Because we are in the slow days of summer, and I have a bit more time on my hands than I would usually have, I picked up a copy of Richard Matthews’ 1995 book, If Men Were Angels: James Madison & the Heartless Empire of Reason. Immediately, one’s Canadian eyes might begin to glaze over. Why should one care about an American Founding Father, specifically one that is somewhat more obscure in the common eye than Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton? To my mind, Madison raises a number of implications for contemporary debates in Canada about the nature of our government and the interpretation of our Constitution. In this post, I’d like to address two of those implications. First is the idea of deference to legislatures, and how Madison’s views serve as lighting rods for debate on the relative institutional capacities of courts and legislatures. Secondly, and more controversially, is the idea of to whom the Constitution “belongs” and whether it matters for the interpretive approach one adopts in relation to the Constitution.
First, a bit of background about the book and its subject. Matthews paints a picture of Madison as a “quintessential liberal,” who continues to, today, impact the way Americans view their government. Madison, who was a chief architect of the Constitution’s structural provisions and the Bill of Rights, is often placed on a lower rung than Thomas Jefferson in the hierarchy of American founders. And yet, for Matthews, it is Madison who has come to typify modern American government and life. This reality lies, for Matthews, in a quintessential difference in Madisonian and Jeffersonian politics. Matthews paints Madison, at heart, as a Hobbesian; or perhaps a Malthus. Either way, Madison does not view political life as a teleological good as the ancients did. Rather, political life is nasty, brutish, and short; and humanity leans inexorably towards degeneration. Madison is a political skeptic. To him, left to their own devices, humans will inevitably turn on one another, no matter how good or virtuous they might be. Hence, democracy had to be tempered because “had every Athenian Citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob (see The Federalist Papers, No. 55). For Matthews, “[f]rom Madison’s view of the individual, democracy was a fool’s illusion; in the long run, little could be done, beyond playing for time, to forestall the decline or to improve the human condition”  because “passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason” (The Federalist Papers, No.50).
Madison’s prescription for this natural state of affairs was republican constitutionalism. If the human condition could not be improved, and if virtue could not be instilled, the least one could do is preserve a peaceful status quo. For Hobbes, the method to do this was the Leviathan. But for Madison, the separation of powers was the preferred prescription. By making “ambition counteract ambition” through the mutual jealousy of the branches of government, the worst vices of humanity could be tempered. And, by making a republic that extended over a large geographic area rather than a classic Athenian demos, the risk of factionalism decreased.
On the other hand, Jefferson’s political philosophy reveals a different sort of view of the human condition and political organization. For Jefferson, politics is a constitutive act of citizenship, in which the people constantly reinvent their laws to suit their circumstances. Hence Jefferson’s frequently-cited admonition that “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” And Jefferson operationalized this reality: he believed that the Constitution and the laws should renew every generation, so that the dead do not bind the living in their constant fulfillment of democratic, civic republicanism. Jefferson obviously viewed humans as far less fallible than Madison did.
Matthews views the matter differently than Madison, adopting a Jeffersonian position on the matter. For Matthews, “Madison’s liberal dream has, as he knew it would, turned into a nightmare for an increasing number of marginalized Americans” . And this rings somewhat true: even more so than in 1995, the ability of people to connect over the Internet and to peddle in fake news and “deep fakes” has made it much easier to bypass republic protections and create mob rule.
This political theorizing seems far off from the world of Canadian law, and so how does any of it apply? As I noted above, I think there are real reasons why Madison’s thinking, Jefferson’s philosophy, and Matthews’ book all have something to say about contemporary debates in our own institutions. Take first the question of judicial deference to legislatures. In Canada, courts will defer to legislatures on constitutional questions under the Oakes test. If one adopts the Madisonian position, why is there any reason to defer to legislators? The question rings powerfully in the context of Canadian law, where there is a more closely-tied legislature and executive, and where the executive is responsible to the legislature. In such a case, there are no separation of powers protections to prevent the worst human vices. Couldn’t the legislature or executive simply channel mob rule?
There is some evidence of this, as co-blogger Leonid Sirota and I wrote about here in reference to the SNC-Lavalin affair. The example shows that humans—of which politicians are a special class—will not act properly when the incentives aren’t right. The lure of winning an election and doing whatever it takes to do so might be too great a Madisonian evil. After all, it was Justin Trudeau’s justification in the SNC-Lavalin affair that “jobs” were the driving force behind his attempted interference in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. This leaves us wondering whether there is any reason for courts to defer to legislatures controlled by calculating executives.
But one must take the situation as it is. In this sense, Hart and Sacks and the legal process school had something right: institutional competency matters. And while legislatures are apt to turn into ineffectual mobs (look at the US Congress and the issue of gun control), or to focus on their own electoral futures, we are talking here about deference to legislatures on constitutional questions. Constitutional questions are more questions of policy-resolution than legal interpretation in the modern day. Of course, this is not normatively desirable or necessary. But it is the state of the world. And if that is the case, legislatures should have a legitimate say—if not a final one, because that responsibility is the judiciary’s—in how issues of policy are resolved. This says nothing of the fact that the people are the ultimate control on government, and for that reason, are always the best control on legislatures appealing to the worst of us.
Finally, I want to say a note about Jefferson’s living constitutionalism. Madison, I think, provides a response that is still apt today:
Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favour which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age?
Madison advances a valid epistemological reason for refusing to throw away the past, one I find convincing instinctively. But there is an additional reason why the principle of constitutionalism means that we cannot escape the past. As Hayek notes, the distinctive American contribution to the Rule of Law was the addition of the principle of constitutionalism, explained by Madison as the idea that the Constitution is supreme over ordinary law; that it is “fundamental.” The choice to make supreme certain elements of law is an intentional one, taken by a people after the expense of extensive political capital and energy. It is a sacred act. When it comes to bills of rights, the choice to make certain rights and freedoms beyond the reach of ordinary legislation is a deliberate choice to remove from the sphere of political debate those rights and freedoms. That, too, is a sacred act. The reason why the Constitution cannot be automatically renewed every generation—short of the amending procedure—is that to do so would disrespect the original choice to remove certain, important rights from the sphere of debate. This is an important formal act that should be presumptively respected because it represents the democratic choice of the people at a select time. That choice, absent the amending procedure, should not be abridged by an extralegal “renewal” of the Constitution; especially by courts. This, of course, is slightly different than saying that the people made the choices they did for good reasons.
I could write more, but this post is long enough. It is enough to say that Madison’s politics do view humans as inherently flawed, and these flaws reverberate through all of our institutions. It is fundamentally a question, though, of asking with respect to a particular legal question who is worse. Sometimes courts are best suited to deal with issues, but other times they are decidedly not.