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August 22, 2006

Fame, the Founding Fathers, and Modern Psychology

The New York Times has an interesting article on "the fame motive," in its Science Times section today.  [see full article]  The article observes that psychologists have recently begun to study fame's motivating forces and how some people can be overwhelmingly devoted to its attainment:

For most of its existence, the field of psychology has ignored fame as a primary motivator of human behavior: it was considered too shallow, too culturally variable, too often mingled with other motives to be taken seriously. But in recent years, a small number of social scientists have begun to study and think about fame in a different way, ranking it with other goals, measuring its psychological effects, characterizing its devoted seekers.

The article reminded me of the debate between Anti-federalists and Federalists at the founding of our Republic.  The Federalists, men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who advocated ratification of the Constitution and a strong central government, recognized man's "love of fame," an insight associated with David Hume.  For the Federalists, this love of fame would motivate men to participate in government, but had to be checked and balanced, since it could lead men to abuse the power they held.  One prominent Federalist, John Stevens, for example, criticized the Anti-Federalists' "talk of virtue as the spring of action."  He considered such a basis for government "too feeble."  He said that human nature was self-interested and motivated by ambition:

Can any man, who has a tolerable acquaintance of human nature, imagine that men would so eagerly engage in public affairs, from whence they can hope to derive no personal emolument, merely from the impulse of so exalted, so pure, so disinterested a passion as patriotism, or political virtue?  No!  It is ambition that constitutes the very life and soul of Republican Government.  As fear and attachment insure obedience to Government, so does ambition set its wheels in motion.

Madison, who shared Stevens' views, observed that "Respect for character is always diminished in proportion to the number among whom the blame or praise is to be divided.  Conscience, the only remaining tie, is known to be inadequate in individuals: In large numbrs little is to be expected from it."    Madison's observations of psychology led him to support a government structured by checks and balances, one that would not invest too much authority in any one department.  In The Federalist, No. 51, Madison penned these famous words:

But what is government itself, but the greatest reflection 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 Federalist vision of human nature, of course, prevailed.  (I should point out, just to be clear, that the "Federalists" of the founding generation had little in common with the "Federalist Society" of today.  The latter advocate positions that are more closely associated with the Anti-Federalists.)  We tend to forget, however, how much of the behavioral observations of the founders influenced the form of government they established.  Morevover, many of the debates about human nature should continue to inform how we understand and interpret the relations between the branches of the federal government and the dynamic between that government and the states.  Modern psychology is unlikely to definitively answer such basic and profound questions, but modern research methods can help shed light on these ancient debates.  And, perhaps, some of this scientific work might even be relevant to concrete questions we have today, such as how much power should be invested in the Executive Branch in these treacherous times that we live in.  For Madison and many of the other founders, the answer was clear.  In Hamilton's words:

Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave; and to have no other end in all his action, but private interest.  By this interest, we must govern him, and by means of it, make him co-operate to public good, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition.

Hence, while we must invest great power in our elected representatives, we should never forget the basic motivating forces of human nature.  Perhaps the most basic operating principle of the American Constitution is that it checks ambition with ambition through the checks and balances inherent in the division of power.  As the founders understood, Investing too much authority in any one branch, no matter how virtuous we might consider those occupying the offices of that branch, is contrary to the original plan of government and likely to result in the abuse of power.
-- DLF

August 22, 2006 | Permalink


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