Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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..The Constitution
Our Constitution was not a proclamation written by a convention. It was a negotiated contract for uniting thirteen sovereign independent states. Nothing like that had ever been done voluntarily, and few nations have matched it in two hundred years, even with the use of force.

Political Effects of Increasing Population

{Washington got down off the platform and debated the Constitution}
Washington got down off the platform and debated the Constitution

The only time George Washington got down off the platform and debated the Constitution, was near the end of the Convention. The topic was the maximum size of Congressional districts. He strongly urged the Convention to limit the size of a district to thirty thousand inhabitants. Since then, the population has grown in both absolute and relative size, so the average Congressional district now contains 600,000 citizens. Madison had contributed the idea that a larger state or district would likely contain more diversity, hence fairness, and it would likely contain more citizens of high intellectual distinction. It seems likely Washington had heard him say that and held a strongly contrary view. Washington seems to have won this argument since, after more than two centuries of steady growth, few today would hold the quality of congressional representation has improved. Or, that over the centuries of experience, larger states have tended to produce more distinguished Senators. Or that dense urban populations have produced unusually brilliant Congressmen. Indeed, there is a defensible position that the rest of the nation has a prejudice against politicians with urban backgrounds, and reach a private determination not to advance their interests. That by itself might conceivably discourage urban politicians from seeking leadership positions, or even notable political positions of any sort. In the long run, perhaps it doesn't matter what the underlying reasons are, what truly matters is the evidence that legitimate urban interests are somehow being injured by our system of governance.

Perhaps a case could be built that this should be so and is, therefore, a product of good governmental design. It can easily be shown that taxes per capita rise steadily with population density, probably secondary to the rising cost of a safe and sanitary environment. Urban centers are the normal place to expect immigrants to concentrate, almost surely as a result of slum creation when previously dominant populations flee to the suburbs. These residents are almost surely fleeing to areas of less crime, lower taxes, and better public education. All three of these issues are products of government, which was presumably designed to enhance their attractiveness.

A case can be made in the other direction, too, although it sounds more like a Medieval walled city being praised. Transportation and defense are easier, and more esoteric enhancements to industry formation like talent clusters and capital formation, are encouraged. Once you get away from subsistence farming, it's easier to feed and water an urban population and take away its trash. All this has a cost of course, which can roughly be summarized as the cost of air conditioning and sanitizing one of Charles Dickens' Victorian smog basins until it looks like Canary Wharf or Rockefeller Center. There is, of course, the unspoken preference for the military heroes who defend us in their spare time. Everyone would prefer to be defended by hunters and fishermen, then by garment workers who normally prefer violin quartets as recreation. Since the threat of war is never quite extinguished, this by itself might explain the political dominance of the outdoorsman. Even the trial lawyer is not an adequate defender of the faith; his bespoke tailoring would be tattered and torn, without the bailiffs standing silently behind him, ready to supply the muscle.

It this a fair assessment of our experience with district size, or equal apportionment of two senators per state in the other body of Congress?

In the first place, the Founding Fathers took little account of political parties. Small states will almost always fear big neighbors and will band together to defend smallness against bigness. John Dickinson put this proposition to James Madison in the most direct of all possible ways, as a political fact of life. As a leading representative of a large state, Madison was stunned to learn for the first time, what small states had always muttered among themselves. Small states are always looking for allies against invaders, and in the intervals between invasions, were on the constant lookout to prevent neighboring large allies from dominating small ones. They are alert to signs that one big neighbor was about to be replaced by a different one. In the beginning, the big states were Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Today, they are Texas, California and New York. Whatever the shifts in the future, and however torpid the medium-sized states will be, you can be certain that Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont will adjust their positions to recognize the shift. This is their game, and they are good at it. Ever since Dickinson collared Madison in the corridor of Independence Hall, they have owned the U.S. Senate, and all the Senate can do for them.

The big states of Texas, California and New York will be as oblivious of the small states as Madison's Virginia once was. They will consider themselves entitled to leadership, and will alternate between swapping power and betraying each other. The much-deplored lack of civility in politics today is mainly a reflection of the present stalemate at this level. Since none of the big states is close to a majority of votes, the present political "action" is on the level of forming coalitions of medium-sized states. When the big states can't win for themselves, they ordinarily pay off the spear-carriers. The Constitution was designed to empower the large states in the House of Representatives, where they have large delegations. At this level, un-anticipated events took place, because local party bosses were able to control the urban political machine at the primary elections. The resulting urban political machines thus had to be dealt with, at the state and national levels. The trade-off which mostly resulted was for the local machines to assist the national party in other states through alliances with other big-city machines, mostly in selecting Presidential candidates. In return, the national organization assists the financial partners of the local machines. The power of labor unions is fast fading in this role, but other beneficiaries would surprise most people. More than a hundred years ago, the Philadelphia political machine invented the system of single-payer graft at the behest of some trolley-car magnates. Growing tired of petty graft from the local tavern owners on their trolley lines, they approached the mayor with the proposal of a single payment of graft in return for the power to assign it in whatever way the political boss chose to do. Ever since that time, utilities have been the main source of urban political funding, currently reaching out to health insurance companies as tame political contributors. Small wonder that health insurance in return has been taking the strange national twists and turns we all read about.

Originally published: Monday, July 16, 2012; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019