Sunday, December 4, 2011

Federalist 54, slavery, and 'The 1 Percent'

Like a lot of liberals, when I think about the Constitution's original provision that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation in Congress, I often think about it in racial terms: They were literally saying that black people were less than fully human! Sometimes I think about it in political terms: Southern politicians were accruing power—and thus preserving slavery—by giving slaves any human weight at all. But I don't often think about it in economic terms.

Federalist 54 changes that for me. This is the paper in which James Madison must justify the three-fifths apportionment to the people of New York. And his primary justification is this: Slaves are a form of wealth. And wealth deserves a little extra representation in the halls of government.

No really. This is what Madison writes:
"After all, may not another ground be taken on which this article of the Constitution will admit of a still more ready defense? We have hitherto proceeded on the idea that representation related to persons only, and not at all to property. But is it a just idea? Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons, of individuals. The one as well as the other, therefore, may be considered as represented by those who are charged with the government. Upon this principle it is, that in several of the States, and particularly in the State of New York, one branch of the government is intended more especially to be the guardian of property, and is accordingly elected by that part of the society which is most interested in this object of government. In the federal Constitution, this policy does not prevail. The rights of property are committed into the same hands with the personal rights. Some attention ought, therefore, to be paid to property in the choice of those hands.

"For another reason, the votes allowed in the federal legislature to the people of each State, ought to bear some proportion to the comparative wealth of the States. States have not, like individuals, an influence over each other, arising from superior advantages of fortune. If the law allows an opulent citizen but a single vote in the choice of his representative, the respect and consequence which he derives from his fortunate situation very frequently guide the votes of others to the objects of his choice; and through this imperceptible channel the rights of property are conveyed into the public representation. A State possesses no such influence over other States. It is not probable that the richest State in the Confederacy will ever influence the choice of a single representative in any other State. Nor will the representatives of the larger and richer States possess any other advantage in the federal legislature, over the representatives of other States, than what may result from their superior number alone. As far, therefore, as their superior wealth and weight may justly entitle them to any advantage, it ought to be secured to them by a superior share of representation."
Basically: Rich men have disproportionate influence on selecting representatives in government—more because of their awesomeness than because they purchase it seems—and so should rich states. That's why it's fair to (mostly) count slaves when determining a state's representation in the House of Representatives.

The logic, as Madison admits, is "a little strained." If wealth determines representation, then why not make a tally of all the assets within a state and determine representation accordingly? The answer, it appears, is that slaves can be punished for committing crimes—that separates them from mere livestock, and, well, it all gets very depressing to read and think about.

But Federalist 54 is interesting in light of the recent "Occupy Wall Street" protests. At the heart of the demonstrations, I believe, is a belief that every citizen should have roughly equal representation in the federal government—the anger against "The 1 Percent" is anger not just that rich people are getting richer much faster than the rest of us, but that they have disproportionate influence with our government to bend policies to their will. To the protesters, that seems undemocratic—a betrayal of the American promise.

If we're to take Madison at his word, though, the problem is actually pretty foundational: The idea that wealth deserves more say in the halls of our democratic government seems at odds with the "one person, one vote" ideals we're usually taught, but it's baked into our government's DNA, part of the founding documents. 

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