Harvey Mansfield II Transcript
Taped June 25, 2014
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol. I’m pleased to have back Harvey Mansfield from Harvard University. Harvey, welcome.
MANSFIELD: Thanks. Good to see you again.
KRISTOL: Good to have you again. Let’s talk about conservatism. You are notoriously a conservative at Harvard, and I don’t think you normally shy away from the term too much. So but what about – this is a liberal regime. You’ve written about that a lot; liberalism is the American doctrine, somehow. What does it mean to be a conservative in contemporary America?
MANSFIELD: You know, it’s not easy. It’s a difficult position, in America. You start off on your heels, so to speak, in a defensive posture.
In the first place, the general atmosphere is one of progress, going forward, and conservative doesn’t seem to mean going forward. And everything else is going forward. We believe in innovation, new products, new this, new that. We have a growing economy – growth. And everything that’s modern and new seems to be better than everything that’s not modern and old.
So conservatism starts off with a disadvantage, and it’s political as well. The liberals are for progress, and America has always been for progress. And progress according to them is in accord with history. If you’re for progress, then you’re on the right side of history. If not, you’re on the wrong side, and that’s a bad place to be. Strangely enough, that makes liberals into something like conservatives because they think that they have the support of history. So, in a way, they’re for the status quo, a moving status quo, which they think is going inevitably forward. That’s their belief in progress. And progress consists in making America more equal, more equal in many different ways. You can always discover inequalities in America or any society.
And so the liberals, so to speak, always have something to talk about, some new liberal measure of progress that is equalizing something that’s been unequal. They have their agenda, and conservatives confront this. So there was a famous statement of William Buckley – said – he was the one who wanted to say “Stand in front of history, or in front of progress, and say stop.” But stop in the name of what? That’s the difficulty. A policeman will say, “Stop in the name of the law.” So what are you going to use to back up your demand to stop?
And this becomes still more difficult when you look at the origins of America or the Founding of America, conservatives want to look back to the Founders, they’re the ones who got things started right. But they founded a regime that was quite new; it was based on modern political science – that’s what they called it – the political science of Locke and Montesquieu, famous liberal philosophers of the 17th, 18th centuries. And but that wasn’t – that wasn’t enough. They found that republics had heretofore been inadequately thought out and defended. And so they made a great number of innovations in republican theory and they touted those innovations. And Hamilton in one of The Federalist Papers says, “Harken not to the voice, which tells you to stop or go slow.” So with all this, conservatives start off on the defensive, I would say, to put it mildly.
KRISTOL: And do you think, some people say, “Well, American conservatism, therefore, I guess, is kind of a defense of good old-fashioned American liberalism against newer versions of it.” I’ve never really been quite satisfied with that. But what is your – it’s partly that, I suppose.
MANSFIELD: Yeah, it is partly that. I think that’s a beginning. I think that conservatism in general is confronted with a dilemma between going back to something that was better in the past and going slow with headlong change that needs to be, if not throttled, at least moderated and made more sensible.
And if you do the latter, go slow, make the liberals do what they want to do but more slowly and more prudently, more sensibly, then you’re kind of making yourself into an instrument, or even a slave, of the liberals and liberalism. And there’s nothing new or interesting. You’ve got a conservative disposition, so that’s one of the meanings of conservative, like a conservative investor, is one who doesn’t take a lot of risks. So this is the less risky way to go. You’re just going with the flow, with the flow of history, and a little more slowly, although you keep backing up. And you have to admit changes, which once you opposed and now you have to favor. So it’s not a stable position, and it’s not a stout position, as Buckley wanted.
So the other, then the other idea or possibility, is that conservatism rests on some principles, and principles mean that you don’t just accept what comes along but you’ve got some ideas of your own and you want to propose them. And often those ideas, if you’re a conservative, will require going back to some time that’s better, like, for example, the American Founding. So, as you say, conservatives should go back to the American Founding, but the trouble with that is, that’s it’s disruptive. That turns conservatism into something of a revolutionary movement because it’s just as revolutionary to go back as it is to go forward, or perhaps more so.
KRISTOL: And maybe more difficult?
MANSFIELD: More difficult, yeah. More noble, more challenging.
KRISTOL: That’s true.
MANSFIELD: Yeah, but then, and you abandon your conservative temperament or disposition against taking too many risks and you do take a risk. So that was, say, a Newt Gingrich with the Republican Revolution. That was something new but it upset people, too. And it’s hard to pull off.
So then what can conservatives do? But, I suppose, they can find some principles, which are permanent and which are not necessarily part of the American Founding, just because they’re permanent. And those would be virtue or virtues. I think that perhaps the best thing and most interesting thing that conservatives would do would be to speak again in terms of virtues rather than values.
KRISTOL: I want to follow up with that but one more word on going back. I do think that’s – the trouble with going back, of course, is also that it’s just indiscriminate, it seems, and so you go back to these bad things in the past. Or un-replicable things of the past and then you have a kind of nostalgic conservatism or whatever.
MANSFIELD: That’s right. And the liberals will point out the bad things that you’re going back to as well as the good. And, yeah, like abortions in the back alley, that kind of thing.
KRISTOL: Right. Slavery.
MANSFIELD: Senator Ted Kennedy’s famous remark about those who oppose abortion.
KRISTOL: So, yeah. I mean, I think, Buckley’s statement. I’ve always thought it intriguing because, “Stop, stand and thwart history, yelling stop,” whatever it was at the founding of National Review. But then what? Obviously, he had given this some thought, and other conservatives have since then.
But as you said, there has to be some standard or principle to which one can appeal, which is not entirely or mostly, I guess, incompatible with the spirit of modern America. So where do those principles come from? And so you explain the virtues then. One hears virtue and one thinks, one doesn’t think, modern America particularly.
MANSFIELD: That’s right. But we do have some virtues, and maybe we should spend some time looking for those. And one of the great ones, I think, that is also in American Founding but little noticed is the virtue of responsibility. That is an American virtue.
It’s a word that was used in a new sense in The Federalist to mean something that hadn’t been seen in republican government before. Republican government had always spoken of responsiveness or to use responsibility, in the sense of responsive, that a government should do what the people wants it to do. And that’s what real republicanism or real democracy amounts to.
But the notion of responsibility gives government a kind of scope and office-holders a certain charge, and it gives opportunity to people with ambition – the take-charge type of person who sees an opportunity to do something that maybe wasn’t demanded but in his opinion, or his vision, is called for. And to do that, and then to face election, or accountability or responsiveness, at the end of a period of time. So in other words, it’s a kind of virtue, which allows somebody who’s in charge a certain leeway to act, and to act freely. And this will be for the common benefit because people don’t, as a whole, a kind of crowd, don’t see things very well or don’t predict things, don’t have much foresight; whereas one person thinking by himself can do that.
And this was another great virtue of the American Constitution, that it gives opportunity to single individuals or to groups of individuals, in other words, sort of monarchical types or aristocratic types, within a democracy take advantage of the good points of other forms of government and mix them together in ours. So that’s one way, I think, that conservatives could go in appreciation of a responsibility – talking a little bit more about that.
There’s the virtue of self-reliance, which is another American virtue, which needs to be thought out and described and made relevant to our situation today. One of the great faults of liberalism is its reliance on the welfare state. And the welfare state means a great attack, abandonment, of self-reliance in citizens. So what is that and is it connected to responsibility, what is that a liberal individual should be doing with his life? How should he be behaving in such a way as to bring our country to something better than what we have?
KRISTOL: So responsibility for the leaders, for the few, and self-reliance for citizens?
MANSFIELD: Self-reliance is maybe a democratized version of responsibility. Thinking of yourself as in charge of your life, not as pushed around. That’s one great trouble of our social science, which has an alliance with liberalism. Social science likes to see how people can be pushed around, how they can be incentivized, how they can be – what laws of behavior can be found which will enable them or their governors to run their lives for them. So I mean this can be made political and I think in an attractive way. But it also needs to be turned into a virtue and a principle. We don’t need always to talk about principles but also about virtues. Virtues are more universal than principles. Principles rise and fall or have to be, you know, unless they’re really permanent principles.
But most principles, political principles, are temporary, for our time. What do we need for our time? But you need to connect those, to show how they’re connected to virtues, which are permanent features of human nature and which can be found in writings and historical examples of all times – and that are open to conservatives to read and to explain.
KRISTOL: And so conservatives need to look back at the Founding and, I suppose, at American history but also beyond. Is that an important role for conservatives to sort of liberate American progressives from a very limited horizon that they have?
MANSFIELD: Yeah. They have very limited horizons. They can only see that everything might be better or would be better if only they were more equalized. That’s obviously not true.
There are many inequalities, which deserve to be admired and prized. And so conservatives should talk about the opportunity for this, but they should also talk about, for making such virtues possible and active, but also they should talk about what those virtues are a little bit more than they do. They just – and they tend to say, describe them as self-reliant and then stop. What is the self? What does that mean?
KRISTOL: It seems easier to paint the picture of the opposite or the undesirable state of affairs. I think people do rally to that. No one wants to live in a nanny state. I’m not sure where that phrase – does it come from Mrs. Thatcher maybe? I’m not sure where that phrase comes from exactly.
MANSFIELD: It does sound British, doesn’t it?
KRISTOL: Yeah. But it’s in the spirit of Tocqueville I suppose, right? I mean, people don’t want to be taken care of as nannies take care of five year olds.
MANSFIELD: Well, you could say, it used to be understood as paternalism, just the opposite of a nurse, but your father, paternalism – that’s already in Kant as a great enemy of the liberal way of life.
KRISTOL: But the nanny state is a softer version, I guess.
MANSFIELD: Exactly, yes.
MANSFIELD: Yeah, paternalism made feminine.
KRISTOL: Yeah. Which thinkers, I mean – so if a young conservative said, “I have the instinct that this is right, and I need to sort of liberate myself from what I’m taught in colleges and think harder about the ways in which a liberal regime can be – lift itself above itself a little bit or lift people in and above the horizon they kind of naturally fall into.” Who would you recommend?
MANSFIELD: Well, you already mentioned one – Tocqueville. Tocqueville, I think of as sort of Aristotle in modern dress. That’s a little bit controversial but still – try that out, which means then go straight to Aristotle.
Look at the virtues that he presents in his Ethics. There’s eleven of them in Books 3 and 4, 5. So and you’ll immediately recognize those as virtues and it’s important, too, to look at the way he thinks they work, means, they have – they’re in between, too much and too little, which is also way of identifying them. You’ll be surprised to see how much, how relevant that is, to modern life and to any human life – his discussion of the virtues. But then if you want to see how they especially operate in democracy, that’s definitely Tocqueville is the place, is the man – the man to look at. But you could also look at John Stuart Mill to see what liberals thought about this, how they changed the notion of virtue but also how he, for example, tried to hold onto the virtue of excellence, or at least eccentricity.
KRISTOL: Right. Independence. I don’t know –
MANSFIELD: Independence. Yeah, you can be a little crazy. I mean, we still believe that, so that must have some relevance to the way we live. You can justify a little eccentricity together if you connect to excellence. It’s a form or the outward form or somewhat decayed form of excellence. At least, it’s standing out from the crowd.
And Americans want to do that. We believe, “I’m just an ordinary guy with an independent mind.” So we all believe we’re ordinary guys and that we have independent minds. The problem is that ordinary guys usually don’t have independent minds. Conservatives, I think, should work with that notion and see how you make the connection between ordinary person and independent mind.
KRISTOL: I’ve been struck, just how much in the last few years this phrase, American exceptionalism, has caught on, I think, among conservatives in particular. Somewhat different. I mean, with a somewhat different meaning I think that it was originally – I don’t know originally, but that it was used in social science, for example, where it really had to do, the early uses of it has to do with America’s failure to become a socialist party compared to European countries, it was more of a –
MANSFIELD: You were exceptional compared to the normal history of human beings, I guess.
KRISTOL: Right, what was weird about America that didn’t lead it to have socialists and the dominance of liberalism. I think Louis Hartz and others wrote a lot about this. But now it’s sort of become, I think, a rallying cry for conservatives, along the lines you were just saying, more for the nation as a whole than for individuals. I think somehow America has to be more than just another well-off welfare state. It’s striking how much.
MANSFIELD: Yeah, exactly. So and exceptionalism is somehow connected to great, greatness. And you can find that very much in the Founders. The Federalist speaks of greatness. A farewell to greatness. That’s what will happen to us if we don’t pass this Constitution, they said. And our greatness consists in our – that’s – if that’s the character of our exceptionalism, it isn’t just that we’re idiosyncratic and we’re different from the others. No. Our difference matters, and also our difference has something universal about it.
So in the Founders, you get the notion that America is not just America, it’s an experiment and it’s not just based on American ideas, it’s an experiment in self-government for all of mankind. Never before has a republic succeeded in maintaining liberty and maintaining its structure, its existence, for a decent amount of time. All the preceding republics have failed. So can we really exist under a self-government?
And then, of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that same notion – can we keep it up? So and, if we can, then we’re exceptional, in the sense that we set an example for everybody. We’re the first successful republic. And I think that’s really true, that’s our exceptionalism. But we do it not just for ourselves, but for the rest of mankind and not to impose it on them, but to set an example. You can do it, too – we’ve done it.
KRISTOL: And I do think, don’t you think in the 20th century, this sort of got – something was added to it which was also saving you know other democracies against stronger enemies and so that sort of post-World War I, and then post-World War II and the Cold War, the American exceptionalism, sort of spread out into this kind of America’s role in the world, as well.
MANSFIELD: America can be proud of itself, I think, contrary to the present administration. I think America deserves to be proud of itself for its record in the 20th century.
Three times, we saved the world, really, from authoritarianism, totalitarianism. The First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. And we did it without asking for or getting a single acre of territory in addition. Well, I mean, we got our territory in the 19th century, you could say, so we were a satisfied power. But still most powers that save other people end up with some of the territory of the people they saved. That’s how the Roman Republic proceeded. No, we didn’t.
So there was something selfless about it. Even though we prospered, and we end up as a sole superpower, so to speak, without ever intending it. But having knocked out all the bad nations, it seemed that there was only a good one left, mainly the one that knocked out the bad ones, which is a lesson to isolationism and neutralism. That if you want to be a successful country, you have to defend yourself – and make sure that the enemies, which you have are defeated.
KRISTOL: But somehow yeah it’s hard to – and that’s always just – it’s hard to justify that merely on sort of narrow self-interest, I would say but under broader self-interest, well-understood but a little beyond that also because –
MANSFIELD: It is. Narrow self-interest tells you to relax, things won’t get any worse and –
KRISTOL: We have oceans, oceans protecting us.
MANSFIELD: We do, we have oceans protecting us and we have our wonderful complacency protecting us. Yeah. So, don’t worry and let’s come back to America and stay where we are. Don’t think that we have a mission or that we’re exceptional in any way. We’re no better than the rest. I think that’s very wrong and very bad.
KRISTOL: And even liberals, it seems to me I think you put this out somewhere, when Lyndon Johnson wanted to sell his domestic program, he called it the Great Society.
MANSFIELD: That’s right.
KRISTOL: Not just the good society, though I think the actual – didn’t Lippmann write a book? I think “good society” was a term that was in use.
MANSFIELD: You’re right, you’re right. Walter Lippmann wrote a book on that, that’s right, yeah.
KRISTOL: But somehow it had to be a higher endeavor.
MANSFIELD: That’s right. Americans somehow like that word, great. We often say it instead of good.
KRISTOL: I guess that’s right. Yeah, that’s a good, that’s a good point.
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