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Wisconsin Teacher Unions Schooled in Federalist 10

Julia Shaw, from the Heritage Foundation, initiates a compelling discussion of the ways in which the public worker unions in Wisconsin resemble nothing so much as the kind of faction James Madison discusses in Federalist 10.   While their members sport t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "This is What Democracy Looks Like"--as if to suggest that they are the embodiment of a free and open society--they are, in fact, a singular danger to popular government. 

Shaw suggests that James Madison would disapprove of those wearing the union t-shirts and, of course, he would.  But in point of fact, I think Madison might actually have offered to pay for some of their screen-printing costs.  That slogan is perfect.  Of course, Shaw is correct to point out the differences between Madison's understanding of popular government and that of today's public worker unions.  But pure democracy actually does look a lot like what we've seen in Wisconsin.  That's why Madison and the other authors of the Federalist were so determined that we should not have one!  Instead, we instituted a form of government that would protect the rights of the minority by garnering the consent of the people through "reflection and choice."  Ours is not a government--or, at least, it was not established to be a government--where the rule of the stronger interest always carries the day and grinding forces of power politics shape our mores.  We were designed to be better than that.  Madison points the way.
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Good post, Julie. The protests also tend to what social democracy looks like. On the other hand, the flight of the Senators is an affront to representative democracy.

I think that there are four major points to make in response to this (and to the preceding comment):

1. I offer that any individual's opinion on which side is the "real democracy" turns entirely on what outcome the individual's political beliefs prefer. Of course the side we agree with is going to be the "real democracy" while the side we are at odds with is somehow less than legitimate. Our minds are wired for cognitive bias.

2. It is difficult to fault the Wisconsin senators for doing something marginally illegitimate while comparing them to the Founders' intent. The entire Convention was spent doing something illegitimate -- Madison's notes demonstrate that there was a *tremendous* amount of concern because they all knew that they were not doing what they were sent there to do and were not authorized to write a new constitution. Much debate was had over that point. I, for one, am glad that they did what they did, despite its questionable legitimacy. But the Founders were no strangers to acting in politically illegitimate ways to reach their goals.

3. You are dead right that few (if, indeed, *any*) of the Founders intended or would have supported a pure democracy. But the purpose of Constitutional limitations on the power of the majority was not to protect the minority "by garnering the consent of the people." That would be illogical -- if the goal is to protect the minority from the majority, the majority's consent is irrelevant. If that were necessary, then no Constitutional limitation would ever be a barrier to anything.

4. I wish people would remember the previous point -- that we are not a pure democracy and that the minority must be protected from the democratic majority -- *every* time there is a controversial issue. You cannot simultaneously claim that the popular vote should not carry the day here, and then claim that it *should* on issues like abortion and marriage equality. (Well, I guess you *can*, but it significantly undermines one's credibility!)

Ratification cured whatever problems there may have been with the convention. The constitution became legitimate by the consent of the people. But I don't see how that case is applicable here.

"We are not a pure democracy." Exactly. We have representative government, not government by plebiscite and opinion poll. We don't have state-wide town meetings (the only thing like pure democracy in the U.S.) Similarly, we have rules, checks, balances, and written constitutions. Those rules check and limit majority will.

This is not a question of constitutional or natural rights. This is a question of changing the law regarding a power granted by government that, therefore, government may take away.

Doing things that are "somewhate iligitmate" (whatever that means) has a place. But precisely because such acts threaten the legitimacy of the entire system, they should only be done in very very grave situations. But a mere change of a perfectly constitutional law is hardly the proper case. Were the government going to require assisted suicide for everyone over a certain age, that would tough the right to life. This one is simply a matter of changing the rules under which unions of people who work for the government operate.

Well said Lawyer Cat.

Also depending on the audience it is deceptive to highlight a single opinion from the New York Supreme Court.

"Ours is not a government--or, at least, it was not established to be a government--where the rule of the stronger interest always carries the day and grinding forces of power politics shape our mores.."

Maybe.

But assuming we don't want such a government, it seems to me we could grant a lot of the assumptions of Julia Shaw and not reach the conclusion she seeks.

It seems to me that if you are going to have a moderate and reasoned democracy where attention and attachment to the national interest is possible, then you have to have a group of people who don't actually have outlets(power) to escape political consequences of government decisions.

While there is an idea of a common america, there is certainly not equality in barganning power.

In other words I don't see a contradiction between Julia Shaw and Paul Krugman.

Both can be right, in the same sense that supply side economics can exist along side Marx.

To an extent I believe in supply side economics. It works because when you raise taxes those who have autonomy or control over how much they produce can chose to produce less.

What you really have is a class of people with freedom to control production, and folks who are essentially operating on a fixed cost structure.

In terms of america as a group of free people who share a common set of interests, the middle class gov. workers don't exactly escape political consequences. When the federal reserve implements QE 1, 2 and 3, they don't capture the increase in the stock market, or the price of oil in a way that offsets $4 at the pump gas, or inflation generally.

Also technically if Apple workers go on strike, you will still have Ipads, it will simply impact the next generation product, and the Nasdaq will respond, prompting a sell off in tech indexes(QQQ), breaking technical levels in other stocks, creating a potential entry level. If all trucking and shipping industries go on strike then you won't have Ipads. The folks in China who make the Ipads are not Apple employees. If workers in china who make Ipads go on strike then maybe.

You can debate if "this is what democracy looks like", but perhaps a better shirt would be "This is what the middle class looks like."

If you want to sell this sort of bull as actual politics, then the education better be free, because it is in support of a legitimate state interest.

Take out the middle class propaganda support structure, and you risk seeing how off base Marx was about late stage capitalism.

"What the middle class looks like." Actually what a lack of class looks like. It's a good analogue of taking the ball and going home because on is losing.

Thanks for this post, because it has put a piece in place for my evolving "Debye shielding effect" argument (in a very rough form that I have been trying to work on for some time). To wit:

Now, by Madison's Number 10 the multiplicity of factions and interests in a political unit of Wisconsin's size should be more than enough to prevent any one faction from predominating. But if a political unit grows too large, or if said unit becomes responsible for too large of a portfolio of governmental activities and functions, it is possible that a "Debye shielding effect" will occur, where either one issue, or one group, can become influential out of all proportion to an issue's importance or the relative strength of the faction (when compared to other factions or combination of factions).

Now, in plasma physics, Debye shielding is a term used to describe how a single point charge (positive or negative), which would normally generate an electric field that could be detected at some distance, has instead its electric field essentially negated by the electric fields of all other nearby surrounding charges. Thus, a free proton in a plasma has its positive electric field (due to its positive charge) negated by surrounding electrons (with their negative charges)--making it hard to detect the individual proton at a distance. The plasma appears, on a macroscopic scale, electrically neutral. It is only within the "DEBYE LENGTH", a radius of a known amount, that the existence of the proton can be determined via measurement of its electric field.

Inside this Debye length, the proton's "force" predominates. Outside this length, it is essentially screened off by interfering electrons. Or in other words, it is lost in the crowd, "drowned out", as it were.

Now taking the analogy back to politics--the Madisonian Federalist Number 10 method of expanding political units so as to create combinations of factions able to prevent any one faction from predominating depends on two things for efficacy--the ability of all factions to have both an interest in and an idea of what other factions are doing (so that combinations can be made as necessary to prevent one faction from having too much power); and the lack of other competing issues that would cause factions that would ordinarily combine (to prevent one faction from having undue influence) to instead forbear action so as to not threaten the priority of some other competing issue of great importance to them.

What this really means is that for one relatively small faction to gain undue influence, it must somehow be able to screen itself off from the ability of other factions to counter it by combining, so that it's true deleterious effect is shielded from the people. It would seem there are two ways to have such shielding.

The first is lack of insight, where there is a lack of vision into the relative power of the faction and what it is attempting to have the government do on its behalf, perhaps an easily achieved situation if there is an apathy on the part of the people such that the number of those who actually go to the polls is on the same order as that of the faction; OR if the people do not possess organs of social inquiry desiring to fully explore all political corners and thus the action of the faction desiring greater power are never seen by the people.

In plasma physics, this is equivalent to a thin and diffuse plasma where the shielding electrons are few and far between, meaning that the relative effect of a single proton can be proportionally greater in radius--but that from a distance the plasma still appears electrically neutral.

The second means whereby one faction can gain outsized power is if the sheer number of issues at play in an election is such that factions which would normally combine against the faction that has an outsized and deleterious influence do not do so in order to not jeopardize other issues--and the outsized faction is sufficiently close to those in power that its wishes carry more weight than those farther away, AND the ability of the farther away groups to change this behavior is prevented by interfering desires of either their own or other factions.

In plasma physics, this situation would be equivalent to a dense plasma, where the proton's Debye length would be relatively small, but the ability of other charges to affect events inside that Debye length would be equally small (or smaller).

Faced with a multiplicity of issues, but only able to make a binary vote, the electorate may end up empowering those they would never empower if the faction desiring outsized importance had to present its case directly to the people.

Thus, Madisonian Republics need to not just have political units of sufficient geographic size so as to have a diversity of interests, they must have a populace continually alert and interested in each election to prevent factions from gaining power merely by default; as well as having a government appropriately sized in scope such that elections can be both specific in the items that are the subjects of the citizenry's discontent as well as limited in the possibilities of enabling unplanned for acts of government because factions close to those in power were able to act in an "effective" or "virtual" dark due to the citizenry being more concerned with something else.

(As I said, work in progress. Don't quite have it right yet, nor the corollary I'm applying to economics.)


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There was nothing illegitimate about what the Wisconsin Republicans did. They matched a extra-legal action (the Democrats' abandonment of their responsibilities) with a finesse (stripping spending from the bill so they could pass it without quorum). Damned clever, actually, and they and they alone have followed Wisconsin's constitution.

Again, the only thing Dems have to really complain about is being end-runned.

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