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09/28/2018

W.B. Allen on Jack Rakove on Madison
Michael Ramsey

At Liberty Law Blog, W.B. Allen (visiting scholar, University of Colorado Boulder): Madison: Pragmatist, Idealist . . . and Game Theorist? (reviewing Jack Rakove,  A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison [Univ of Okla. Press 2017]).  From the introduction:

It may surprise students of the life and thought of James Madison to see him described as a game theorist. Madison worked for his entire life in the world of politics, which was never for him a game. But Jack N. Rakove, in A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison, succeeds in suggesting that Madison’s approach built upon the model of what we now recognize as a game-theoretic methodology. Rakove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stanford University professor, interprets this as taking the measure of political possibilities in relation to the possibilities inherent in political situations and not in terms of ideals.

One might be tempted to assume that the goal here is to oppose the conception of Madison the idealist to that of Madison the political opportunist, since the game-theoretic approach consists entirely in optimizing strategic advantage in a given set of possibilities—as opposed to creative, architectural intervention in order to restructure those possibilities. But Rakove captures both elements of the “thinking politician”; that is, he does not reject the Madison who declared that “justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”

That all-or-nothing gambit certainly defies game-theoretic posturing. Rakove, though, makes the linchpin of his argument for Madison-the-game-theorist the famous series of essays in The Federalist Papers that eventuate in the dramatic affirmation quoted above. Accordingly, he believes there is a way to mediate between idealism and opportunism that faithfully captures the true Madison, and along the way serves the heuristic purpose of redefining the question of whether Madison was consistent throughout his political career.

This intriguing argument does not, in the end, work. Let me here highlight only two of the several reasons why.\

And here is the Amazon description of Professor Rakove's book:

James Madison presented his most celebrated and studied political ideas in his contributions to The Federalist, the essays that he, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote in 1787–1788 to secure ratification of the U.S. Constitution. As Jack N. Rakove shows in A Politician Thinking, however, those essays do not illustrate the full complexity and vigor of Madison’s thinking. In this book, Rakove pushes beyond what Madison thought to examine how he thought, showing that this founder’s political genius lay less in the content of his published writings than in the ways he turned his creative mind to solving real political problems.

Rakove begins his analysis by examining how Madison drew upon his experiences as a member of the Continental Congress and as a Virginia legislator to develop his key ideas. Madison sought to derive lessons of history from his reading and his own experience, but he also thought about politics in terms of what we now recognize as game theory. After discussing Madison’s approach to the challenge of constitutional change, Rakove emphasizes his strikingly modern understanding of legislative deliberation, which he treated as the defining problem of republican government. Rakove also addresses Madison’s deliberation about ways to protect the rights of individuals and political minorities from the rule of “factious majorities.” The book closes by tracing how Madison developed strategies for maintaining long-term constitutional stability and adjusting to the new realities of governance under the Constitution.

Engaging and accessible, A Politician Thinking offers new insight concerning a key constitutional thinker and the foundations of the American constitutional system. Having a more thorough understanding of how Madison solved the problems presented in the formation of that system, we better grasp a unique moment of political innovation.

Plus enthusiastic blurbs from founding-era scholars Gordon Wood, Colleen Sheehan and Mary Sarah Bilder.