time. He did not assume that all persons could be identical. But some persons, some of the time, surely behave toward each other in such fashion as to make explicit governance of those persons unnecessary. And, Madison did not imply that no one could ever be angel-like.

Recognizing that individuals are different allows us to see an ethical spectrum that may be used to describe societies potentially: ranging from one extreme defined by “all persons behave as angels all of the time” to the other extreme defined by “no person behaves as an angel any of the time.”

It seems clear that there are external factors between ethics and politics that keep people’s behavioral differences within acceptable limits, within the bell curve. The libertarian ideal of ordered anarchy, for instance, is possible if and when more people behave like Madison’s angels. On the other hand, an increase in the politicization of our society almost necessarily reduces the opportunities for people to behave like angels.

In a paper written 25 years ago — “Markets, States, and the Extent of Morals” — I suggested that if we politicize activities that extend beyond our moral capacities, we generate increased exploitation. In Madisonian terms, if we put too much reliance on politics, we may stifle behavioral motivations that might qualify as near-angelic — personal charity, working and sacrificing for others, aiding the poor, the sick, the uneducated, providing a “social safety net” laced by members of society, not by government strings. More politics means fewer angels, or at least fewer opportunities for people to act like angels. And the more things are politicized, the less time people have to do some good. This conclusion is especially relevant if we allow our political entities to become too large, both in membership and territory (or jurisdiction). A returned James Madison would surely stand aghast at the behemoth that is the United States federal government.

How can we act like angels, even in limited aspects of our behavior, when we are thrown, willy-nilly, into the gladiatorial pit of present-day political reality? Madison was not suggesting that we are necessarily gladiatorial, always out to destroy one another, facing a fate from which only politics can save us. Such interpretation would distort the meaning of the message. Madison would say that now, as in 1788, we need laws to control our behavior. But he would surely also say that now the political realm has gone far beyond his imagined constitutionally ordered limited governance.

We create and maintain institutions of governance to preserve social order in light of the proclivities that we, as members of the community, exhibit in our behavior, one toward another. But the extension of government today in so many areas and in so many ways that affect so many people cannot be justified on moral or ethical grounds alone. Just because something is wrong, or cries out to be fixed, does not mean that government must step in and “do something.” Instead, it often is wiser to let people act like angels and step in themselves. I suspect there are more Mother Teresa’s in our world, if only government would get out of their way. Thus, we may be libertarian in our opposition to all efforts to enlarge government while at the same time we may be puritan in our discourse on behavioral attributes.

Today our nation must do battle with men who are far from angels though they speak often of heaven. As we fight that just war, we should never forget what was surely James Madison’s starting point, namely, his presumption that the ideal society is one in which all persons are indeed angels and in which governance has no place.

James M. Buchanan won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Science. This article is adapted from his essay in the book, “James Madison and the Future of Limited Government” to be released July 4, 2002, by the Cato Institute.