Saturday, June 20, 2020


Over 200 years ago, future United States president James Madison wrote, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." A number of historians consider this to be the most famous sentence in the series of Federalist papers that this Founding Father wrote in helping guide his peers toward forming our country. At the time, Madison was commenting on Americans striking a balance between their own individual interests versus those being identified in the form of a new constitution; that is, the priorities of the new country. As explained by historian  Noah Feldman in his 2017 biography, "The Three Lives of James Madison," it was a matter of crafting a structural balance between human nature and constitutional powers.

Such a confrontation is classic and not all that uncommon. Example: I have an ambition to become extremely rich. But laws restrict how I might go about achieving that personal goal. For instance, I can not go out and rob banks nor can I embezzle money from my office payroll. Thus, my ambition to put more money in my pocket needs to be tempered by coming up with legal and, yes, ethical ways to achieve that end. One of the great challenges of our Founding Fathers was to figure out a way for citizens to pursue their dreams but doing so in a way that came within the parameters of their newly-formed government.

To my mind, this relates to communication. I want to be heard and be free to say whatever I might want to say. My challenge with that ambition is to balance it with a number of social norms that have evolved over the years. These range from being sensitive to the communication wishes of others and laws such as disturbing the peace and threatening others with language they may deem to be offensive. Thus, my primal ambition needs to carried out in ways that adhere to more overriding ambitions designed to address the greater needs of society: rules and guidelines that allow society to safely administer individuals.

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