Federalist No. 1: How Would Publius Define Good Government Today?

Published date01 December 2011
Date01 December 2011
Paul C. Light is the Paulette Goddard
Professor of Public Service in the Robert F.
Wagner School of Public Service at New
York University. Before joining NYU, he was
vice president of the Brookings Institution’s
Governmental Studies Program and found-
ing director of its Center for Public Service.
He served as the senior advisor to the 1988
and 2002 National Commissions on the
Public Service chaired by former Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker.
E-mail: paul.light@nyu.edu.
How Would Publius Def‌i ne Good Government Today? S7
Paul C. Light
New York University
Federalist No. 1 sets the basic framework for interpreting
the U.S. Constitution. It contains an implied def‌i nition
of “good government” that occupied the founders as
they built a stronger national government.  is essay
explains the conf‌l ict embedded in the debate between the
two theories of good government of‌f ered by Alexander
Hamilton and  omas Jef‌f erson and asks how the
competing def‌i nitions might be reconciled with recent
These are times that try the faithful execution
of the laws. As its administrative capacity
has dwindled with each chief executive since
Watergate, and even now is accelerating with the
hyperpolarization on Capitol Hill, government is rife
with potential breakdowns. Although it would be
presumptuous to suggest that the past 40 years have
been the most dif‌f‌i cult for governance in U.S. history,
it seems reasonable to suggest that they have brought
the nation to a critical moment
in time.
In a sentence, the federal gov-
ernment is becoming the desti-
nation of last resort for Amer-
ica’s greatest problems. When
Americans hear the words “pub-
lic service” today, they rarely
think of government; when they
hear the words “fraud,” “waste,”
“abuse,” “downsizing,” and
“labor unions,” they rarely think
of anything else.
As the old saying goes, govern-
ment is always the enemy until the public needs a
friend.  e question is just how good a friend govern-
ment can be after 30 years of downsizings, hiring
freezes, budget cuts, agency breakdowns, 24-hour
scrutiny, and unending reform.
Writing as Publius, the three authors of the 85 Fed-
eralist Papers made an aggressive case that a new and
more powerful national government was the answer
to a similar cascade of failures under the Articles of
As the primary architect of what he called the “ener-
getic executive,” Alexander Hamilton made frequent
references to concerns about the loss of state power, at
one point warning that the “enlightened zeal for the
energy and ef‌f‌i ciency of government will be stigma-
tized as the of‌f spring of a temper fond of despotic
power and hostile to the principles of liberty” (Wright
1962, 92).
e essays in this special issue ask whether the Federal-
ist defense of the Constitution is still on point today.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison
could not have anticipated the many changes that
would arise as the new Constitution produced a
towering government, expanding agenda, and periods
of intense national division.
Nor could they have anticipated
the changing strategies and
tactics needed to produce what
Hamilton later described “good
administration” (Wright 1962,
443). Indeed, the battle over
ratif‌i cation of the Constitution
ref‌l ected a philosophical schism
that Publius might be forced to
reconcile today.
A Government Well
Executed in 2011
e federal government reached
its current breaking point
through benign and deliberate neglect, aggressive
dismantling and resource cuts, and the unintended
consequences of unchecked bureaucratization. What-
ever the cause, the result was the same: more demand
for high performance and less capacity to produce it.
e erosion also resides in a 200-year struggle over the
def‌i nition of a government well executed.  e found-
Federalist No. 1: How Would Publius Def‌i ne Good
Government Today?
e essays in this special issue
ask whether the Federalist
defense of the Constitution
is still on point today.  e
founders clearly wanted a
national government that would
be strong enough to guide a
fragile, debt-ridden nation into
a dangerous future, but not so
strong that it could be used to
suppress basic liberties.

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