James Madison and the Future of Limited Government

By John Samples | Go to book overview

10.
Madison and the Revival of Pure
Democracy
John Samples

We live in an age of a revivified direct democracy. The initiative, which allows citizens both to propose and to vote on laws, has been used more and more in the 23 states permitting direct legislation by voters. 1 In California, for example, nine voter initiatives made it to the ballot in the 1960s; 22 made it in the 1970s; 45 in the 1980s; and 62 in the 1990s. In the 1996 general election, Americans voted on more than 90 statewide initiatives, along with an estimated 200 local initiatives and referenda on environmental and land-use issues. 2

Classical liberalism and direct democracy are not necessarily friends. Classical liberalism affirms the freedom of the individual and argues for just enough government to protect that freedom from enemies abroad and criminals at home. Direct democracy means the rule of a majority of those eligible to vote. If a majority of the people turns out to be thieves, liberalism and democracy fall out and a nation can fall into civil war. James Madison told such a story in Federalist No. 10, a story of passionate factions, democratic decline, and civil war. Should those of us who love liberty now as much as Madison did then endorse the renewal of direct democracy?


Madison against Democracy

The work of James Madison belongs to the tradition of classical liberalism and social contract theory. Madison believed that individuals created government as a means to protect rights to property and liberty. 3 Madison did not ruminate much on the priority of liberty among human values. He focused instead on the institutional requirements for the “preservation of liberty.” Madison thought private and public coercion both threatened liberty. A constitution

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