Constitutional Infrastructure

Susan McWilliams Barndt is chair and professor of politics at Pomona College. She is a regular contributor to The Constitutionalist.

For fans of American constitutionalism, the fact that a major infrastructure bill passed in the Senate this week offers a glimmer of hope. That is not just because, as President Biden emphasized in his public comments, it proves that bipartisan action is still possible in the United States Congress. It is because, at its foundations, American constitutionalism demands – and has always depended on – strong public infrastructure at a national level.

Some of the drafters of the Constitution tried to make that clear to us. More than once in The Federalist Papers, its authors – especially James Madison – make the claim that certain kinds of national public infrastructure will be key to the success of the constitutional system.

In Federalist 14, for instance, Madison confronts one of the classic objections to large-scale republican government: that if a republic is too big, its representatives will not be able to assemble to conduct public business. And if its representatives cannot assemble – or have trouble assembling – to conduct public business, it is not really a republic at all.

While acknowledging the vast scale of the United States, Madison says that there is one sure way to ensure that it will not be hard for representatives to gather in the new nation: The American government is going to have to build and maintain a lot of roads:

The intercourse throughout the Union will be facilitated by new improvements. Roads will everywhere be shortened and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout, the whole extent of the thirteen States.

Then, in Federalist 42, Madison returns to the subject of roads and related infrastructure, explicitly defending the power of the proposed national government to construct post roads and positing such power as key to the constitutional system. “The power of establishing post roads must, in every view, be a harmless power and may, perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency,” he writes. “Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the States can be deemed unworthy of the public care.” In other words, Madison saw public infrastructure that facilitates travel, exchange, and communication among the diverse and diffuse American people as productive of the constitutional order.

It is interesting that Madison makes this argument because it indicates – in a way echoed few other places in The Federalist Papers – how much the framers of the Constitution sought to create a United States in which Americans interact with each other across the regions of the country (and across the cultural, religious, and other differences that mapped onto those regions).

In Madison’s emphasis on road-building, he suggests not just that public infrastructure is crucial for enabling the functions of government, but also that public infrastructure is helpful for encouraging private industry and intellectual exchange. He thus associates strong public infrastructure with public trust and confidence. If the national government builds – and can be counted on to maintain – roads, more people are likely to start roadside businesses, to travel throughout the union, and to encounter each other in both formal and informal ways.

Now, to be fair: This connection between the infrastructure of the American state and the market economy is exactly what Henry David Thoreau lamented in his essay “Walking.” If you follow a road in the United States, says Thoreau, you are likely to end up at a market – at a place of commerce. You might think you are walking freely, but you are walking in the direction the state points you: toward material exchange. And in Thoreau’s time, there were markets in the United States where human beings were bought and sold. Thoreau wrote “Walking” shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, and part of what he sees in that essay is that the nation’s excellent system of public roads does not just facilitate, but even extends, the evil of slavery.

Thoreau’s general caution is worthy of remembering in our own day; as I have written before, those forms of infrastructure that facilitate communication and exchange – not just roads, but in our own day, the Internet – are amoral, or at least morally mixed. They expose us to new goods and ideas, some of which bring welcome improvements in our lives. But not all those goods or ideas make us safer, happier, or better.

That caution offered, it still seems clear to me that in this time of apparent public division and crumbling public trust, Madison, at least, would encourage to see a renewed commitment to national infrastructure as a predicate to (or part of) renewing our commitment to the core constitutional order.

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