Faction: Words of Caution From James Madison

In a free society, people have the right to organize themselves to advocate for their policy preferences. Policy preferences may be based on a variety of different things. Among these are religious or philosophical beliefs, self-interest, or loyalty to some group such as a political party. Because citizens are free to advocate their policy preferences, there is the chance that a group may get its way that hurts the general population. This is the problem of faction.

This concern was on the minds of many of the Founding Fathers. The classic discussion of this problem is James Madison’s Federalist Number 10. Here, we will take a look at Madison’s thoughts.

Faction Defined

When the Constitution was being ratified, most people had not considered the rise of political parties. They all knew that organized citizens could exert pressure on government to act in certain ways. Today, we would call these organizations interest groups. If we don’t like a group we might specifically call it a special interest group. If we do like it, maybe we label it a public interest group. In the late 18th century, these groups were simply called factions, and factions were seen as groups whose goals were contrary to the interest of the community as a whole.

In Federalist 10, Madison defines faction this way

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

How to deal with faction is important for any community. Divisions within a community or one group exerting undue influence over the community as a whole can certainly be damaging. Madison writes that there are two ways to address the dangers of faction. The first is to remove the causes of faction. The second is to control the effects of faction.

Removing its Causes

Madison sees two ways to remove the causes of faction. First is to eliminate the liberty which allows factions to exist. The second is to make everyone have the same opinions and passions, so there is no longer any division.

Madison dismisses the first idea. He writes that the first proposed remedy is worse than the disease itself. He goes on further to say

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The idea of giving everyone the same opinions is problematic in another way. Madison writes that it “is as impracticable as the first would be unwise.” It is simply not possible to give everyone the same opinions.

Faction a Part of Human Nature

As people, our rationality is fallible. We can make mistakes. Our experiences in life are different. If we are to be free to exercise our rationality, we will have differing opinions. One way in which our reasoning may be wrong is that we pay too much attention to our self-interest. By focusing (consciously or unconsciously) on ourselves, we are likely to come to wrong conclusions about things for the community as a whole.

Our differing abilities are an integral part of the human experience. Madison writes that protecting these differences is “the first object of government.” These differences will inevitably lead to “a division of the society into different interests and parties.” In this way, factions arise due to human nature. As such, we cannot remove faction without destroying liberty.

If faction is inevitable, we must turn to the notion of controlling its ill-effects. First, though, we must consider the harms that can come from faction.

The Risk of Uncontrolled Faction

We should be clear that Madison sees the dangers of faction. He writes

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.

He continues

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

How, then, can we control the evils of faction?

Controlling the Evils

If a faction is in the minority, Madison writes, the majority in a republican government may defeat its goals. Within Constitutional bounds, a majority should generally defeat the minority. This largely protects against a minority faction being able to do harm to the community as a whole.

The real problem, then is when a majority faction seeks to do something injurious to the community. Public opinion may be easily swayed on any number of issues. A passion to do something may sweep through the population gaining majority support even though it is damaging.

Republican Government

A republic helps to control both of these. Madison believes that there is safety in the legislative process. Laws are made not directly by the people as in a democracy, but by elected representatives. A body of legislators can be deliberative and help weed out bad ideas. The presupposes, of course, that honest and capable people are selected as the representatives. The size of the legislature becomes important here. It must be large enough to not be easily corrupted, but small enough to be properly deliberative.

A Federal Republic

Beyond just the size of the legislative body, the federal nature of American government provides additional security. By having legislative bodies at the local, state, and national levels, representatives can be focused on the interests they represent. Local matters, such as street maintenance can be best handled by representatives on a city council who are close to the issue. Matters of international affairs can be best handled by national representatives. By dividing governmental powers among multiple layers, the effects of faction can be controlled or at least contained to certain localities.

Have We Undermined Constitutional Defenses Against Faction?

This discussion invites the question as to how well this is working. For most of the last century, the role of the national government in almost all areas of government affairs has exploded. The scope of national government power is far beyond what those who wrote the Constitution could have envisioned. With the breakdown in the layered division of power, have we let down our guard against the evils of faction?

Writes Madison

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

Today, we see passions among different political groups running very hot. We see divisions not only in the political realm, but throughout civil society. We believe it is worth considering that this may have been enabled in part by a gradual breakdown of the federal structure of our republic in favor of much greater centralization of political power. It is also worth considering whether the general expansion in the scope of government at all levels has increased political division by making competition for political power more lucrative to get control of the increasingly powerful institutions of government.