Madi­son and the ‘coun­ter­bal­anc­ing of hu­man in­ter­ests’

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Jonathan R. Al­ger our oth­ers’ we ac­tu­ally need that other side, Jonathan R. Al­ger, J.D., is the sixth pres­i­dent of James Madi­son Univer­sity, where he fo­cuses his ef­forts on mak­ing JMU the na­tional model for the en­gaged univer­sity. Prior to his tenure a

As the pres­i­dent of the pub­lic univer­sity named for the man who drafted the Bill of Rights and as a lawyer, I have of­ten wit­nessed ten­sions as col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties strug­gle to bal­ance rights of free ex­pres­sion with equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity and free­dom from dis­crim­i­na­tion. This bal­anc­ing act is messy, com­pli­cated and em­blem­atic of a strug­gle that James Madi­son and the other Founders ad­dressed head-on: How do we en­sure the rights of a di­verse cit­i­zenry while main­tain­ing con­di­tions that would bind to­gether an evolv­ing pop­u­la­tion into a na­tion with a col­lec­tive sense of civic pur­pose?

Of­ten, de­bates on cam­puses and in so­ci­ety re­gard­ing hot-but­ton top­ics re­lated to race, gen­der, re­li­gion, sex­ual orientation, etc., have de­gen­er­ated from re­spect­ful civil dis­course into shout­ing matches, per­sonal at­tacks and even vi­o­lence. We can — and must — strive to do bet­ter to pre­serve and en­hance this grand ex­per­i­ment in self-gov­er­nance put into place over two cen­turies ago.

As we cel­e­brate the 225th an­niver­sary of the Bill of Rights, we need to re­mind our­selves of how this can hap­pen.

First, we should look to his­tory and rec­og­nize that this col­li­sion of rights threat­en­ing the “so­cial con­tract” is not new.

The English philoso­pher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 that in the pure state of na­ture, hu­man life would be “soli­tary, nasty, brutish and short.” That’s be­cause a pure state of na­ture would lack po­lit­i­cal or­der; ev­ery­one would have a right to ev­ery­thing. We’d be in a con­stant state of a “war of all against all.”

By sign­ing on to the so­cial con­tract, each of us gains se­cu­rity in ex­change for sub­ject­ing our­selves to some de­gree of po­lit­i­cal authority. Hobbes might say that we ac­cept a set of rules lim­it­ing be­hav­ior in ex­change for pro­tec­tion by the same set of rules gov­ern­ing be­hav­ior.

Pres­i­dent Madi­son saw the need for a po­lit­i­cal struc­ture that would al­low cre­ative ten­sions among var­i­ous fac­tions to be given voice, test one an­other, and com­pete and co­ex­ist within a set of bound­aries. A year be­fore he rose to in­tro­duce the Bill of Rights, Madi­son wrote in 1788, “If men were an­gels, no gov­ern­ment would be nec­es­sary.” Madi­son’s po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy was thus rooted in a clear-eyed as­sess­ment of hu­man na­ture, and a recog­ni­tion that we are all fal­li­ble.

In 1787, Madi­son wrote in Fed­er­al­ist No. 10 that the essence of the new gov­ern­ment pro­posed in the Con­sti­tu­tion would be based on coun­ter­bal­anc­ing hu­man in­ter­ests. He be­lieved that the more lib­erty a gov­ern­ment af­forded its cit­i­zens, the more likely com­pet­ing fac­tions would keep any one group from dom­i­nat­ing. Fun­da­men­tally, the en­gine of gov­er­nance en­vi­sioned by Madi­son, and writ­ten into the Bill of Rights and the Con­sti­tu­tion, cel­e­brated hu­man di­ver­sity as a po­lit­i­cal virtue.

As frus­trat­ing as it might seem at times, the un­der­ly­ing premise of Madi­son’s ap­proach was that com­pet­ing opin­ions are, in fact, a civic good. No mat­ter how strongly we feel that the other side is po­lit­i­cally or so­cially wrong, ac­cord­ing to Madi­son’s con­cep­tual frame­work for gov­ern­ing.

No mat­ter where we are on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, we can re­in­force our con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem by re­spect­ing one an­other enough to ad­mit that we need, and ben­e­fit from, peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent opin­ions, back­grounds and be­liefs.

We can avoid a “soli­tary, nasty, brutish and short” fu­ture by fo­cus­ing not only on our rights, but also on the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that go along with those rights. For ex­am­ple, our rights of free speech cor­re­spond with a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ac­cept rights of op­pos­ing fac­tions to hold their view­points. In higher ed­u­ca­tion, we can model this bal­anc­ing act with vig­or­ous de­bates in which facts, ev­i­dence and in­for­ma­tion are shared — and ac­tive lis­ten­ing and re­spect are prac­ticed and val­ued.

The rules of en­gage­ment that make higher ed­u­ca­tion and our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment func­tion op­ti­mally are not easy. They can’t all be de­fined pre­cisely or en­forced like statutes — such is the price we pay for the free­doms we en­joy. But the best way for us to honor the Bill of Rights may be to re­mem­ber the bal­ance and in­ter­play be­tween in­di­vid­ual rights and the needs of the com­mu­nity. Madi­son em­bod­ied that vi­sion in his life’s work, and it re­mains the true call­ing of all cit­i­zens to­day.

We can avoid a “soli­tary, nasty, brutish and short” fu­ture by fo­cus­ing not only on our rights, but also on the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that go along with those rights. For ex­am­ple, our rights of free speech cor­re­spond with a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ac­cept rights of op­pos­ing fac­tions to hold their view­points.

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