Statism and the Depravity of Man

How the doctrine of man's "depravity" used to limit the State and now limits people and expands the state.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Translated by Henry Reeve. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1900, vol. I, pp.273-74
Governments don't collapse because they are too weak. When one faction is sick and tired of abuses of government power, it sets out to destroy that government.

Governments usually fall a sacrifice to impotence or to tyranny. In the former case their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their grasp in the latter. Many observers, who have witnessed the anarchy of democratic States, have imagined that the government of those States was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that when once hostilities are begun between parties, the government loses its control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or without resources: say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that a democratic government fails. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by its want of strength.

It is important not to confound stability with force, or the greatness of a thing with its duration. In democratic republics, the power which directs the society is not stable; for it often changes hands and assumes a new direction. But whichever way it turns, its force is almost irresistible. The Governments of the American republics appear to me to be as much centralized as those of the absolute monarchies of Europe, and more energetic than they are. I do not, therefore, imagine that they will perish from weakness.

If ever the free institutions of America are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the unlimited authority of the majority, which may at some future time urge the minorities to desperation, and oblige them to have recourse to physical force. Anarchy will then be the result, but it will have been brought about by despotism.

Mr. Hamilton expresses the same opinion in the "Federalist," No. 51. "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society, under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger: and as in the latter state even the stronger individuals are prompted by the uncertainty of their condition to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves, so in the former state will the more powerful factions be gradually induced by a like motive to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful. It can be little doubted that, if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of right under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of the factious majorities, that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it."

PolicyFax by The Heartland Institute
"Public Choice and the States" p. 2
Unlike Europe's utopian dreamers—who left two centuries littered with the corpses of those who did not share their high opinion of human nature—the American Founders understood human weakness, and even counted on it in planning the preservation of their new nation. In Federalist 51, under the nome de plume of Publius, James Madison set out the central issue that the Founders faced in seeking to center a new political regime around the concept of ordered liberty:

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 framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next piece oblige it to control itself.

WILFRED M. McCLAY, an associate professor of history at Tulane University, is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which received the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians.

Wilfred M. McClay*
"A More Perfect Union?—Toward a New Federalism"
Commentary Magazine, September 1995, p.32

Federalism, to repeat, was not somehow incidental to the Framers' intentions. It was absolutely essential, and we need to remember why. They distrusted power, distrusted government, distrusted numerical majorities, distrusted human nature. They believed in "the necessity of auxiliary precautions" (Federalist 51) to guard against the abuses of power to which popular governments are prone. Hence the need to devise a government that deliberately set up "opposite and rival interests" that could check and balance one another, using "ambition…to counteract ambition." Federalism was a crucial part of this arrangement. The separation of national and state governments, in tandem with the separation of powers within each level of government, provided "a double security" for the people's rights, through the effective dispersion of power.

PolicyFax by The Heartland Institute
Why "The Federalist" Belongs in the Classroom," p.1

What are "the legitimate functions of civil government?" How could they be implemented without a "civil government? More here.

The Federalist, then, presents the most authoritative underpinnings of the American constitutional system from the Founders' perspective. Its concept of human nature, for example, is crucial to understanding the philosophical basis of the American regime. In one of the most famous passages of The Federalist, No. 51, James Madison states:

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.

Madison writes further in Federalist 55:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain position of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that nothing less than the chains of [p.2] despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

Human beings, in other words, possess many faults (they are "not angels"), but they are capable of self-government if a popular regime is constituted to complement instead of clash with human nature. Thus, the framers of the U.S. Constitution proposed a system that would constrain (and when possible, properly motivate) rather than change human nature.

In a sense, the entire American constitutional edifice of a democratic republic with majority rule and minority rights, federalism, limited government, and the separation of powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches is based on the Founders' concept of human nature as derived from their experience and their reading of history.

Without this particular understanding of human nature (that is, if men were, or could become, angels) the checks and balances of the American constitutional structure would not be necessary.

"Consent of the Depraved"

We have rejected "the divine right of kings." 
We believe in "the consent of the governed."
We do not believe that the State emerges full-grown from the head of Zeus or is plopped down on earth by God. 
We believe that "the People" choose their own government. 
The depraved people.

Then, we are told, this people-created government -- this government created by depraved people -- maintains social order, and if "the People" were to abolish that government and exercise personal responsibility in their homes, businesses, schools, and voluntary associations, their society would surely collapse in to "anarchy" and chaos.

If the People are so depraved that they would carry out the legitimate functions of civil government in a lawless and "anarchistic" way, why would they not pick "civil servants" to carry out those same depraved wishes? How can they be trusted to "vote" for any but mafia hit-men and corrupt socialist dictators, or those who would satiate the People's lusts with bread and circuses?

Commentary Magazine, December 1995, p.18-20
As for the perspective of Allen Weingarten, I think that, like most libertarianism, it represents a partial truth which is undermined when overstressed. There is, and should be, a tension between self and society, individual and polity. But to say that the only alternatives open to us are "the statist vision that people exist for the sake of the community" and the libertarian contention that the truth is "the other way around" is to set up a false opposition. The libertarian conception of the self as autonomous and self-determining, and of all forces of normative social order as mere forms of coercion, simply cannot withstand close examination.

The importance of the revival of classical political thought in our time, and in my own defense of federalism, is in offering a view of political and social life that mediates between the "modern" extremes of libertarianism and statism (or extreme communitarianism). When Aristotle declared that man is by nature a political animal, he was pointing to the fact that association with others, especially in and through acts of citizenship, is an essential element in our formation and growth, the precondition of our being free agents or selves at all.

That the Founders and Framers saw the dangers of a too-powerful government, at whatever level, is certainly true. But to argue, as Mr. Weingarten does, that "the influence of government should be removed," is equally contrary to "the principles upon which our Founding Fathers formulated the Constitution." As James Madison fatuously expressed it, in Federalist 51: "But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?" Our Constitution is itself just such a reflection; and its view of human nature is not a libertarian one.

While Novak is correct to identify "original sin" as a guiding concept in the minds of the Founders, he is not clear whether he believes this concept served to limit or expand the power of the State.

Michael Novak
"Public Arguments: How Christianity Changed Political Economy"
Adapted from a lecture given July 7, 1994, in Krakow.
Crisis Magazine, February 1995, p.7
Without ever using the term "original sin," the authors of The Federalist are eloquent about the flaws, weaknesses, and evils to which humans are prone. They designed a republic that would last, not only among saints, but also among sinners.

Human Nature, Anarchy, and Capitalism

The Book of Genesis in Courts of Law

Opposition to violence as an excuse to oppose "anarchists" is a ruse. Those who oppose "anarchists" support the violence of "the State." In a 1904 Supreme Court case, U.S. ex rel Turner v. Williams[13], the defendant testified "that he has at no times been engaged as a propagandist of doctrines inciting to, or advising, violent overthrow of government," but "has at all times conducted himself as a peaceful and law-abiding citizen."[14] But defendant was deported by immigration authorities as an "anarchist." The reason: he denied the moral legitimacy of a group of men getting together, taking money from other people under threats of violence or coercion, and seizing control over the businesses and families of others. Some people call such organizations "the Mafia." Defendant called it "the State." Defendant admitted that, technically speaking, this view made him an "anarchist," but he distinguished what is popularly called "anarchism" from what political scientists call "philosophical anarchism." He quoted Huxley:

"Anarchy, as a term of political philosophy, must be taken only in its proper sense, which has nothing to do with disorder or with crime . . . ."[15]

Although defendant denied "that he is an anarchist within the meaning of the immigration laws of the United States,"[16] the Court ruled against him. In analyzing the statute authorizing deportation of "anarchists," the Court held that

If the word "anarchists" should be interpreted as including aliens whose anarchistic views are professed as those of political philosophers, innocent of evil intent, it would follow that Congress was of opinion that the tendency of the general exploitation of such views is so dangerous to the public weal that aliens who hold and advocate them would be undesirable additions to our population . . . .[17]

What is "dangerous to the public weal," in the Court's eyes, is an Authority higher than the State; a "Law above the law." Of course, the Court denied transgressing the First Amendment, but the rhetoric of its reasoning showed the establishment of this new "Civil Religion":

We are not to be understood as depreciating the vital importance of freedom of speech and of the press, or as suggesting limitations on the spirit of liberty, in itself unconquerable, but this case does not involve these considerations. The flaming brand which guards the realm where no human government is needed still bars the entrance; and as long as human governments endure they cannot be denied the power of self-preservation, as that question is presented here.[18]

In an unmistakable use of religious (Biblical) language,[19] the Court imposes its own interpretation of "the will of God" on a defendant who does not share the Court's religious faith in the New World Order. Any libertarian Christian who studies Edenic symbolism in the Scriptures[20] reaches an altogether different interpretation of Who possesses the "Keys of the Kingdom" and whom He admits to the Garden.[21] The Calvinist doctrine of "the depravity of man" has been modified by "archists" into "the depravity of some men who need others (we, the undepraved "government") to rule over them."

      (13) U.S. ex rel Turner v. Williams 194 U.S. 279, 24 S.Ct. 719 (1904). An attorney was disbarred under this holding in In re Margolis, 269 Pa 206, 112 A 478, 12 ALR 1186 (1921).
      (14) Ibid., at 194 U.S. 280-81, 24 S.Ct. 720.
      (15) Ibid., at 194 U.S. 293, 24 S.Ct. 723.
      (16) Ibid., at 194 U.S. 281, 24 S.Ct. 720.
      (17) Ibid., at 194 U.S. 294, 24 S.Ct. 724.
      (18) Id. (emphasis added).
      (19) Genesis 3:24. Cf. C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History, Phila: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1964, p. 35.
      (20) See generally, David Chilton, Paradise Restored, Tyler, TX: Reconstruction Press, 1985.
      (21) See Revelation 22:14; from a Biblical perspective, Jesus, not the State, admits us to the Garden.

Depravity and Social Order