Liberty is to Faction what Air is to Fire, an Aliment Without Which it Instantly Expires fact

Factions and Special Interests

James Madison on Special Interests

As James Madison said when discussing special interest factions and liberty in the Federalist #10, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.[1]

The meaning of this poetic phrase is simple and true, to ensure personal liberties like the First Amendment rights to associate, assemble, speak, print, and worship is to ensure special interest factions. We must address the effects of factions on the Union (of the United States), but not the cause of factions, as the cause is liberty itself.

Knowing this, we can make a case for a federation of states, a Union of states with a strong central federal government, and a Republican form of government, over a more direct democracy and a weaker confederation of states. This is exactly what Madison was doing when he wrote this in the Federalist #10 The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued).

Explaining Federalist Paper #10.

TIP: A faction is a group within a group, a special interest is an interest that is not purely in the interest of the overarching group. Special interest factions are sub-groups with their own agenda, and thus endanger all governments under-which they exist. Learn more about special interests.

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” – James Madison

James Madison – Mini BiographyMadison is the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, Fourth President, and co-author of the Federalist papers and more.

How Liberty Ensures Special Interest Factions: An Introduction to the Invisible Government and Invisible Hand

People will always act in their own self-interest if not prevented from doing so through mechanisms like culture, ethics, morals, and law.

When many act in concert, either purposefully or out of happenstance and self-interest, and their collective actions shape the environment around us, their collective body can be said to form an invisible government. This is an example of how shared self-interest leads to formal or informal special interest groups with an ability to influence society. Their “hand” (their action) is the invisible hand that, in the terms of Adam Smith’s concept of self-interest regarding economics, moves socioeconomic markets.

A free-market ensures corporations will partake in monopolistic practices, a democratic representative government of laws and taxes ensures cronyism. The authors of the law often have “special interests” that aren’t purely the public interest. Power ensures a corruption of power, etc.

If businesspeople are free to conduct business, they will, as is their self-interest, coordinate and fix prices. If businesspeople and congresspeople have power, they will coordinate and pass laws in their favor. If the press is free to print, they will produce libelous slander and propaganda. If a company is free to speak, they will become political and shape public opinion. If a decentralized collective of activists can form, they will do so. If it is in agency’s interest, and they can accomplish it, they can be expected to do this. Unions will form, and employers will form bodies to prevent them, politicians will trust bust, and employers will lobby politicians to offset this. This is an advent of liberty and democracy.

Once people are free to speak as they wish, they will separate into at least two groups. We can call them Republicans and Democrats, the Confederates and the Union, Conservatives and Liberals, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Tories and Whigs, or Tories and Labour. It’s all the same, as Thomas Jefferson echoes in his quote below, as do the other great thinkers whose quotes are also featured.

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.” –Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73

Interest Groups: Crash Course Government and Politics #42. PBS explains political factions in a centered way.

The truths stated above led to the environment in which Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive Party platform said:

Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.

From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.

To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.

Political Parties: Crash Course Government and Politics #40.

And this is why Edward Bernays, father of modern public relations, said regarding shaping public opinion in 1928’s Propaganda:

THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.

They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world….

To deplore the existence of such a mechanism is to ask for a society such as never was and never will be. To admit that it exists, but expect that it shall not be used, is unreasonable.

Shaping Public Opinion: Crash Course Government and Politics #34.

This is why Andrew Carnegie Supported both monopolies and unions in his AN EMPLOYER’S VIEW OF THE LABOR QUESTION From the “Forum,” April 1886 (he was a true free-market classical liberal):

The influence of trades-unions upon the relations between the employer and employed has been much discussed. Some establishments in America have refused to recognize the right of the men to form themselves into these unions, although I am not aware that any concern in England would dare to take this position. This policy, however, may be _regarded as only a temporary phase of the situation. The right of the working-men to combine and to form trades-unions is no less sacred than the right of the manufacturer to enter into associations and conferences with his fellows, and it must sooner or later be conceded. Indeed, it gives one but a poor opinion of the American workman if he permits himself to be deprived of a right which his fellow in England long since conquered for him- self. My experience has been that trades-unions, upon the whole, are beneficial both to labor and to capital. They certainly educate the working-men, „ and give them a truer conception of the relations of capital and labor than they could otherwise form.

The list goes on, but the point made by these Captains of Politics, Philosophy, and Industry are simple:

The “invisible government” can, will, and must exist in a democratic society; as is true for the invisible hand which drives self-interest and shapes the action of individuals, groups, and markets.

To prevent factions is to prevent liberty, and to ensure liberty is to ensure factions. We can act to prevent corrosive factions that undermine the general will. In fact, the Amended Constitution which creates the democratically minded Republic, in which we the people have an equal right to liberties of speech and association, is meant to be that toolset.

Interest Group Formation: Crash Course Government and Politics #43. The centered discussion on interests groups continued, see next “the media” as a mouthpiece for public and private interest helping to shape public opinion (and sell advertisements).

The Mixed-Republic Vs. Special Interests: How to Safeguard the Common Good in a Free Republic

To deal with special interests we can either:

  1. Remove the cause (either control public opinion and give everyone the same opinions or destroy liberty and thus destroy factions), or;
  2. We can control the effects (by creating a Republican form of government that safeguards the Union; which is Madison’s suggestion).

A large Republic, with a Separation of powers, checks and balances, a participatory electorate, judges, laws, elections, and more are needed to offset the necessary evils of liberty.

The solution to saving the people in a burning room isn’t sucking all of the air out of  the room and thus killing its inhabitants. In other terms, the only thing more terrible than an angry mob or corrupt government is a despotic government. The phrase “give me liberty or give me death”is part of the American heritage.

The cure then is found in the structure of government, as can be gleaned from the excerpts from Madison’s Federalist #10 displayed below.

See the the Federalist #10 explained and annotated for more on Madison’s take on the solution to this problem.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

…It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease.

…The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise.

…From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction

…A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.

…In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.

– James Madison on The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (how a system of checks and balances and a separation of powers is better than a purer Democracy in terms of safeguarding against special interests).

Learn more about special interest factions, the founding fathers, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and human rights.

Discussion on James Madison. Pulitzer-prize winning historian Jack N. Rakove discusses Madison, his work, and his influence in an interview with Manuscript Division Chief Jim Hutson.

Article Citations
  1. the Federalist #10

James Madison was very correct when he said, “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires”.

Liberty is messy, pure absolute monarchy is less so, and nothing is simpler than total despotism. Luckily, simplicity is not the only metric for determining a good government. There is nothing that illustrates more the need for transparency, tempered-democracy, ethics, morals, and smart and simple (as can be laws) than the advent of liberty in a free-republic.

We can’t prevent factions and special interests and ensure freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Thus, a more nuanced tactic is needed for safeguarding the republic against factions and special interests.

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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