Federalist 51, Ocasio-Cortez, and Yeats

December 16, 2018

We’ve got a new incoming Congress in just a month’s time, with a brand new fresh-faced class of freshman. And some of them really are fresh-faced - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York is the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress at 29 years old. That’s a wonderful achievement by itself, and she’s an idealistic young woman already working to make waves.

Which, quite frankly, I find naive, foolish, and scary.

Ocasio-Cortez is pushing a remarkable and dizzying agenda, including Medicare for all, free tuition to college, a jobs guarantee, and payment for all existing student loan debt. A lot of this is included in the overarching Green New Deal program that she’s started proselytizing.

There’s a $40 trillion price tag on these programs, and even with a gigantic tax hike on the rich, we can’t come close to paying for it.

Ocasio-Cortez is a democratic socialist, or just socialist if you prefer; slightly to the left of Bernie Sanders. To the left. As in, “everything you own in a box to the left.” Never realized Beyonce was a lyricist for socialism.

Now let’s cover my claims of naive, foolish, and scary. The naivety first. I remember being 29 and having all the answers. She’s exuberant and vibrant (good) and headstrong (bad). More importantly, she has no humility and there is no sense of nuance in what she says; the world is a binary picture of right and wrong, with her view always seeming to align to “right”. And proposing trillions of dollars in new government programs without a real play to pay for them is wildly foolish.

But the thing that really gets me is those good traits I mentioned: the vibrancy and exuberance. When I think about Ocasio-Cortez and her agenda, the thing that really sticks with me is her drive to effect change. And that always takes me directly to Federalist 51.

Federalist 51 is one of the shorter Federalist papers and it outlines some of the nature and reason around the importance of checks and balances in government. Here’s an important piece:

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. 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 place oblige it to control itself.

The more I learn about our Founding Fathers, the more amazed I am by their prescience. They recognized the singular importance of government to control itself, to ensure that it manages it’s job as fairly and equitably as possible. How did they do this? That’s what all those checks and balances are for. It’s purposefully hard to get things done, because it needs to be to ensure there can’t be any usurpation of power by a faction.

This leads to a startling and somewhat unsettling conclusion. When we learn about our government in school, we learn about how the legislature passes laws, how the executive branch makes policy, etc. But, in reality, our system of government is specifically designed to not get much done.

Let me say that again: Our system of government is designed to not get much done.

Sound surprising? Yeah, it was to me too. But when you start to think more about it, it really does make sense. But Federalist 51 lays it all out:

In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself. Second. 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. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.

I used to be incredibly bothered by how little politicians seem to get done compared to how much they seem to talk. That bothers me very little now, as that is, in fact, their purpose. The thing that bothers me now are the ones that try to force things to happen and push them through the system. Like Ocasio-Cortez.

This bothers me on both the left and right. Any politician that tries to force through policy, believing it “right”, is a frightening animal. But nowhere is it more frightening than the far left. Socialist thinking is the very definition of the tyranny of the majority. Ironically, the attempted perpetrators are often a minority with the good will and intention of the majority in mind.

In 2017, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush gave a wonderful joint interview. The whole thing is worth watching, but this bit in particular from Bill Clinton underlines my point. He talks about his frustration that America is broken up into groups of like-minded thinkers that all clump together. Then he uses an example where Republicans and Democrats were able to work together to get something done because they agreed on the ends. They agreed on what they wanted to do.

I couldn’t agree more with Clinton. We need to work together where we agree on the ends. That’s how we form the supermajorities that let us act. And to do that we need to get over ourselves and our exuberance.

Which makes me think that Ocasio-Cortez and everyone else - including me - should re-read some Yeats, before we attach our identities too strongly to our ideas.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

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