Harvey Mansfield III Transcript

Table of Contents

I: On Party Government
II: Tocqueville’s Critique of Philosophy
III: Is Machiavelli a Philosopher?
IV: Progress and Rational Control

I: On Party Government

KRISTOL: Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to have as our guest today, Harvey Mansfield, longtime professor of government at Harvard University. Welcome, Harvey.

MANSFIELD: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

KRISTOL: Good to have you. Let’s talk about party government. You wrote on that 50 years ago, a great book on Statesmanship and Party Government on Edmund Burke. Yuval Levin wrote a recent book, which you’ve just reviewed actually in the Claremont Review of Books, also discussing Burke and political parties in a somewhat different way. So –

MANSFIELD: Yeah. My book was about the respectability of political parties. It had always been thought before Burke, Edmund Burke who wrote at the end of the 18th century that it was a bad thing to have parties, and if there were parties, there would be the respectable people on one side, the nobles or the gentlemen and the plebes or the plebeians, the lower class on the other side. And Burke changed that. He tried to argue that it was respectable for gentlemen or nobles to disagree, and this was the big step toward making party government as a whole as a way of governing a respectable thing to do. So that was my book was about.

KRISTOL: And why was that a good idea according to Burke or necessary?

MANSFIELD: It was a good idea because, in fact, people do disagree and when they disagree, it’s good that they have some responsibility for their disagreement.

And this means that you shouldn’t just disagree as an individual, but you should disagree as a group, and there should be a kind of collective responsibility of the group for the policies that they’re taking a risk on together. And otherwise if individuals are merely used by the king or by the government to bring into the cabinet and to make them ministers, that merely satisfies individual ambition and doesn’t make it responsible. To be responsible, it has to be collective. So that was the general picture of Burke’s argument.

Now, this recent book by Yuval Levin looks at the debate between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. It was a kind of citizen of America and of other countries, too, France, a kind of world citizen before that idea got started. And he was the liberal, and Burke was the conservative. So here you have a picture of the two parties as they were at the time of the French Revolution. The liberals, those who wanted to see expansion of liberty and especially of equality, and Burke who stood against that, he wanted to stand in favor of liberty more than equality, and he wanted to keep government in the hands of the gentlemen, of those who were by their position made more responsible for the decisions that they took.

So, Levin says that this debate between Burke and Paine was the beginning of our liberals and conservatives, and I think he argues that quite well and brings it right up to the present. Now, I was thinking about this in the review that I did of Levin’s book, and it occurred to me that there is another way to look at the two parties, and that is in the way of Aristotle or the way of Tocqueville as between the democrats, those who, Tocqueville said, those who want to extend the power of the people and the oligarchs, the party of the few, those who want to restrict of the people.

And I think looking at it today, perhaps I’m just thinking this out now, there are these dual-party systems that we operate under. And the first is under the liberals versus conservatives, and there the advantage goes to the liberals.

The liberals stand for progress, they are progressives. Progress means that you take a step forward towards – it’s unclear what but probably usually or maybe always – towards equality. They want to make more equality; democracy to them does not stand still but it’s always moving forward towards ever greater democracy understood as more equality, to some extent, more liberty but especially equality.

And the conservatives resist. And their resistance has a character of reaction; they react to what the progressives do. The progressives act first, they initiate, going ever further in the direction of greater equality.

Now, progress has this, has several characters. And perhaps the first is that it’s irreversible. It isn’t progress unless you can’t go back. And so when President Obama introducing his health care law, he said, “I want to be the first president who’s taken this up and also the last,” and that I thought was very significant. He wanted to, he was a true progressive in that he wanted to bring up health care and remove it, deal with it in such a way as to remove it from policy or political dispute and make it a matter of administration thereafter. This was something that would become an entitlement, as we say; that is, a right and therefore permanent, and not something that would be discussable afterward – or if it is discussable, at least it would be the discussion would take place to the advantage of the progressives, as “You want to reverse what we’ve done; you want to go back to the 19th century; you can’t do that.” So, progress is irreversible.

KRISTOL: You can’t turn the clock back.

MANSFIELD: You can’t turn the clock back.

KRISTOL: That’s the perfect phrase for that, isn’t it?

MANSFIELD: Yeah, it is, it is. As if you couldn’t. Actually, we turn the clock back twice a year.

But, so, that’s, that is indisputable or it heads toward administration of policies, which are no longer to be disputed. And, but the trouble is progress is not quite so sure where progress is or what progress is toward because progress would seem to require an end-state in your mind, which is the perfect state or a situation or condition to be in. And so a progressive is moving toward that state, and that’s how he knows that he’s a progressive. You don’t know that you have progress unless you know, and you’re quite sure where you’re going to end up. But it’s characteristic of progressives that they don’t know where they’re going to end up, they don’t even know what the next stage is in progress.

So they’re all for equality of the races but they don’t realize that the next stage is equality of the sexes and the same thing, they don’t realize when they’re talking about the equality of the sexes that that means or will lead to equality of heterosexual and homosexuals, and so there is, it’s always a surprise that just over the horizon, there is this other great inequality which has not yet been addressed and needs to be addressed and needs to be equalized and dealt with in some way.

Now, the way in which it’s dealt with – here’s another problem – is through a government program. The government program is a program of administration, and it turns out that the administration of what is called “big government” or the “immense being” by Tocqueville is not easy to accomplish. It suffers from what Steve Teles, a political scientist, calls “kludgeocracy.”

So you would see going back again to the health care act, you would think that here is this new great program full of innovation and benefit to the American people, you would think that they would take great pains to make sure that it worked when it was rolled out, and yet they couldn’t. And the problem, perhaps, generally is that government has to obey rules of due process, and this gets them involved in contradictions with efficiency. Anyway, the administration of the progressive ideal is always in question.

And then another problem that we’re headed towards is you run out of money. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “You run out of other people’s money to give away.” So government makes a habit of living off other people’s money, and that’s, in many ways, justice, but it also means that there is a limit that they, that the progressives don’t really appreciate or underestimate.

On the other hand, it’s possible to overestimate the importance of a limit or the nearness of it because Republicans are always saying, “We can’t afford this and we can’t afford that,” and it turns out that we can afford it or for much longer than people think.

Now, one wonders, “Will there be some kind of crash in which the government falters and some great disaster occurs in which it becomes evident to everybody that this whole progressive agenda won’t work” – that is probably a dream to suppose that. But it certainly could happen that they would run out of money, run out of money. Now, so that’s the progressives and they have this advantage because as they say, there’s a ratchet effect in progress since you can’t go back, all the conservatives can do is to swallow the advances that are proposed and to suggest reasonable or prudent qualifications or modifications or in other words, as Newt Gingrich famously said, too, “to become tax collectors for the welfare state,” to make their enemies into responsible politicians by securing that what they do is viable instead of infinitely costly. So, and that puts the conservatives always, I think, on the defensive and in a difficult position. Now, that isn’t how really only we look at things.

KRISTOL: So that’s the Paine –

MANSFIELD: That’s the Paine-Burke –

KRISTOL: Generally, for 200 years –

MANSFIELD: Yeah. On the whole, that’s to the advantage of the left and the progressives.

KRISTOL: And the Burkean forces are always saying slow down –

MANSFIELD: They’re always saying slow down but always in retreat. That seems to be a permanent characteristic of the left-to-right party division. But then if you look to the other party division, which is not modern but comes out of Aristotle, a different picture emerges, and that’s a division between democracy and oligarchy.

And in Aristotle, he shows this in Book Three of his Politics where he’s defining what a citizen is and he first has a democratic citizen give a democratic definition, which is that the city as a whole, which includes everybody. And that’s really the democratic view that everybody should be included, everybody is a member of the whole, the whole, doesn’t leave out anyone. And you see that today in the demand for inclusiveness in the Democrats and the progressives.

But then in this debate as to what a citizen is, an oligarchical citizen intervenes, and he says but some citizens are better than others. And that’s a crucial point. Some citizens have the capacity to be citizens because to be a citizen isn’t just to live without any qualifications or without doing anything; a citizen is somebody who rules or who shares in rule, and it’s not easy to do that. And not everybody is qualified.

So you have to distinguish between those who are qualified and those aren’t. And the whole of the democrats just consists of homogenous quantities of single individuals who are all alike, and that isn’t the way society is. Society is graded into ranks, and you see that in the way that everybody admires those who are really good at something. It’s not possible to be a human being and simply live with what’s today called empathy, as if everyone were equal and nothing is outstanding, and the only thing to do is, the only thing you need to do is to include everyone. You also need to admire and to respect those who you think are admirable, those who can do things better than you can. It’s not possible to be a human being and not admire better human beings than yourself.

So that, I think, that fact can be the basis for conservative cheer that it isn’t just a matter of always retreating, but they’ve got this permanent fact of human nature that virtue is something admirable. And now, of course, the Republicans live in a modern age and they – which is a democratic age – and so they have to democratize this understanding of virtue. And that’s not always easy for them to do. But they do their best at it. Even Abraham Lincoln spoke of a free person, a free man as a worker, somebody whose work deserves, he deserves to get the rewards of his own work. And that’s still an element of the republican liking of virtue – to respect those who earn a living or those who work for that as opposed to people who are just on welfare and get a welfare check.

And you see it also in immigration that Republicans, it’s arguably in their interest to adopt a free and open policy towards immigrants or illegal immigrants but they don’t, they can’t really. It really bothers them that millions of people came here illegally, not obeying the law, that’s not virtuous. And a country will get into trouble if it doesn’t reward virtue – or it rewards lack of virtue.

So the Republicans, even though virtuous aristocratic in its essence, nonetheless look for ways to find democratic virtue, and they can’t keep themselves from adopting a certain tone of not superciliousness, but at least superiority, which the Democrats always take advantage. The Republican is a little bit stiff, and fundamentally this is because he has certain things that he values or believes in, and he can’t help being as we say “judgmental.” So the fact that human beings are necessarily judgmental, I think, is an aid to conservatives and a way in which this more fundamental – I would say it’s more fundamental – party division between democracy and oligarchy underlies the more relevant, or say more trendy, division of modernity between liberals and conservatives.

KRISTOL: And the liberal party tends to be the democratic party as well it seems somehow progress always seems to be towards equality, but I suppose in theory, one could have an oligarchic or an aristocratic theory of progress but it doesn’t seem to ever quite work out that way.

MANSFIELD: Yes, you could. Yeah, you would have a progress which rewards the people who most contribute to progress and Republicans pick up on that entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurial spirit, that’s their understanding of virtue or an understanding of virtue. So they can buy into the notion of progress in that way.

KRISTOL: But do you think sort of following Burke they do have to sort of resist the idea of progress to some degree. There seems to be a tension among today’s conservatives that they want to say that liberalism doesn’t work, that a better understanding of progress would mean freer markets or letting rich people become rich so they can help the society more. I mean how much do conservatives sign onto progress. I think that’s a big, practical question.

MANSFIELD: That is a practical question for them, yeah, yeah. In that way, you could say that the two divisions sort of contradict each other or the one doesn’t overlay easily on the other. And so and yeah the conservatives do in fact today have to buy into progress and not merely resist it but on the other hand, they can’t buy into it all together.

KRISTOL: And I guess intellectually they can’t delude themselves about it. I think that’s the- so in that respect, Tocqueville is a better guide than Burke or would you go that far or?

MANSFIELD: Yes, I think maybe that’s right, yeah, that see Burke lived before, just before it became necessary to be a democrat with a small “d.” Which I guess and he perhaps realized that at the very end of his life that the French revolution was making a change that was in fact irreversible and would create a new era of democracy to which all parties would have to comply. So, yeah, I think it may have happened that way. And so Tocqueville is a better guide for us since he wants to give the French aristocrats a cold bath of reason to make them see that democracy is here to stay and that I think also works for sort of potential oligarchs or aristocrats in our time as well.

KRISTOL: I think Levin in his book also emphasizes the degree which – Burke of course was a great friend and defender, supporter really of the American Revolution. But his account, his own, the way he presents the American Revolution at least in Britain at the time is not really the way we think of it, I would say. It’s a conservative revolution.

MANSFIELD: It was, yes.

KRISTOL: Upholding the rights of Englishmen. He never seems to have talked, written much about the Declaration, I think. I mean –

MANSFIELD: That’s right. I don’t know that he ever mentioned it. That he shares with Tocqueville, by the way.

KRISTOL: Well, that’s true.

MANSFIELD: Tocqueville mentions the principles of the Declaration and which he doesn’t care for.

KRISTOL: And why is that? So let’s talk about that. But isn’t that hard – and so even Tocqueville’s accommodations to democracy is –

MANSFIELD: Yes, it has to be because democracy by itself is a runaway train towards it doesn’t know what and because the analysis I gave before of progressivism really comes from Tocqueville.

Progressivism aims not towards what is perfect but towards what is perfectible. So you always think that what you’ve done is an improvement. It’s like next year’s car model. You’ve got the 2014 car now, that must be perfect. But, no, the next one will be better. But what is the perfect car? So it doesn’t seem that there is one and that’s Tocqueville’s criticism; people are just going headlong.

And they’re made to go more headlong by democratic theories, and democratic theories depend on the principle of the Declaration of Independence, which is all men are created equal. And Tocqueville mentions that but he says it comes from Jesus Christ and not from the Declaration of Independence. So that gives it a certain historical touch or and religious respectability.

And so to come back to Burke, yes, you see the same thing and Burke he stays away from the principle of the American Revolution as the Americans saw it, which is how Thomas Paine saw it. And so he actually really opposes that but he keeps quiet about it. I guess in the hope that these Englishmen over here, that’s what we are, will get sensible and behave as if we are Englishmen.

KRISTOL: The hope that democrats won’t appeal or that citizens in a democracy won’t appeal to abstract ideas of equality and rights, that seems hard to sustain after the last few decades.

MANSFIELD: It is, it is very hard to sustain. Tocqueville tries to calm this desire for abstract equality by showing what real equality is in practice and that’s why his book is called Democracy in America. It’s not just democracy and it’s not just America but it’s this theory, and he does speak of democracy as a theory in, as practiced in a certain place. And there you see that the practice has equality in general of qualifying theoretical abstractions. It’s all very well to speak of democrats sharing in rule but how do they do it.

And so that’s how he gets into the idea of town government, which you get near the beginning of Democracy in America, that people get together spontaneously in order to solve some common problem. You’re living with a bunch of other people and you want to build a road, one person can’t do that, so you have to get together to do it and to do it, you need a little bit of an organization, a kind of formal organization. So all this is showing how equality just as an abstraction doesn’t go far enough or it doesn’t really tell you what needs to happen.

Or the jury, when you’re on a jury, you realize that the law, which is a very general proposition applies to actual human beings and it becomes your duty to judge whether a particular human being is going to go to jail or not because of you, because of your thinking. And so this forces you really to think more seriously about what the law requires and how it’s applicable to particular human beings. Democracy has a great passion for passing laws, but what does it look like when you actually apply them. So this is the way in which Tocqueville tries to deal with or handle abstractions of democratic theory.

KRISTOL: Yeah and make people be practical about what works and what has worked and be respectful of these institutions I suppose to –

MANSFIELD: Yes, that’s right, respectful of institutions and especially which he calls forms. This is a kind of Aristotelian or Platonic expression that forms and formalities of liberty are very, very important. It’s what we today call due process, that you have to do it the right way and the right way is usually the slow way and slow is right on the threshold of deliberate and deliberate is right on the threshold of reasonable. So when you’re slowed down by having to do it right, you might do it more reasonably or more sensibly than if you rush impulsively to do something right away like lynch a criminal without giving him a proper trial. So and democracy has this impulsiveness about it and impatience about that. You see that in foreign policy how America always wants things to happen quickly. If it doesn’t happen right away, we get war weary.

KRISTOL: Right and Tocqueville’s actual view of parties seems from Aristotle than –

MANSFIELD: More from Aristotle than from Burke and Paine because his actual view, he says that there are great parties throughout history and he describes them as I said before those who want to extend the power of the people versus those who want to restrict it.

KRISTOL: And those parties go all the way back apparently in his account.

MANSFIELD: Yes, yeah. That’s and every free country.

KRISTOL: So that’s not a phenomenon of modern democracy.

MANSFIELD: No. But you see, he’s rephrased it. Aristotle’s – Aristotle has a democracy versus oligarchy. And in Tocqueville, the oligarchy becomes those who want to restrict the power of the people, it doesn’t say those who want to assert the power of the few, which is what the more- behind the reasoning of restriction of essence of fewness because when you’re talking about admiration or respect, those whom you admire and whom you most respect tend to be few.

KRISTOL: And Tocqueville doesn’t talk that much, as I recall, about particular American politicians or founders or but I do think he has that really striking, doesn’t he praise the Federalist Party or the Federalist figures who –

MANSFIELD: Yes, that’s right. He doesn’t mention or go into particular names but as a party, they were aristocratic he says and America had the great fortune to be founded by an aristocracy. That’s – he doesn’t quite say it that way but you can infer it from what he does say and quite a few other little aristocratic remarks are scattered through Democracy in America, which come up to something quite impressive if you add them up.

KRISTOL: Without ever having explicit defense of –

MANSFIELD: Of aristocracy, no, definitely not. Aristocracy cannot defend itself and its own name, it has to defend itself as contributing to democracy, as necessary to democracy. And I think that’s pretty much what Republicans try to do now without perhaps fully realizing it.

KRISTOL: Right. Maybe they’d be better off if they realized more what they were doing, thoughtful about –

MANSFIELD: Yeah, I think yes that’s right. They’re too American. They’re too democratic. That means to understand themselves rightly.

KRISTOL: So they need to read –

MANSFIELD: They need to read Tocqueville –

KRISTOL: Aristotle, or Aristotle is too ambitious?

MANSFIELD: Yes, Aristotle is too ambitious, so read Tocqueville, that’s it. Yeah.

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