Madison: Why the Powerful Should Obey the Law


In drafting the U.S. Constitution, Madison and the other founders confronted very much the same dilemma that the world community confronts today in dealing with American hegemony. The question, as the framers posed it, was why the powerful should have any incentive to obey the law. Madison’s answer, in the Federalist Papers, was that the incentive lies in an assessment of future circumstances — in the unnerving possibility that the strong may one day become weak and then need the protection of the law.

The Federalist Papers: No. 51

Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.

It is the “uncertainty of their condition,” that prompts the strong to play by the rules today. But if the future were certain, or if the strong believed it to be certain, and if that future forecast a continued reign of power, then the incentive on the powerful to obey the law would fall away. Hegemony thus sits in tension with the principle of equality.

This is the great Madisonian dilemma confronted by the international community today.

Thanks for reading,

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