James M. Buchanan
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
James Madison, The Federalist No. 51
I could scarcely go wrong by starting with this most familiar passage from James Madison's justly acclaimed The Federalist, No. 51. Here Madison succinctly provides a justification for government itself and, at the same time, offers the reason for constitutional constraints on political authority. I shall not challenge Madison's statement here. Indeed, Madison retains an honored place in my personal pantheon.
What I propose to do, instead, is to examine Madison's statement more carefully. But, at the outset, let me say that my initial project was to examine what must have been Madison's counterfactual image of a society without governance, a society of angels. Just what sort of behavior would such angels exhibit, and what would the social interaction among the separate angels look like? I soon found myself in difficulty. As my old professor Frank Knight always said, it remains nearly impossible to describe what heaven would be like. Nonetheless, it does seem to me that Madison must have had some such image in mind when he wrote that statement.
We may begin to unravel some of his thinking.
Consider Madison's use of the word “angels” twice in the passage cited. I suggest that Madison did not intend to refer to the beings called angels in modern dictionaries. There, angels are defined as