In order to understand America, we must first decode it.

Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of the transitive verb, “decode:”

  • To convert something into intelligible form.
  • To recognize and interpret something.
  • To decipher something.
  • To discover the underlying meaning of something.

Webster’s Third International New Dictionary has this additional definition:

To identify the constituent, significant elements of something.

The Free Dictionary gives us these synonyms:

To understand, explain, interpret, make sense of, construe, decipher, elucidate, throw light on, or explicate.

Based on these definitions I can fairly describe myself as a professional “decoder.” I was one of a generation of computer systems professionals who, from the mid-1950’s until the mid-1990’s, computerized America and the world.  We studied existing manual, unit-record, and accounting machine systems in various kinds of enterprises, and replaced some of them entirely or updated them extensively to take advantage of new hardware and software systems. We were constantly serving our customers or our employers by enabling them to add new products or services to their enterprise’s offerings. Some of the systems we built are still in use. For example, I was a member of a small team that developed one of the first, perhaps the very first, Medicare claims payments systems. It quickly became the most widely used such system. Updated versions of some of the systems I helped develop are still in use and directly affect the daily lives of millions of Americans.

The tools that my generation of systems professionals used to evaluate existing systems are still valid and can work with any system, especially those that serve large populations, such as our national and state governments. I have used those tools for the past several decades to study our existing systems of government and economics and this essay reports the results of my analysis. In more modern parlance, I have spent quite a lot of time “decoding” America, and here is what I found.

Decoding America is not the same as decoding all the other systems I encountered in my working life. The managers of the enterprises whose systems our team was decoding invited us in. They had clear ideas of what was wrong and needed to be changed, and they had very specific ideas of how those changes should function and what they should accomplish. Then, after our decoding was accomplished and our proposals for change had been accepted, the managers of the enterprise had the power to make the members of the enterprise cooperate with the change process.

Decoding America is completely different. No one has invited me to decode our systems, and no one has the authority to accept, or reject, my findings—and no one has the authority to command cooperation should my findings lead to acceptance by some Americans who then seek implementation. Taken together, these severe, systemic disadvantages constitute a fundamental weakness of our current systems of government and economics. In America, no one is in charge, cooperation almost seems to be un-American, and our current system offers no solution to this ultimately fatal problem. Our inability to deal with the onrushing catastrophe of global warming is due to the inability of the American people to willingly, fairly, work for the common good. We, the American people, are our own worst enemy.

It is true that when America undergoes attack we will rally behind our military leaders and cooperate with them. But beyond such dramatic events, we do not cooperate with one another. So, with this obvious systemic weakness in mind, I will proceed. I will take you through a step-by-step process that shows how decoding works. One of the most important elements of successful decoding is to put aside your preconceptions, and, in some cases, your prejudices. We must be objective, otherwise we will only be reinforcing our own biases. By putting aside your preconceptions and prejudices, you should then be willing to take people at their word—not forever, but long enough to give their words a fair, honest, hearing—try to imagine that they may be right—and you may be wrong. We Americans are not willing to do this. We, each of us, are certain that we know more than anybody else, and in our discussions of major issues we get sidetracked by heated arguments over petty, unprovable hypotheses. In fact, in what passes for our national conversations about matters of life and death, we reveal a chilling childishness, a total disregard for solving the great problems we have created for ourselves.

Decoding Benjamin Franklin’s Famous Remark

Here is an example of how decoding works. We will decode the meaning of a famous statement made by Benjamin Franklin. His statement has been interpreted to mean two different things. Only one is correct. Remember to set aside your preconceptions. You probably think you already know what he meant, but maybe you really don’t. Be careful. Be objective. Here, within context, is Franklin’s statement:

At the end of the constitutional convention, the delegates were leaving the hall and saying their goodbyes. Some citizens of Philadelphia, eager to learn what had been decided, stopped by. One woman greeted Benjamin Franklin and asked something like this: “Well, Dr. Franklin, what kind of government do we have: a monarchy, or a republic?” The great man famously replied, “You have a republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

What did Franklin mean by his statement? Did he mean it literally? Did he really mean that America’s new government was a republic? Shouldn’t he have said that our system of government was a “democracy?”

Some of us refuse to take Franklin at his word. They go to great lengths to find a way to change “republic,” into “democracy.”  They do this, I suppose, because they have a strongly-held preconception that America is a “democracy,” and they believe so strongly in this idea that they are unwilling to believe that Franklin might have been telling us the truth. This is very bad practice and I have tried to avoid it. By accepting the Founders at their word we are forced to try to understand why they said what they said, and further, to understand what consequences may have resulted over the past two centuries and counting. This approach, for me, led to some interesting and useful results.

For example, can we find evidence that contradicts Franklin’s purported words? Is there any evidence that Benjamin Franklin, one of the wisest men who ever lived, and, along with George Washington, one of the two smartest men in America, and perhaps the world, did not mean exactly what he said? I have not been able to find any such contradictory evidence.

Is there evidence that supports Benjamin Franklin’s purported words? Did Franklin’s contemporaries agree with him? There is plenty of evidence that agrees with Franklin, and none that contradicts him.

Franklin was regarded as the greatest scientist of his day. That is quite a distinction, and should be taken seriously. It is possible that he may have been misquoted, but I can find no evidence that he was, and further, his statement, as quoted, actually agrees with the written words of James Madison in Federalist 10 which was published not long after Franklin spoke. So, we have Franklin and Madison both saying that our government is a republic. Furthermore, the Constitution itself gives us evidence that our system of government is a republic. In Article 4, Section 4, the Constitution says this:

The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union, a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened), against domestic violence.

It makes no sense to say that the Framers made the national government a democracy while forcing the states to accept a republic for their government.

Madison also provides in other ways clear evidence that our government is a republic. For example, in Federalist 10, he defines the differences between a democracy and a republic. Here is what he said;

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

In these two paragraphs Madison is specifying the essential differences between a democracy and a republic. A republic, he says, relies on the “scheme of representation.” Our current system does use the “scheme of representation.” He does not say that a democracy also uses the “scheme of representation.” Thus there is a fundamental difference between a democracy and a republic. A republic uses elections, a democracy does not.

Madison says that the other very important difference between a democracy and a republic is that a republic delegates the government to a small number of citizens elected by the rest. Republics use elections to choose their representatives, but democracies don’t. Our system uses elections to delegate the power of the people to a small group of citizens, mostly men, who then rule over the people until the next election. Therefore, our system of government, according to James Madison and others, is a republic and is not a democracy. In a democracy, the people rule directly.

So, we have strong evidence that Benjamin Franklin truly meant to say: “Madam, you have a republic, if you can keep it.” Madison agrees with Franklin, and there is no evidence that Franklin did not intend to say exactly what he said. At that point in our history, America, in the eyes of the people who designed it, was a republic not a democracy.

Is there anything else that can be decoded from Franklin’s remark? Yes, there is. We have learned that many Americans hold the belief that our system of government is a democracy. They are wrong. Dead wrong. Does this error matter? Possibly. If the people who believe America is a democracy find that America does not act like a democracy, they will be disappointed in their form of government. Is there any evidence today of such disappointment? Yes, there is. If you will ask the Internet this question: “Are millennials unhappy with our government?” you will find many polls that show the answer is “Yes!”

There is more information we can decode from Franklin’s statement. The second part of his remark, “if you can keep it,” indicates that there is some difficulty in keeping a republic. Could it be that a republic contains a flaw or has a tendency to collapse or otherwise fail? Yes, there is evidence of this problem.

At the end of the constitutional convention, as the proposed new constitution was being sent to the states for their consideration, George Washington, President of the convention, wrote a letter to his nephew Bushrod Washington. Here is the pertinent part of what he said (emphasis added):

The warmest friends to, and the best supporters of, the Constitution, do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but these were not to be avoided, and they are convinced if evils are likely to flow from them, that the remedy must come thereafter; because, in the present moment it is not to be obtained. And as there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the aid of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments which shall be found necessary, as ourselves; for I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdom—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the People. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their Interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their Servants can, and undoubtedly will be, recalled.

George Washington, who had more to do with creating America than any other human being, is saying that the untried system of government is fatally flawed—and he does not know how to fix it. He says that the survival of our nation depends on the wisdom and virtue of future generations to devise ways to fix this problem. What, precisely, is the imperfection? It is Madison’s “scheme of representation.” To be precise, the flaw is the use of elections to choose our representatives.

He and other Framers realized that elections lead to the formation of political parties and parties too often become factions, who, should they win political power, will use it to work against the common good. In Federalist 10, Madison defined factions thusly:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

From the beginning our political system at all levels has been plagued by factions. Right now the Republican Party can be fairly regarded as a faction. The Democratic Party of my youth was clearly a faction. Since the beginning, at least one of the dominant political parties in our system has been a faction.

This means that in our system there has always been a group of men with enough political power to at least block policies they do not like. This means that we cannot get important things done. We cannot take the measures that we need to deal with global warming because one political party, a faction, can block it. In fact, right now, the Republican Party has the power to worsen global warming, to hasten the destruction of our civilization and ultimately our species. This constant battle between good and evil is part of human nature and our system of government is not able to make good triumph over evil. The Framers tried to devise a system that would prevent, or at least control, factions, but they failed. They produced a flawed system of government—and that flaw is our “scheme of representation.”

Next up:  “Decoding America: the Declaration of Independence.”

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