The Madisonian Vision of Politics
Politics often concerns compromise, but the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is uncompromising. It states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The founders thought freedom of speech should be free of the usual tradeoffs that mark the birth of most laws. Why did they give speech such thorough protections?
The Constitution reflects both the political philosophy and the political science of the founders, which I will call the Madisonian vision of politics.1 This vision grew out of the political philosophy of the English political theorist John Locke, who argued that humans possessed natural rights prior to living together in political associations. Humans created government to vindicate those natural rights; at the same time, those rights constrained what government could do to the life, liberty, and property of citizens. For Locke, natural rights form a higher law that informs and constrains all law, including the Constitution.2 Unfortunately, citizens tend to become corrupt, thereby endangering natural and constitutional rights. Political science fashions institutions that resist that corruption and preserve the republic. In the Madisonian vision, freedom of speech in the Constitution is both a natural right and an institutional antidote to the dangers posed by corruption of the republic.
Most Americans support freedom of speech, at least in the abstract. Many doubt the value of money in politics and support restrictions on campaign spending. If freedom of speech is essential to American democracy and spending money is essential to freedom of speech, Americans must choose between their support for liberty and their doubts about money in politics. Insofar as their founding ideals still inform contemporary politics, Americans will affirm liberty and its instrument, money. Those ideals, however, have an uncertain hold over the current generation