What is a Republic and does it contain an element of representation? In the US Constitutional context, James Madison defined republic as “…a government in which the scheme of representation takes place…” and “…the delegation of the government, in the latter [republic], to a small number of citizens elected by the rest…” –Federalist #10. John Adams defined republic as “…a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.” Also, the word republic was used specifically to describe a non-monarchical constitution during the writing and ratifying of the US Constitution.
1) The citizens make the laws in which they live under;
2) Legislation must be in accord with inherited tradition or common law, which they do not make – The Rule of Law;
3) Human Scale – that is they must be small.
In a classical sense of the term representation does not appear to be a requisite for a republican form of government. It might be inferred that because the citizens make the laws that representation is required, however it is not required that citizens be represented in order for them to participate in the lawmaking. In the United States under the Constitution, a republican form of government was defined to include representation as a mode of citizen participation in the lawmaking process.
So what does Donald Livingston mean when he refers to laws being made in accord with inherited tradition? For the United States, the inherited tradition, or Rule of Law, is the United States Constitution. These are laws that have been laid down prior to our generation’s existence and our laws must be in accord with this tradition. We do not make these laws, but we must follow them. Our system does provide for amending the Constitution, however it takes two-thirds of both the House and the Senate and three-fourths of the states to approve of an amendment before it becomes law. There is also another mechanism for amending the Constitution, called an Article V Amendment Convention, but this method has never been used.
The last element of a republic, and perhaps the least understood or has had the least attention, is human scale. So what is human scale and why does it imply that a republic must be small? According to Livingston, the republics of tradition hardly surpassed more than 200,000 people. For example, ancient Athens hovered around 160,000 people. Also, Florence, leader of the Renaissance, had a population of only 60,000 in 1425. The point, Donald Livingston states, is not that 200,000 is the target number, but that “there is a scale beyond which the republican virtues diminish and disappear.”
Today, the United States Congress is made up of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. As originally drafted and maintained until 1913, the Senate was elected by the individual state legislatures and were meant to represent the political body of the state legislatures.
George Mason argued that “allowing [the states] to appoint the second branch of the National Legislature” would offer them “some means of defending themselves against encroachments of the National Government.” – The Seventeenth Amendment [.pdf]
Unfortunately for the states, the 17th Amendment eliminated this means of defense and the election of Senators was changed to be done by popular vote, just as it is done for the House of Representatives (the 17th amendment is itself a subject for an entirely new post). The point of elaborating on the election of Senators is to point out that the people of the States are now represented by 100 Senators and 435 Representatives (Congress set the maximum number of 435 Representatives in 1913) for a total of 535. Add the President as a representative and you get 536 people representing approximately 310 million people. This low-ball number (low-ball because I counted every elected member of the Federal Government) gives us a scale of one representative for every 578,358 people. Does this scale diminish or eliminate entirely the virtues of a republican form of government?
First, why do we want a republican form of government and why did the Constitution of the United States guarantee to the states a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4)? According to Donald Livingston, 18th century philosophers and pundits argued that liberty would require a republican form of government. David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke all argued that liberty and the maintenance of liberty would require a republic. If you accept that a republican form of government is the best form to guarantee liberty and that the three conditions of a republic above are essential to maintaining a republic, then we must conclude that maintaining these three principles are essential to maintaining liberty.
In the United States today, do citizens make the laws under which they live? Do we legislate in accord with the Constitution? And have we maintained a scale conducive to a republican form of government? I do not think there is much debate over whether our citizens make the laws or not. It seems apparent to me that citizens do make the laws. I think we could debate over whether or not our laws are passed in accordance with the Constitution, but there are volumes written on this matter (I recommend New Views of the Constitution of the United States) and I think that debate is best left for another time.
To the third condition far less attention has been paid. If you can agree that there is in fact human scale and that there is a point in which representation and the virtues of a republic begin to diminish and disappear, then the only thing left to debate is at what point the balance is lost. The ancient republics of Greece were no larger than 200,000 people. Today, one person is said to represent 578,358 people. In 1790 the US population was 3,231,533 (exclusive of slaves) and this census data resulted in 105 representatives (Senators not included since at this point they represented the state legislatures). The scale in 1790 was one representative to every 30,776 people. Today that number has been multiplied more than 18 times. If human scale is to be returned to any ratio resembling the ancient Greek republics or to the United States in its early years, then there can only be two solutions: 1) Increase the number of representatives or; 2) Increase the number of legislatures.
Aristotle taught that “To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements, for none of these things retain their natural power when they are too large or too small.” [reference]