<< The Body Politic

The crisis of American self-government

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

In the Wall Street Journal‘s weekend interview, Sohrab Ahmari sat down with Harvey Mansfield, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, to discuss the “crisis of American self-government.” This year marks Mansfield’s fiftieth year teaching politics and political theory at Harvard, where he has authored such books on government and democracy as Spirit of Liberalism (1978), Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (1993), America’s Constitutional Soul (1993), and a new translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (2000).

Ahmari writes:

“All modern social science deals with perceptions,” [Mansfield] says, “but that is a misnomer because it neglects to distinguish between perceptions and misperceptions.”

Consider voting. “You can count voters and votes,” Mr. Mansfield says. “And political science does that a lot, and that’s very useful because votes are in fact countable. One counts for one. But if we get serious about what it means to vote, we immediately go to the notion of an informed voter. And if you get serious about that, you go all the way to voting as a wise choice. That would be a true voter. The others are all lesser voters, or even not voting at all. They’re just indicating a belief, or a whim, but not making a wise choice. That’s probably because they’re not wise.” [...]

American elites today prefer to dismiss the “unchangeable, undemocratic facts” about human inequality, he says. Progressives go further: “They think that the main use of liberty is to create more equality. They don’t see that there is such a thing as too much equality. They don’t see limits to democratic equalizing”—how, say, wealth redistribution can not only bankrupt the public fisc but corrupt the national soul.

“Americans take inequality for granted,” Mr. Mansfield says. The American people frequently “protect inequalities by voting not to destroy or deprive the rich of their riches. They don’t vote for all measures of equalization, for which they get condemned as suffering from false consciousness. But that’s true consciousness because the American people want to make democracy work, and so do conservatives. Liberals on the other hand just want to make democracy more democratic.”

Equality untempered by liberty invites disaster, he says. “There is a difference between making a form of government more like itself,” Mr. Mansfield says, “and making it viable.” Pushed to its extremes, democracy can lead to “mass rule by an ignorant, or uncaring, government.” [...]

Then there is the matter of conservative political practice. “Conservatives should be the party of judgment, not just of principles,” he says. “Of course there are conservative principles—free markets, family values, a strong national defense—but those principles must be defended with the use of good judgment. Conservatives need to be intelligent, and they shouldn’t use their principles as substitutes for intelligence. Principles need to be there so judgment can be distinguished from opportunism. But just because you give ground on principle doesn’t mean you’re an opportunist.”

Nor should flexibility mean abandoning major components of the conservative agenda—including cultural values—in response to a momentary electoral defeat. “Democrats have their cultural argument, which is the attack on the rich and the uncaring,” Mr. Mansfield says. “So Republicans need their cultural arguments to oppose the Democrats’, to say that goodness or justice in our country is not merely the transfer of resources to the poor and vulnerable. We have to take measures to teach the poor and vulnerable to become a little more independent and to prize independence, and not just live for a government check. That means self-government within each self, and where are you going to get that except with morality, responsibility and religion?”

Read the whole interview at the Wall Street Journal.