06/23/2011 02:33 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

Was Publius Wrong? Money and Representative Government

The American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) recently announced that it was open to considering changes to preserve the solvency of social security. This was hailed as a major step that could enable Congress to tackle this third rail in American politics in its efforts to reduce the deficit and debt. While we might appreciate AARP's announcement, we should ponder why it would take this non-elected advocacy group to free up elected officials to address the public interest.

AARP, of course, is not alone in its political clout. The National Rifle Association (NRA), as another example, appears to have similar power over legislation related to gun ownership. Of course, both groups operate fully within the law. But is their power over the law what the Constitution intended?

James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist #10 during the ratification debates, famously articulated several core tenets of republican government. "The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man," he reminded his readers, and for this reason "some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" could result in an electoral majority tyrannizing the minority in pursuit of selfish aims. The greatest fear for the Framers was democracy (i.e. voting) run amok, violating freedom as savagely as the king they had just overthrown.

The Constitutional solution was a government not of direct democracy but of elected representatives "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country," as Madison put it. He acknowledged, of course, that "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm," but he judged their presence more likely -- and the containment of the avaricious more certain -- when representatives were selected in fairly large voting districts spread over a vast expanse of land. "Extend the sphere," he argued, and "you make less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of citizens."

This was in 1787. The notion of geographically isolated election districts, each with its own interests and a representative chosen freely by the people, was central to the republican model. It is worth asking if some of the core assumptions of Federalist #10 no longer hold in 2011.

In the Framers world, the United States existed only to the east of the Alleghenies. Yet it seemed vast given the difficulties of travel and communications. The idea that people so isolated could coordinate their efforts to usurp the public god was deemed unlikely. The Framers could not imagine telecommunications, rapid air travel, and methods of mass persuasion that have made our much vaster expanse in reality so much smaller. The development of a moneyed commercial class and huge concentrations of wealth are also developments that Madison could not have foreseen in his nation of farmers.

Madison did not believe in a world where a minority could tyrannize the majority through controlling the votes of representatives. In his world, one interest or faction was as equally capable as another in expressing itself and gaining access to power, so that contesting factions could frustrate each other and the aggregate interests of the nation would be protected. Is that the world we inhabit? Today, money buys influence and access (and arguably even votes), and more money buys more of these. As former Senator and chief of staff in the House, Dick Clark, put it in a recent article for the Aspen Institute: "receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single source often makes it difficult for a politician to vote against that funder's interests -- or to care as much about the interests of the $50 donor." The floodgates of money have opened further with the Citizens United decision that allows corporations to fund political broadcasts in candidate elections and could open more with the recent decision of a Virginia federal judge to allow corporations to donate directly to candidates.

The fear that the moneyed and politically powerful few will tyrannize the many is at the heart of both the Tea Party's charge that the federal government is under the control of liberal action groups who work against the interests of the average American and the liberals' charge that the federal government is under the control of big business which places profit above the interests of the individual and the environment. And both liberals and conservatives are angry at the financial sector for putting its desire for profits and bonuses above everything else. In short, both argue that majority votes in Congress no longer represent the majority's interest. Instead, the minority may well tyrannize the majority through the use of wealth to gain political access.

The banner of "free speech" seems to have provided a sound antidote to the majority tyranny that Madison feared. But what is the antidote to the minority tyranny that he did not? Anyone can now speak out and exert political influence, almost unregulated -- and the more money they can amass, the more influence they can exert.

We seem stuck on the notion that freedom of speech -- which is always cited to block efforts at controlling the impact of money on politics -- is the penultimate value in our republican system. But that mistakes means for ends. The Constitution's purpose is to "establish Justice," as its Preamble reminds us. Federalist #10 argued that representative government could do that. If that government has flaws that Madison could not see, we should repair them. Madison, we should remember, was a student of government who used the mistakes of the past to chart a more enlightened future. We would honor his work if we did the same.