James Madison and the Law of Unintended Consequences

James Madison and the Law of Unintended Consequences


            According to Rob Norton, writing in the Library of Economics and Liberty “The Law of Unintended Consequences (often cited but rarely defined) is that actions of people – and especially of government – always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. Economists and other social scientists have heeded its power for centuries; for just as long, politicians and popular opinion have largely ignored it”. James Madison, our fourth President and primary author of the U.S. Constitution, may or may not have heard of this “Law”, but his writings show that he was keenly aware of the concept. In 1785 Madison authored his masterly “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”. This essay was written in response to a proposed law in Madison’s home state of Virginia that would have imposed a tax on all Virginians, the proceeds of which would be earmarked solely to support the Anglican Church. Due, at least in part, to the arguments made by Madison in his “Memorial and Remonstrance”, the bill was defeated. Madison argued that government suffers when religion is established, and religion suffers when it gets too close to government. “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of only one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?” Madison is issuing a strong warning here: If you allow government establishment of religion, don’t be so sure that the religion so established is going to be yours, or something you necessarily agree with. In other words, mixing government and religion will bring the Law of Unintended Consequences into play with unanticipated and quite possibly unwanted results.

            Which brings us to three recent examples of politicians mixing religion and government that resulted in consequences that appear to have been quite unintended. We start with Louisiana State Representative Valarie Hodges, who was an early supporter of Governor Bobby Jindal’s proposal to intertwine government and religion by giving parents vouchers that they could use to pay their kids’ tuition at religious schools. Rep. Hodges initially supported the program, because she assumed the vouchers would only be used for Christians to send their kids to Christian schools. But then she found out (!) that Christianity was not the only religion practiced in Louisiana (horrors!) and that Muslims were planning on using the vouchers to send their kids to Muslim schools. Well, she couldn’t support that. Leaving her overt bigotry aside for a moment, we see the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. Government becomes entangled with religion, and, what do you know, just as Madison warned, benefits wind up flowing to a religion that is not yours and that you do not particularly favor.

            Our next example comes from Washington, D.C, where it was reported that U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) walked out of the National Day of Prayer event on May 1 at the U.S. Capitol, saying that she was “outraged” after event speaker James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, referred to President Obama as the “abortion President”. True, Dobson’s words were both repellent and lacking in any rational basis, but what did Hahn (who, by the way, is co-chair of the weekly Congressional Prayer Breakfast) expect to hear from a fundamentalist know-nothing like Dobson? While he was President, Thomas Jefferson consistently resisted entreaties from conservation Christians for government-sponsored religious activities such as a National Day of Prayer. What did he know that Rep. Hahn apparently does not? Well, plenty, actually, including the fact that when government gives its imprimatur to religion, episodes such as this are inevitable. Maybe Rep. Hahn will learn something about both the need for separation of church and state and the Law of Unintended Consequences from this fiasco, but I won’t hold my breath on that one.

            Lastly we arrive at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who regrettably could learn a thing or two from Madison and Jefferson about separating church and state. As reported by Michael Powell in the May 29 edition of the New York Times, on May 27 the Mayor attended a gala for Agudath Israel of America, a premier event for ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City. At the event Rabbi Yaakov Perlov gave an address denigrating Reform and Conservative Jews, saying that they are among those who “subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people” and that “they will be relegated to the dustbin of Jewish history”. Oops; I bet the Mayor wasn’t expecting to hear that, but when it came his time to speak at the event, he said nothing about the good Rabbi’s comments about his fellow co-religionists who, it should be noted, comprise the majority of Jews in New York City and the rest of the country. Another profile in courage from one of our esteemed elected leaders. I hope that Mr. de Blasio, who has shown an alarming willingness to mix government and religion since taking office (especially with regard to government support for religious schools) gets an earful from Reform and Conservative Jews for his cowardly silence on Rabbi Perlov’s hateful remarks. Maybe then he will learn the lesson that Madison tried to teach his fellow Virginians and the rest of the country those many years ago: when you allow the government to support and establish religion, beware the Law of Unintended Consequences. 


One thought on “James Madison and the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. I think this is your best posting yet! I connects history with the events of today clearly and effectively. I think the most important aspect is your quoting of James Madison. Over the years there are those who have forgotten (distorted?) the views of our founding fathers. This post provides evidence of their thinking about separation of church and state and how altered perceptions have impacted current events in this country.

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