Tom West on the legendary debate between "East Coast" Straussian Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and Harry V. Jaffa of the West Coast Claremont Institute:
Mansfield says, then, that the theory of the American founding is both untrue and harmful. It is untrue because there is no such thing as nonpartisan politics, because human beings are created unequal in important ways. It is harmful because the idea of equality produces ever more radical demands to deny all politically relevant differences among human beings, while it encourages government to intrude ever more aggressively into the private sphere. Jaffa answers that the theory of the founding is true, because human beings really are equal in the sense that no one has the right to rule another without that other’s consent. And the equality idea, Jaffa argues, far from being harmful, is our best ground for the revival and continuation of a decent constitutionalism in the modern world.
Jaffa believes that the theory of the American founding is true because slavery is always evil. No man is born the natural ruler of any other man. Mansfield says that “all men are created equal” is a self-evident half-truth because men are equal in some respects and unequal in others. But no sensible person—and certainly not Jaffa—would dispute that human beings are unequal in many ways. For Jaffa, the meaning of “created equal” is that although many men are better than other men at the tasks of ruling, it is also true that “all men have been endowed . . . with a nonangelic nature.” Everyone being subject to the same selfish passions, no one should be trusted with absolute power. To illustrate this point, Americans in the founding era frequently compared human to divine rule, which they cheerfully admitted was absolute monarchy without the consent of the governed. As the town of Malden, Massachusetts, wrote in 1776, the reason that the rule of God without our consent is acceptable, but that the rule of man without our consent is not, is that God, “being possessed of infinite wisdom, goodness, and rectitude, is alone fit to possess unlimited power.” Even if we admit that there is some tiny number of men who are sufficiently godlike that they could be trusted with absolute power without consent, it still would not establish a politically relevant claim. For, Jaffa writes,
Plato’s Republic is imaginary precisely because, according to Plato himself, philosophers do not wish to rule, and anyone wishing to rule is not a philosopher. Anyone who asserts a right to rule on the basis of his claim to wisdom is accordingly condemned in advance as a charlatan by philosophy itself. . . . Philosopher-kings are not possible, and genuine philosophers will always prefer a regime of equality under the law.