Ethics & Public Policy Center

Publius the Institutionalist

Published in National Review Online on October 26, 2018


Over the past few years, I’ve gotten into the odd (and I suppose rather Jewish) habit of reading the entire cycle of the Federalist Papers each year, as close as I can manage to the anniversary of each paper’s publication.

It’s easy to do. Most of the essays are about the length of a newspaper column, so it doesn’t take long to read them. I usually do it on the train on the way to the office, and it still leaves me plenty of time to read the news and get depressed.

And while it is hard to imagine how Hamilton and Madison (and in a few cases John Jay) could have written such high-quality arguments at such an incredible pace week after week, from the point of view of a reader the pace is relatively leisurely: There are only three cases when two papers were published on the same day, and usually there is a break of at least a day or two between papers. The first paper was published on October 27, 1787 and the last on August 16, 1788, so the cycle runs most of the year, although they took much of April and May off in the middle.

Each year that I’ve done this, I’ve walked away with something new and different, as some facet of Publius’s argument strikes a chord relevant to what’s going on in our troubled republic at the time. Last year, for reasons that aren’t exactly obscure, I was especially struck by Hamilton’s emphasis on the importance of basic competence in the executive. “A government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” The year before, Madison’s increasingly questionable assumption that the Congress would always be hungry for power got me thinking.

This year, as October 27 is drawing near at last, I can already tell that my mind will be drawn to the question Hamilton takes up right at the beginning, in the very first Federalist essay, and that both he and Madison pursue in different ways throughout: It is the question of what we now might call social psychology and its relation to institution building, which is after all what the framers were doing.

Federalist 1 gets short shrift among these essays. It’s a kind of introduction to the structure of the whole. But before that it is a master class in how to approach a heated political debate with neither cynicism nor naiveté—how to take arguments seriously while still recognizing that they are being made by people with material interests, intense biases, and massive blind spots, and that we ourselves are all such people too.

It would be nice if we could just consider the question of the Constitution rationally and objectively, Hamilton tells his readers, but that isn’t going to happen. It is, he writes, “a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

And yet, the fact that such interests and prejudices are implicated is not an excuse for ignoring what people say, or for assuming their motives explain everything: “I am well aware that it would be disingenuous to resolve indiscriminately the opposition of any set of men (merely because their situations might subject them to suspicion) into interested or ambitious views,” Hamilton writes. “Candor will oblige us to admit that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions…So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”

Amazingly, though, this extraordinary recognition of the constraints our biases put on our judgment causes Hamilton not to dismiss all political arguments as self-interested excuses or confusions, but on the contrary to moderate his cynicism as well as his certainty:

This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.

People who are right, as we see it, are as subject to biases and distortions of the understanding as people who are wrong, so seeing those biases doesn’t excuse us from considering arguments on the merits. This is an insight that a lot of contemporary political scientists (who have just in the last few decades begun to really take account of the power of biases in our reasoning, which Hamilton and many others saw already in the 18th century) should take to heart.

Ultimately, though, we do need more than just a middle ground between cynicism and naiveté. Hamilton, and to an even greater degree Madison in the later papers, demonstrates a profound grasp of the ways in which political debates tend to divide into bitter factions that can easily fall into the habits of warring tribes. And they both assume that the resulting intellectual distortions can only really be mitigated by the establishment of norms, patterns, rules, and habits of accommodation—which in turn can only happen inside functional institutions designed with these goals in mind.

Our institutions, as Madison grasps in Federalist 10, 51, and elsewhere, are among other things means of helping us think better before we act. And they offer enormously valuable resources for overcoming the blinding power of partisanship, interest, bias, and team spirit in politics.

I’m eager this year to dive back into The Federalist with all of this in mind because it is increasingly clear that we are living in a time badly in need of a resurgence of this kind of institutionalism. The deepest problems with our politics right now are not matters of ideology but of social psychology. We aren’t exactly disagreeing about public policy, because we aren’t really talking about public policy much except to the degree that various general categories of policy ideas (“a tax cut,” “single payer”) serve as totems for tribal affiliations.

Rather than ideology, our political culture at this point is almost entirely the function of a kind of breakdown of our social psychology, unleashed and unmoored from institutional constraints. This is in no small part because many of the elites who shape our political culture have allowed themselves to be plucked out of the various institutions that normally refine and elevate their work and to be plopped instead as individuals, unconstrained and unprotected, onto the performative platforms of what ironically goes by the name “social media,” even though it is generally anti-social and unmediated. On these platforms, where every rule of civility and discipline is turned on its head and all the affirmation flows to short, angry, cynical, ungenerous scorn, our political and media elites drive themselves crazy in public and render us vulnerable to the mischief of raving narcissists, malevolent liars, trolls, and foreign agents.

Even these performative displays, though, are as much symptoms as causes of a kind of breakdown of our social psychology playing out every day in our politics and culture. The solutions to such a problem are not going to be fundamentally ideological, so that well-intentioned projects to seek a moderate middle or even to help people of different views hear each other aren’t likely to succeed. There’s even reason to think that just hearing people we disagree with more often could drive us further apart, absent other changes.

As Hamilton and Madison could tell us, this is probably because context matters. It matters how we encounter one another, and what the structures of our interactions and accommodations look like. And those structures are established in the forms of our institutions. So a revival of our political culture requires us to focus not just on ideology but at least also on institutions—their internal cultures, and their capacity to forge integrity.

That means that part of the solution to the frenzy of contemporary partisanship needs to come from partisans of our institutions—a party of the university (as Rita Koganzon has suggested) rather than a bunch of political partisans who use the university as just another platform in the broader culture war, for instance. And similarly, a party of the newsroom, of the law, of the church, of the family—people within each of these vital institutions whose concern is for the integrity of the institution and its capacity to build integrity in others. And it means thinking about institutional design with an eye to social psychology.

We could do worse than to begin where The Federalist began 231 years ago this week, and to see our dilemmas through Publius’s eyes. If nothing else, it’s an awfully nice way to pass the time on your commute.

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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