American founding father, James Madison, and twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, write about government from two very different perspectives. Madison, a rationalist from the age of enlightenment, had an optimistic view of the possibilities of a democratic government that was formulated during the early days of a young nation. On the other hand, Niebuhr, writing more than a century and a half later, critiques a democratic government that has been in place for generations.
Both agree that controlling self-interest is necessary in order to have a functioning, well-organized government and society. Madison speaks in favor of expanding the role of the federal government because he believes that to do so would improve the quality of the elected representatives and reduce the occurrence of harmful factions. He defines a faction as a group of citizens whose common interest either limits the rights of others, or causes permanent damage to the greater community.
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He further contends that the “mischefs of faction” can be dealt with by removing its causes and/or by controlling its effects. His cure for factionalism cannot be successful by either destroying liberty, or attempting to instill the same thoughts, feelings and priorities in the populace, because that is both unwise and impracticable. However, he suggests that limiting dissent can be most effectively achieved through greater representation in government.
That is to say, that the more opinions, passions, and interests represented in Congress, the less need there will be for factions operating outside the government. Madison clearly believes that a republican form of government will be far more successful that a pure democracy. Niebuhr labels democracy a “bourgeois ideology”, which represents middle class viewpoints. While he has a deep appreciation for democracy, and the optimism of its founders, he suggests that a certain amount of wisdom has been lost due to a secular renunciation of the doctrine of original sin.
He indicates that democracy endures against the odds because, in his words, Bourgeois democrats are inclined to believe that freedom is primarily a necessity for the individual, and that community and social order are necessary only because there are many individuals in a small world, so that minimal restrictions are required to prevent confusion. Actually the community requires freedom as much as the individual; and the individual requires order as much as does the community. (Niebuhr, 1212) So, self-interest cannot be separated from the interest of the community. Yet,
Niebuhr does not believe, as Madison does, that a society can be guided toward a singular ideology. He maintains that democracy can only remain productive if it is subject to constructive criticism. Madison has a positive, optimistic view of human nature and believes that liberty is essential to ensuring greater intellectual achievement, both for the individual and for society. Niebuhr acknowledges that democracy provides better options than other forms of government, however he remains pessimistic about human ability to improve based on his understanding of the limits that sin imposes on the individual.
Both concede that placing self-interest above the needs of society is an ongoing challenge in a society that values individual liberty. It is likely, however, that Niebuhr would be sharply critical of Madison’s optimistic, and perhaps naive, solutions for controlling self-interest and promoting society’s interests through expanded government. It is easy to imagine that Madison, the quintessential rationalist, would be intrigued by Niebuhr’s dour outlook and wonder how the benefits of more than one hundred and fifty years of democracy could result in such negative attitudes.