Constitutions and Redistribution

Groningen, a.d. III Kal. Jul. MMDCCLXXI A.U.C.,

Currently I am reading the Federalist Papers, which defend the new constitution of the United States of America in 1787, at the same time as reading Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy by Albertus and Menaldo. Reading them together gave me a new insight (others probably have thought it before me, standing on the shoulders of giants…). All the methods which the American Constitution grants to prevent a tyranny of the majority, also protect the status quo. Given how unequal the status quo in the USA is, this is a major advantage to the rich, and hurts the poor.

In the Federalist Papers Jay, Hamilton and Madison defend the constitution they, and others, had designed at the Constitutional Convention. The main line of thought in that constitution is to ensure that no one single group can take over the country. Checks and balances is the key theme throughout. The federal legislature, the supreme court, the president, and the state governments should allow citizens sufficiently many institutions to ensure that no tyranny of the majority could ever occur.

Meanwhile, Albertus and Menaldo argue that many constitutions of democratic nations are designed by former autocratic elites. While designing these, they aim to protect their political and economic interests as much as possible. Property rights will be enshrined in the constitution, holding elections at different times to prevent agreement between different elected offices, and pitting legislatures, supreme courts and presidents against each others always allows a powerful minority to block change somewhere along the way. This builds on the work of McGann on how majoritation systems (usually with single member districts) have higher inequality than proportional systems (the number of seats increases with the number of votes a party gets). However, he mostly showed how these systems behave differently with regards to inequality and minorities. Albertus and Menaldo add why these political systems have been constructed in such a way.

Thus, while Jay, Hamilton and Madison tried to prevent tyranny of the majority, they actually created what could be called the apathy of the minority. The American political system is very bad at protecting those who need it most, while being much better at protecting those who need it less, often at the expense of the weakest members of society. Political apathy and gridlock is sufficient to protect the minority interests of the very rich, as the status quo is unequal to begin with. However, equality (i.e. protecting the minority of the weak) is very hard to achieve in the USA, as the institutions which prevent a tyranny of the majority also prevent major change, like the development of a welfare state to protect the weakest members of society. Pregnant unemployed mothers, and their babies, are less well protected than bankers who cause financial crises. In other words. the American system does allow crony capitalism, but it does not allow social democracy.


Bottom Line: If you want inequality, the US constitution does exactly what you need. The many veto points protect the rich, and keep the poor poor. Preventing a tyranny of the majority comes at the expense of defending the poorest individuals in society.

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