What Government Would Look Like If We Took Human Nature Seriously

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Posted: Sep 24, 2018 9:41 AM
What Government Would Look Like If We Took Human Nature Seriously

Adam Smith articulated the grounds for our inherit individualism in The Wealth of Nations.  Smith writes that it “is the desire of bettering our condition; a desire which, though generally calm and dispassionate, comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave.”[1]  Smith is telling us that this condition is simply human nature, which is exactly what James Madison referenced in Federalist 51 in regard for the need of government.  Madison said:

Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.  The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.   It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.   But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections 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.[2]

Madison is simply reiterating what John Locke stated nearly 100 years prior.  Locke declared that a man “is to do whatsoever he thinks fits for the preservation of himself and others within the permission of the law of nature: by which law common to them all, he and all the rest of mankind are one community, make up one society distinct from all other creatures.   And were it not for the corruption, and viciousness of degenerate men, there would be no need of any other; no necessity that men should separate from this great and natural community, and by positive agreement combine into smaller and divided associations,” and that this condition “can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good.”[3]

Madison also echoed Adam Smith from his earlier work in 1759 when Smith stated that “There are some situations which bear so hard upon human nature, that the greatest degree of self-government, which can belong to so imperfect a creature as man, is not able to stifle, altogether, the voice of human weakness, or reduce the violence of the passions to that pitch of moderation, in which the impartial spectator can entirely enter into them.”[4]  Smith directly acknowledges that any good government must take human nature into account; that is, account for the Fall of Man.

Plato in The Republic made the same statement on human nature; that the government is simply a reflection of that nature.  In the dialogue between Plato and Glaucon:

Do you know, I [Plato] said, that governments vary as the dispositions of men vary, and that there must be as many of the one as there are of the other?  For we cannot suppose that States are made of “oak and rock,” and not out of the human natures which are in them, and which in a figure turn the scale and draw other things after them?

Yes, he [Glaucon] said, the States are as the men are; they grow of human characters.[5]

Charles de Montesquieu put forth the exact same concern and caution, even apprehension of honorable men, writing, “Through a fatality inseparable from human nature, moderation in great men is very rare: and as it is always much easier to push on force in the direction in which it moves than to stop its movement, so in the superior class of the people, it is less difficult, perhaps, to find men extremely virtuous, than extremely prudent…The human mind feels such an exquisite pleasure in the exercise of power; even those who are lovers of virtue are so excessively fond of themselves that there is no man so happy as not still to have reason to mistrust his honest intentions.”[6]

Sir William Blackstone, the great British jurist, also echoed the corrupt nature of man and the need to have this constant instilled in the understanding, legislation and adjudication of the law.  Combining reason with human nature and the law of nature, Blackstone writes:

But, in order to apply this to the particular exigencies of each individual, it is still necessary to have recourse to reason, whose office it is to discover, as was before observed, what the law of nature directs in every circumstance of life, by considering what method will tend the most effectually to our own substantial happiness.  And if our reason were always, as in our first ancestor before his transgression, clear and perfect, unruffled by passions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by disease or intemperance, the task would be pleasant and easy; we should need no other guide but this.  But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.[7]

All these great men articulated this concern for human nature in their writings and philosophy; and each directly influenced our Forefathers and Founding Fathers.  It would behoove Americans today to heed their wisdom as it did for our founding generation to make and maintain a more perfect union.

[1] Adam Smith, 2007 (originally published in 1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, (Petersfield, Great Britain: Harriman House Ltd.), p. 219.

[2] James Madison, February 6, 1788, Federalist Paper No. 51.   Taken from James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers: The Classic Original Edition, (SoHo Books), p. 150.

[3] John Locke, 1982, ed. Richard Cox (originally published in 1690), Second Treatise of Government, “Book IX:  Of the Ends of Political Society and Government, Sec. 128 and 131,” (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc.), pp. 76-77.

[4] Adam Smith, 2014 (originally published in 1759), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (Lexington, KY: Economic Classics), p. 17.

[5] Plato, 1999 (Originally published in 360 BC), The Republic, Book VIII, (New York, NY: Barnes & Nobles Book), p. 241.

[6] Charles de Montesquieu, 2010 (originally published in 1748), The Spirit of the Laws, “Book XXVIII: Of the Origin and Revolutions of the Civil Laws among the French,” (Digireads.com Book), p 442.

[7] Sir William Blackstone, 1753, Commentaries on the Laws of England: Of the Nature of Laws in General, Vol. 1, “Section II: Of the Nature of Laws in General,” (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund), [http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2140].