So following Aristotle’s very disppointing Politics, I wanted a surer bet, so I turned to the The Federalist Papers, and at 73 pages in I can confidently say that I chose wisely. This is a really great book, and an astonishing set of documents.
To give the back story, after America won the revolution they established the Articles of Confederation, which provided for a loose collective governance over the 13 states, but before long this arrangement was showing some problems associated with it, so each of the states sent representatives to have a convention to discuss improvements to the system. Those representatives, in their amazing brilliance and bravery, emerged from the convention several months later with a recommendation that the whole thing be scrapped and they institute a strong central government. And even better, they released this recommendation with a requirement that it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal, that there would be no changes or renegotiation on the details of the plan. This took big balls. And during the period in which the States were deciding whether this was a good idea, three of the founding fathers wrote and published this series of 85 essays arguing the merits of union from every conceivable perspective. And that’s The Federalist.
The book is extremely well written, not beautiful or stirring, but relentlessly clear and thorough. The papers have three authors, but they published under one pseudonym, and the writing style is I gather from the introduction the formal prose style of the time, the proper rhetorical stance of the learned gentleman. It is, above all else, clear. And after the deranged ramblings of Aristotle, this is a blessed relief.
The first set of papers talks about the advantages of being a union when it comes to protecting itself from foreign force and influence. The arguments that stack up cover the inevitability of the states warring with each other over petty territory differences, the inefficiency of maintaining 13 separate defenses, and the high likelihood of those meddlers England and France playing each state against the other. They then talk about the impact to commerce of having 13 different states leveraging tarrifs, and the terrible brake that would put on economic activity, which then lead to a companion discussion of the same hampered’s economy’s impact of the ability of the state to collect revenue. It is clear that they want to keep the revenue coming from tarrifs and not from any kind of direct taxation, which is anathema. Keep your hands out of the farmer’s pocket, big government!
What’s interesting to me as I read it is that I would actually like to find a way to split the union apart, and move to much smaller states than what we have now, which intuitively I believe would make the government more representative of the people than what we have today. And here I have the founding fathers telling me all the reasons it’s not a good idea, which poses a challenge to me. However, one key thing to bear in mind here—just as with Aristotle and Rousseau—is that the populations they grappled with are so much smaller than what we have today. At one point, they mention that the United Kingdom has all of 8 million people, and they cite this number is being large to the point of being extremely large. The population of Great Britain accordingly to wikipedia this morning is 61 million people. It would be interesting to read some political philosophy that talks about governing at scale, if such a thing exists.
Anyway, this is a great read, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it.