A common rhetorical technique within the Tea Party right is to wrap their personal opinions in those of the Founders, lending an air of gravitas and implying that those revolutionaries would, in modern days, hold opinions identical to their own.
There’s certainly much there to choose from. The Founders were nearly entirely of a class of wealthy landowners, at times more concerned with the protection of property rights than with the protection of what we’d today consider representative democracy. But often the quotes they select reflect only their lack of understanding of what was actually being written, a case of “I found it on the Internets so it must be true.” The latest example comes from local fringe-right darling and GoLocal “Mindsetter,” Travis Rowley. Writing about what he calls the complete disaster of Obamacare, Travis picks this gem:
It will be of little avail to the people if the laws are so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. – James Madison
Good one, eh? But what was Madison actually talking about when he wrote that? The full quote might surprise you:
The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? – The Federalist No. 62
In fact, Madison was warning of the “mischievous effects of a mutable government” and the dangers of frequent and complex changes to federal law. Yes, what a calamitous thing it would be if the Affordable Care Act were repealed or revised before it is promulgated! It’s hardly worth reading the rest of an opinion piece that begins with a quote skewering the central premise. But wait a minute, Russ, was Madison saying we should allow bad laws to stay on the books? If fact, that’s exactly what he was saying with regard to such “great improvement[s] or laudable enterprise[s]” that “[require] the auspices of a steady system of national policy.”
The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. Every new election in the States is found to change one half of the representatives. From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. But a continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success. The remark is verified in private life, and becomes more just, as well as more important, in national transactions.
Agree or disagree with the law, but there’s little question that changes or repeal would have chaotic effect on the industry. Indeed, as Madison concludes, “What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed?” That ship has sailed, so at least for now Teapublicans like Rowley should learn to live with it.