Federalist No. 85: Has the National Government Become an “Awful Spectacle”?

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.
Has the National Government Become an “Awful Spectacle”? S155
Paul C. Light
New York University
Federalist No. 85 of‌f ers a synopsis of the overall case for the
Constitution. Describing the dangers of a nation without
a national government as an “awful spectacle,” the paper
provides a rebuttal to the active opposition to ratif‌i cation.
Focusing entirely on the operations of government, this essay
examines contemporary challenges to faithfully executing
the laws and of‌f ers an analysis of comprehensive reforms for
creating greater accountability, ef‌f‌i ciency, and productivity.
Federalist No. 85 was written as a f‌i nal warning
to opponents of the new constitution. Worried
that ratif‌i cation was still in doubt, Alexander
Hamilton used the strongest language possible to
describe the base motives of his adversaries and the
ultimate consequence of inaction:
A nation, without a national government, is, in
my view, an awful spectacle.  e establishment of
a Constitution, in time of profound peace, by the
voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy,
to the completion of which I look forward with
trembling anxiety. I can reconcile it to no rules
of prudence to let go the hold
we now have, in so arduous
an enterprise, upon seven
out of the thirteen States,
and after having passed over
so considerable a part of the
ground, to recommence the
course. I dread the more
the consequences of new at-
tempts, because I know that
powerful individuals, in this
and in other States, are en-
emies to a general national government in every
possible shape. (Wright, 1961, 547)
Notwithstanding Hamilton’s warning, the national gov-
ernment’s performance today suggests an awful spectacle
of a dif‌f erent kind generated by a long decline in public
conf‌i dence and frequent breakdowns in executing the
laws faithfully. Some of these complaints are a clear reac-
tion to a political agenda and deepening polarization,
but they have a core of reality. However, the United
States desperately needs more accountable, ef‌f‌i cient,
and productive government at every level.  e f‌i nancial
challenge is evident, and so are the international and
domestic problems that threaten the nation’s future.
The Case for Reform
Many Americans have come to believe the worst about
the federal government. Some of those doubts are
rooted in partisan conf‌l ict and a drumbeat of antigov-
ernment rhetoric, but some are rooted in the escalation
of government failures. Americans pay close attention
to the news of the day—the sluggish jobless recovery,
terrorist plots, poorly supported soldiers, poisoned
food, vacancies in the top jobs of government, waste
and improper payments to undeserving citizens and
corporations—all which seemingly reinforce the
federal government’s persistent inability to assure the
highest performance possible. As exaggerated as some
of the criticism may be, there is more than enough
evidence of lapses in performance to fuel the distrust.
Political polarization is both
a ref‌l ection and a cause of the
perceived administrative failures.
But there is enough evidence
embedded in recent governmen-
tal breakdowns, ethical breaches,
and outright fraud to feed the
distrust. While low rates of trust
may temporarily favor a minor-
ity party, radical shifts in legisla-
tive majorities over the past few
election cycles are further proof
that the American people are desperate for change. In
short, this is not a partisan issue—Republicans and
Democrats alike have been and will be held accountable
for government’s poor performance.
ere is no question that trust has reached a dismal
low. Even as they demand deep budget cuts, Ameri-
cans want more of virtually everything the federal
government delivers. At the same time, they have come
Federalist No. 85: Has the National Government Become an
Awful Spectacle”?
Political polarization is both
a ref‌l ection and a cause of
the perceived administrative
failures. But there is enough
evidence embedded in recent
governmental breakdowns,
ethical breaches, and outright
fraud to feed [public] distrust.

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