Never Perfect

In Federalist #41, James Madison dismisses the idea that government can deliver the perfect good. Decisions are difficult and public officials must strive for the greater good, knowing their efforts will never be completely satisfactory. Catholic teaching observes that: “… no problem can be solved once and for all.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 568)

If the perfect good is not possible, how can the greater good be fostered? For Madison and the other founders, the answer started with a negative: first, limit the control of any one person or faction. They started with this negative proposition because of what they had experienced as American colonists under British rule. They wanted no more kings, no more arbitrary rule. 

Yet the founders knew that tyranny could be imposed not only by a British King, but also by an American demagogue. Hence, they needed to form a constitution that would ensure a division of powers. This framework of government, so realistic about human nature and so sensitive to the common good, came to be admired throughout the world. Today, the Catholic Church also appreciates democratic rule where “the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.” (Compendium, par. 408)

The need to balance one power against another can seem too negative, as if no one can be trusted with decision-making power. In fact, the U.S. Constitution was developed largely in response to the ineffectual government provided under the Articles of Confederation. A vigorous government was no vice, the founders concluded, so long as decision making did not rest solely with one person or faction. Having different views expressed could lead to better, more just public policy.