“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” This was James Madison’s logic in Federalist No. 51 for the checks and balances within our Constitution. Though the new federal government’s powers were greater than that of the government under the Articles of Confederation, the Framers of the Constitution felt that this system of checks and balances would thwart any tyrannical schemes. The executive, legislative, and judiciary, all desiring the maximum amount of power available to them, would jealously defend their powers against any encroachment by the other two branches.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Imperial Presidency continues its steady march into becoming an elected Caesar. President Biden has already signed dozens of executive orders, ranging from reentering the Paris Accords to allowing boys to play in girls’ sports.
Far from decrying this encroachment upon legislative prerogatives, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his fellow Democrats are joyfully playing the role of Mark Antony, cheering on Biden’s executive overreach every step of the way.
Ambition is not counteracting ambition. So where did the Framers go wrong? Why has Congress so willingly given up the purse, the sword, and numerous other powers? The answer can be found in examining how ambition succeeds or fails to counter ambition in the sports world.
For example, consider the ambition of Tom Brady and Steph Curry, two of the greatest and most ambitious athletes in the world. During the 2016-17 season, both Brady and Curry were able to win a championship in their respective sports. Curry’s ambition failed to counteract Brady’s. The reason for this is obvious: Brady plays football and Curry plays basketball. It is thus apparent that for ambition to counteract ambition, all must be playing the same game.
Yet let us observe the ambitions of those playing the same game. Both Tom Brady and Mike Evans play football, so why does Mike Evans’s ambition fail to counteract Brady’s? Again, the answer is obvious: Brady and Evans are on the same team. Far from counteracting each other, one’s ambition furthers the other. The better a wide receiver Evans becomes, the more success Brady will have. Ambition cannot counteract ambition when one is dependent upon the other.
Patrick Mahomes, however, can check Brady’s ambition (in theory if not in practice). Being the quarterbacks of the opposing teams, Mahomes and Brady are playing the same game, seeking the same prize, and by the very nature of the game, only one of them can have it. At last, ambition counteracts ambition.
This is where the Framers erred. It wasn’t that they failed to understand the necessity of these factors needed for ambition to counteract ambition, it was that they wrongly thought the Constitution possessed them.
To be fair, the Framers of the Constitution do not deserve all the blame for this. The Framers of the Seventeenth Amendment share much of the blame, and they outright rejected Madison’s logic.
Furthermore, it would have been laughable in 1787 to worry that Parliament might willingly give to the king the powers it had fought for so long to attain, so why should we have expected Congress to do so with a president?
When drafting the Constitution, the Framers were preoccupied with a would-be Palpatine in the legislature or a would-be Caesar in the executive.
They took care to craft a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances to ensure the ambitions of a would-be Palpatine would check those of a would-be Caesar.
But what the Framers did not account for where the ambitions of politicians whose ambitions include no Order 66 to execute or Rubicon to cross, being content merely holding onto the benefits of their office for as long as they can. Whereas would-be tyrants are incentivized to grab as much power as they can, these political leeches are incentivized to do the exact opposite; to give their power to another thereby freeing them from the responsibility and blame that inherently comes with it, allowing them to suck up every possible perk of their office in peace.
If the American people wish to remedy this flaw in our political system and have a Congress that acts as Cicero rather than Antony, we will need to reform our government as to eliminate the incentive structure sustaining these political leeches and ensure the incentives are such that all the branches are playing the same game, hoping for the same prize, and only one can have it. Only then will ambition counteract ambition.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.