Federalist 36 – Hamilton

We have finally reached the end of the first part of the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton winds down a rather long discourse on the taxing powers in Federalist 36, while also laying down his ideas on what kinds of representatives the new republic will elect.  Generally speaking, he envisions a representative class consisting of “proprietors of land, of merchants, and of members of the learned professions.”  Alas, if he has simply said “lawyers” he’d capture a good chunk of the modern representative class.  He also elaborates on why there is no need to have an overly large number of representatives.

What greater affinity or relation of interest can be conceived between the carpenter and blacksmith, and the linen manufacturer or stocking weaver, than between the merchant and either of them? It is notorious that there are often as great rivalships between different branches of the mechanic or manufacturing arts as there are between any of the departments of labor and industry; so that, unless the representative body were to be far more numerous than would be consistent with any idea of regularity or wisdom in its deliberations, it is impossible that what seems to be the spirit of the objection we have been considering should ever be realized in practice.

There will be a point of diminishing returns if we continue to enlarge the size of the legislature.  It will be impossible to represent every single distinct interest, so at some point we should learn to trust in the ability of our representatives to seek the common good.

Hamilton goes on to counter the objection that national legislators will be insufficiently knowledgeable about state affairs to be able to fairly and efficiently lay down tax policy.  He argues that the national legislature will function not altogether unlike the state legislatures.

If any question is depending in a State legislature respecting one of the counties, which demands a knowledge of local details, how is it acquired? No doubt from the information of the members of the county. Cannot the like knowledge be obtained in the national legislature from the representatives of each State? And is it not to be presumed that the men who will generally be sent there will be possessed of the necessary degree of intelligence to be able to communicate that information?

Hamilton then contends that well-educated men will be in charge of finances.

Nations in general, even under governments of the more popular kind, usually commit the administration of their finances to single men or to boards composed of a few individuals, who digest and prepare, in the first instance, the plans of taxation, which are afterwards passed into laws by the authority of the sovereign or legislature.

Gee, I wonder if he had anybody in particular in mind when he wrote this?

Hamilton then trods over old ground, distinguishing between various modes of direct and indirect taxation, and then exploring the distinct interests between the state and federal governments.  He then addresses the fears that two distinct taxing powers will lead to the creation of a double set of officers.

As to the first point, there are two cases in which there can be no room for double sets of officers: one, where the right of imposing the tax is exclusively vested in the Union, which applies to the duties on imports; the other, where the object has not fallen under any State regulation or provision, which may be applicable to a variety of objects. In other cases, the probability is that the United States will either wholly abstain from the objects preoccupied for local purposes, or will make use of the State officers and State regulations for collecting the additional imposition.

He then raises a specter of something that we are to avoid at all costs.

As to any argument derived from a supposed system of influence, it is a sufficient answer to say that it ought not to be presumed; but the supposition is susceptible of a more precise answer. If such a spirit should infest the councils of the Union, the most certain road to the accomplishment of its aim would be to employ the State officers as much as possible, and to attach them to the Union by an accumulation of their emoluments. This would serve to turn the tide of State influence into the channels of the national government, instead of making federal influence flow in an opposite and adverse current. But all suppositions of this kind are invidious, and ought to be banished from the consideration of the great question before the people. They can answer no other end than to cast a mist over the truth.

Hamilton concludes the essay by examining the poll tax.  On the one hand, he dismisses concerns about the potential tyrannical aspects of such a tax by noting that the mere existence of such a tax does not mean that the power will be levied.  On the other hand, he posits that the existence of such a power is necessary.

As little friendly as I am to the species of imposition, I still feel a thorough conviction that the power of having recourse to it ought to exist in the federal government. There are certain emergencies of nations, in which expedients, that in the ordinary state of things ought to be forborne, become essential to the public weal. And the government, from the possibility of such emergencies, ought ever to have the option of making use of them. The real scarcity of objects in this country, which may be considered as productive sources of revenue, is a reason peculiar to itself, for not abridging the discretion of the national councils in this respect. There may exist certain critical and tempestuous conjunctures of the State, in which a poll tax may become an inestimable resource. And as I know nothing to exempt this portion of the globe from the common calamities that have befallen other parts of it, I acknowledge my aversion to every project that is calculated to disarm the government of a single weapon, which in any possible contingency might be usefully employed for the general defense and security.

He doesn’t really explain what circumstances would justify the employment of a poll tax, nor how to judge whether or not such a tax is being used justly.  If there is one weakness in Hamilton’s thought it is that he can be at times too trusting in the ultimate benevolence of the government.  While I have defended Hamilton from accusations that he was, essentially, a proponent of a massive government, it is difficult to deny that he is less fearful of the government than most of his contemporaries.  As we will see in the coming papers, he is even at odds with his principle co-author on this score.

And with that, we reach the end of part one.  The first thirty-six papers functioned as a general defense of the Constitution.  Though the entire series is a work of political theory, these papers in particular are a more general overview of the Federalists’ thoughts on government.  The rest of the series – all but one of which were written by Madison and Hamilton – look at specific provisions of the Constitution.  These represent the most concise and eloquent defenses of the Constitution that have ever been written, and I must admit that I look forward to analyzing more closely each of these 49 essays,

Published in: on August 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm  Comments Off on Federalist 36 – Hamilton  
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