The Madisonian nightmare: How interest-group liberalism breeds corruption

Interest group liberalism is regularly not public spirited. While there have been instances when government acts according to the public interest, too much of its business is wrapped up in rewarding the factions that have mobilized to pressure it. In many cases, these benefits undermine whatever public-spirited purpose the formulators of the original policy had in mind.

Put bluntly, interest group liberalism has bred corruption in the body politic. It may be more socially respectable than what the muckrakers uncovered 100 years ago, but today’s corruption is at least as widespread and pernicious as anything seen during the Gilded Age. There may no longer be a grubby and direct quid pro quo between senators and the industrial titans, but make no mistake: today’s titans are just as well served by today’s Senate.

This is why the parallels drawn between interest group liberalism and Madisonian pluralism are unsustainable. Madison never intended any of this; in fact, he envisioned a polity that worked in exactly the opposite manner, one he hoped would check what he called “the violence of faction.” In the Federalist Papers, he was justifying an eighteenth century government of discrete, limited powers by arguing that, properly designed, it could successfully play referee among the various factions in society.

What we have today is a Madisonian nightmare: a universe dominated by what he once called “pretorian band(s) of the government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it, by clamours and combinations.” These groups, whose “violence” Madison feared would destroy the republic, are not balanced by our system. Instead, they have become the system’s ever-fattening clients.