Protecting the Opulent Against the Majority

A few days ago, billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins wrote that the way progressives are starting to treat the super rich reminds him of how the Nazis treated the Jews.  Soon after his letter was published in multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, he had to apologize for his politically incorrect phrasing.   He would have done better to quote James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” and author of the Bill of Rights.

When the Federal Convention of 1787 turned to the question “whether the republican form shall be the basis of our government,” Madison pointed out: “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure.  An agrarian law would soon take place.” 

The implication, he continued, is:  “If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation.  Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other.  They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”  (emphasis added)

A widely held belief has developed that the US Constitution offers protection for all minorities.  That was not its intent.  Madison’s much more limited aim was to protect the wealthy minority.  Whether or not we like the result, we should recognize that our Constitution is working as intended.

How does it work?  A republic is where power is held by elected representatives whose actions are bound by a Constitution.  People in a republic vote for candidates who promise changes they like.  The risk is that a small majority could make changes with unacceptable negative impact on the rest of the population.  That’s why a Constitution is necessary, to prevent such changes by defining ‘unacceptable.’

I’m thinking about this because I’m reading Noam Chomsky.  His diagnosis of why our government acts as it does, regardless which party is in power, feels spot on.  He shows example after example of actions by our government that benefit the opulent minority and work against the interests of the majority here and throughout the world.

But Chomsky’s proposed solution is misguided.  His central beliefs are that power corrupts and capitalism concentrates wealth, which, based on long first-hand experience and close study of history, are truths I hold to be self-evident.  The question is, would his solution, anarcho-syndicalism, be better?  Could it even work?

Anarcho-syndicalists are socialist libertarians.  Like capitalist libertarians who enjoy President Reagan’s signature joke: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help'” they oppose central power.  The difference is anarcho-syndicalists say the inevitable concentration of wealth by capitalism exploits the majority.

Attractive increases in freedom are promised by both kinds of libertarians.  In real life, however, the system does not scale.  A libertarian (i.e., unregulated) society cannot protect shared resources or universal needs: local societies often manage local resources (e.g., forests) sustainably but resources managed by non-locals are polluted and/or depleted.  And small societies cannot retain freedom: they cannot defend themselves against more powerful exploiters.

It is true that a fundamental problem for large scale enterprises is that central planning cannot work: there’s too much change to comprehend at the center.  An ingenious programmer I once hired was directed to model how many tractors Soviet factories should plan to build.  He tried combinations of many, many factors without success before at last seeing how to produce results that pleased the planners.  How?  By plugging the number of tractors that were going to be built, anyway.

Big businesses fail for the same reason – they lose contact with changes in their market.

Another problem is many things that start small seem destined to grow big but central planners too often fail to identify which are worth the investment.  Small societies with property managed at the local level would make better choices but they lack the necessary resources.  Today’s semiconductor and internet infrastructure, medical technology and etc required enormous investment.

So history tells us that democracies with a constitution tend to be better for people than autocracies, that market-based economies tend to deliver better results than centrally planned ones, and that capitalism seems essential to generate disruptive technology and deploy it on a large scale.

Speaking in Parliament in 1947, not so long after he lost the election following WW2, Winston Churchill famously said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The same looks to be true of capitalism in the economic sphere and nation states in the sphere of sovereign entities.  They do all tend to concentrate power and wealth but the alternatives are worse.

So, “if these observations be just,” how can the non-opulent minorities who make up the majority get protection?  Curtailing the inevitable abuses of power is achieved by incremental legislative changes that adapt Constitutional definitions to changes in society.

Because the fundamental structure of the system results in the wealth and power of the opulent minority always nudging the law’s evolution in their favor, other minorities must speak more loudly.

It is healthy that voices are now speaking loudly enough about too-high and rising inequality to be heard by Perkins and others.  It indicates that our system is working as it should.

6 comments on “Protecting the Opulent Against the Majority

  1. Harold responded: “There are several problems with our current system.

    First, there is a great divide in this country between left leaning thinkers and the conservative right. This is really a problem that is very difficult to solve because the two sides don’t speak the same language and don’t want to listen to each other. It seems there was much less of a divide back in the 1950/60’s.

    Second, because money has become so important in our political system far too many politicians, at all levels of government, are corrupt. And corruption appears in many parts of our society. Our judicial system is gamed by lawyers who, rather than seeking justice, try to win at any cost. The privatizing of our prisons has created corruption in the system where judges keep prisoners incarcerated because it is a money making proposition. Our educational system and healthcare system suffers from corrupt policies spawned by moneyed interest groups. I could go on and on.

    Third, our media is owned by large corporations and is highly politicized. We no longer have news organizations dedicated to fair and balanced reporting that educates instead of indoctrinating the public. Maybe the internet will give rise to more accurate reporting, but I don’t have high hopes for this.

    Fourth, corporations have transformed our society, limiting competition in many areas except between huge corporations. The reality is that corporations need to be able to compete on a global scale and that means they need to be very large with huge resources. This makes them more and more powerful and more critical to the functioning of our more and more complex society. The relationship between corporations and government is critical for our society to function properly. Corporations define our society in so many ways, while government is responsible for the necessary infrastructure, regulation, and oversight to make sure things run properly and for the good of the whole society. Although there is probably more choice than ever for such things as cars, hotels, and food, the cost of entry for the small guy seems to get higher and higher.

    So how do we correct the problems created by this corruption? The only way I see this happening is to elect honest politicians who pledge not to represent special interest groups. A friend of mine said that a third party that could get 10% of the vote could tip the scales in most elections. He said this third party would vow to get rid of all incumbents and only elect those who vow to not represent special interests. This actually sounds like something that might be possible to accomplish.

    • I’m relieved to have come to the conclusion at long last that the governance system we have is the least bad option. That means I can now focus only on how to make it work better, not whether it must be replaced.

      But – does anyone see a flaw in my analysis? Does our system of governance in fact need to be changed in some fundamental way?

      I’m hoping for more discussion about this post so I can identify all the major sub-topics that merit separate follow-up.

      Ever since the founding of our republic, politicians and policies have been bought by the “opulent minority”. Periodically the corruption grows sufficiently extreme that a reformer can get enough power to perform a house-cleaning. I’d be grateful for pointers to incidents of this kind that may have lessons for today.

      Honesty in the media has always been problematic but the impact of today’s big media seems more powerful than in the past. I’ve been studying this for a while and will probably start this separate discussion first.

      Related to honesty in the media is how to encourage more people to WANT honesty, which ties to Harold’s first point about today’s paralyzing left/right divide. It also ties to my earlier posts about the purpose of education.

      The impact of global corporations is especially interesting because of their enormous size, scope and growth. Some are already bigger than most nation states, which means they have enormous impact but are not subject to any holistic system of governance.

      What other topics are of comparable importance?

      What solutions does anyone see for defects in how our governance works today?

  2. I asked if I’m the only one who didn’t know our Constitution aims to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

    Paul wrote: “Yeah, it’s in the Federalist papers. Everyone (and it is pretty common) who seems to think the Constitution was set up to protect vulnerable minorities (which in terms of race it didn’t do at all for almost 200 years) should read the history more carefully. Crafting an agreement which would bring the slave states in (and give them entrenched political power to protect slavery) was a guiding theme.

    The Bill of Rights was part of an effort to make the Constitution more palatable (and therefore ratify-able). Whether or not the logic of protecting rich people’s money infects every aspect of the form of government, the framers basically had the 16th C British parliament as their model which was designed/evolved to protect baronial rights against royal encroachment.

    Hostility to democratic forms and ideas has been a US tradition from the start. The early Democratic Republic party got its name as an insult from its opponents, i.e., it was like calling it the Communist Republicans, and so on.”

  3. The Senate seems to be the body that was designed protect the “opulent” minority because every state has two senators no matter how small or large the state’s population is. And the Senate used to have a “clubbiness” about it where the Senators were clearly picked by the wealthy and influential members of society in the state.

    I believe, in many ways those wealthy did try to do what they thought would be best for the country, especially when it came to matters that made trade easier. I think those “clubby relationship” days are gone and have been replaced by pure monied interests (unfeeling corporations) and gobs of lawyers.

    This has occurred because our society has become enormously more complex with an order of magnitude more inter-connected issues to deal with. For example, there was no concern for the environment when building the railroad that carried goods across the country. Today, we have learned there are many more issues to consider for a project like that. This complexity gave rise to far more special interests that our politicians need to serve and the relationships where the overarching issues might have been considered have been trampled in the process. Relationships take time to develop, whereas money is like medicine; it acts quickly and has serious side effects.

    Based on our current trajectory there seems to me to be very little chance that we will ever go back to a benevolent wealthy class that seeks to promote the best interests of the country. With that said, I heard just today that one billionaire created a 100 million dollar PAC to promote dealing with climate change, apparently out of concern for our collective future well-being. It appears to be one of the first of its kind. Maybe other concerned billionaires will follow suit, which would make me more hopeful than I was just yesterday.

    Perhaps a third party based on “anti-special interests” might have enough political sway to provide some counter balance to the current system. A small third party with a very focused objective can have great power in getting specific politicians elected who won’t be swayed by the moneyed interests. This might operate principally at the primary level as the Tea Party does today.

    • Thanks for several good points, Harold. Having escaped from the remains of one in England, I certainly would not want a benevolent aristocracy here.

      Your comment about the Tea Party is especially thought-provoking. Their tactics have been very effective. I’ll consider how they might apply to the broader challenge of establishing a government that acts “for the people.”.

  4. @Harold. You should read “Frozen Republic” by Dan Lazare or Robert Dahl’s work on the Constitution. I think you are romanticizing the origins of the Constitution. For instance, the point you make about lawyers. Samuel Huntington made the point that the government has always been dominated by lawyers and that the proportion of lawyers in Congress is almost exactly the same as the 16th C British parliament. The reason, argued SH, is that the form of divided government (power split between the crown, two houses of parliament, etc vs. the American system) gives those trained in law an inherent advantage because the intra-governmental mechanisms are so complex. As for the clubiness of the Senate, that supposedly was even worse at the dawn of the Republic when Senators were appointed by governors not elected but since direct election of Senators we now have the filibuster (not part of the Constitution but very much in line with Constitutional logic).

    As for a third party, they are mostly an impossibility for structural reasons. What the tea party has done has been within an existing party and mostly what they are able to accomplish (as have all strategic Congressional minorities) is to block legislation which is what the legislative system was set up to allow (through division of powers, the presidential veto, Senatorial disproportionate representation, the electoral college, lifetime tenure of Supremes, the limit of the franchise, the Constitutional amendment process, etc.)

    In fact, the only way the legislative process works at all is through the omnibus process, where Congress has to conglomerate all the pressing concerns into one bill that no one will oppose because it includes the budget (i.e., a painstaking bargain has to be crafted which is time-consuming, undemocratic and prone to the corruption by well-funded lobbyists).

    A party that cannot do anything except block legislation will lose its electoral support eventually as business ( and anyone else) can’t get the government services they want. Remember the tea party gets substantial electoral support from people who actually don’t want their social security or medicare cut. The penny will drop.

    Anyway, the system is hopelessly baroque and corruptible, maybe one day after some terrible crisis ( a la the Civil War) we will actually get around to trying democracy.

    I will say that even if the Framers were an enlightened ruling class, they did not have a model for representative democracy (they used the British parliament which was not that). Modern democratic forms were largely developed in Europe in the century after 1789 (about the only place that took the US Constitution as model was Latin America and we all know how that went). Similarly, the Japanese Constitution was a creature of American venerators of the Constitution in the Occupation and Japan has a fabulously corrupt system to this day as a result).

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