“When we wrote the constitution [giving great powers to the president] we had in mind figures like Mandela” (contributor to South Africa constitution) vs “[In] contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave” (David Hume)


I listened to this article.  I had mistakenly attributed the David Hume quote to one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, but his morning found this footnote to Federalist No. 56 in The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers edited by David Wootton: “[In contrast to the view expressed here, see Hume’s claim in `Of the Independency of Parliament” (1741) that `It is, therefore,a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact.’ In claiming to ground republican government in virtue, the Federalist stands in direct opposition to Hume.” There is some discussion of this writing of Hume here.

My general understanding from my political philosophy courses differs from what is expressed in the footnote quoted above.  I always understood that the authors of The Federalist Papers and of the constitution of the United States did actually follow Hume’s approach to a great extent, establishing a system that would require some level of virtue in the citizenry to function (and it seems such an assumption must be made, because a generally corrupt community will eventually fail no matter what system is put in place) but assuming the worst of human nature when defining the powers of offices and institutions of government.

In any event, it seems the drafters of the South African constitution made a surprisingly unwise calculation with respect to presidential powers.

Excerpt from the Economist article:  Given [South African president Jacob] Zuma’s foibles, it is unfortunate that the framers of South Africa’s constitution, for all its checks and balances, granted enormous powers to the president. “When we wrote the constitution we had in mind figures like Mandela,” says Patricia de Lille, who led the Pan Africanist Congress delegation in talks over the constitution ahead of the 1994 election and is now a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

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