by Jeff Polet
Many matters were debated at the Constitutional Convention, but the central issue involved the problem of political representation, which carries within itself one of the fundamental problems of social life: namely, the principal/agent problem. Simply stated, when you commission someone to act on your behalf you run the risk that this person will fail to do so, often because he will pursue his own interests instead. Critics of the Constitution’s system of representation argued that delegates to a central government in a distant place would ultimately lose touch with the people who voted them into office, and would instead become captive to other interests. The likelihood of this happening would increase as power would become more centralized.
In one of the more powerful criticisms of the system of representation in general, and with regard to the presidency in particular, the author of the “Cato” letters (historians are uncertain of the authorship, but some think it may have been George Clinton from New York) expressed his concern in his Fifth Letter:
“…that the great powers of the President, connected with his duration in office would lead to oppression and ruin. That he would be governed by favorites and flatterers, or that a dangerous council would be collected from the great officers of state;—that the ten miles square, if the remarks of one of the wisest men, drawn from the experience of mankind, may be credited, would be the asylum of the base, idle, avaricious and ambitious, and that the court would possess a language and manners different from yours…”
Turning his attention to the legislature, Cato argued that, in order to avoid the possibility of creating a permanent ruling class that would rule in either its own or monied interests, annual elections and term limits were required (both of which existed under the Articles of Confederation). In response to the claim that these proposals would rob the government of expertise and experience, Cato replied:
“If annual elections were to exist in this government, and learning and information to become more prevalent, you never will want men to execute whatever you could design— Sidney observes that a well governed state is as fruitful to all good purposes as the seven headed serpent is said to have been in evil; when one head is cut off, many rise up in the place of it. He remarks further, that it was also thought, that free cities by frequent elections of magistrates became nurseries of great and able men, every man endeavoring to excel others, that he might be advanced to the honor he had no other title to, than what might arise from his merit, or reputation, but the framers of this perfect government, as it is called, have departed from this democratical principle, and established bi-ennial elections…”
In many ways, the debates at the Constitutional Convention involved concerns about corruption. Now, there are different kinds of corruption. There is personal corruption (being a person who does bad things), political corruption (taking bribes and so forth) and systemic corruption (by which the political system deteriorates and becomes something else). Many of the Anti-federalists worried that the concentration of power in a central government would lead to all three kinds of corruption, and so preventing corruption became the lodestar of their political beliefs. It is not enough to empower government to do good; you must first prevent it from doing evil. And surely this is part of the thinking behind the phrase often attributed-to but definitely said by President Ford: A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.
- What are the benefits and downsides of term limits for members of Congress? How would term limits affect staffing and the power of interest groups?
- Should we remove presidential term limits?
- How can we insure that representatives stay loyal to their constituents, if not by frequent elections?