December 3 2012

The Harvey Mansfield Interview: The Crisis of Self-Government

Charlotte Hays

While other Harvard faculty members are purveying “gender studies,” Harvey Mansfield—who describes himself as Harvard’s “pet dissenter”—is  reading the Greek philosophers and such thinkers as Machiavelli and de Tocqueville.

In other words, Mansfield isn’t marooned in the present and can take a long view. He spoke at length to Sohrab Ahmari for the Wall Street Journal. Subject: the crisis of American self-government. The interview is splendid. Amid talk about the devastation of the entitlement society, Mansfield found reason to hope.

But first some snippets of bad news:

But Democrats' refusal to address the future in positive terms, he adds, also reveals the party's intent to create "an entitlement or welfare state that takes issues off the bargaining table and renders them above politics." The end goal, Mr. Mansfield worries, is to sideline the American constitutional tradition in favor of "a practical constitution consisting of progressive measures the left has passed that cannot be revoked. And that is what would be fixed in our political system—not the Constitution."

It is a project begun at the turn of the previous century by "an alliance of experts and victims," Mr. Mansfield says. "Social scientists and political scientists were very much involved in the foundation of the progressive movement. What those experts did was find ways to improve the well-being of the poor, the incompetent, all those who have the right to vote but can't quite govern their own lives. And still to this day we see in the Democratic Party the alliance between Ph.D.s and victims."

The Obama campaign's dissection of the public into subsets of race, sex and class resentments is a case in point. "Victims come in different kinds," says Mr. Mansfield, "so they're treated differently. You push different buttons to get them to react." …

 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. …

"Entitlements are an attack on the common good," Mr. Mansfield says. "Entitlements say that 'I get mine no matter what the state of the country is when I get it.' So it's like a bond or an annuity. What the entitlement does is give the government version of a private security, which is better because the government provides a better guarantee than a private company can."

That is, until the government goes broke, as has occurred across Europe.

So what is there to engender hope?

With all this rot, Manfield thinks that there are two things that could save us: ambition is one. Young people in the U.S., in contrast with their European counterparts, are still ambitious and want to accomplish something in their lives.

The other resource: the Constitution.

It is interesting that Manfield, like the people who created the Constitution, is steeped in the classics.

Maybe the slogan for the next few years isn’t “Forward”  but "Back to the Classics," if we hope to get our society on the right track?

 

 

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