Saturday, March 7, 2015

Was the American Founding Principled or Merely Self-Serving?

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.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Without reading West's piece (I'll get to it later today), can we make peace? Yes, Harry, all men are created equal with the same human nature, including reason and free will, and possess the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We can confidently reject Aristotle's claim that some men are by nature slaves.

And yes, Harvey, despite equal human natures, the exercise their free will results in acquired inequalities. That is why there are "1%ers." We can reject radical claims for equality by acknowledging Aristotle's claim that just because people are equally free does not mean they are equal absolutely.

Now . . .

Tom Van Dyke said...

The rest of Mansfield's argument would be that "radical egalitarianism" demands an equality of outcomes that in the end is only achievable by destroying excellence. No rich or poor, only equally miserable. Every kid gets a trophy, hell, don't even keep score.

When everything's special, nothing is.

Art Deco said...

Mansfield's concerns about 'radical egalitarian' would be of interest in Argentina and were arguably topical in 1971 when A Theory of Justice appeared and it was not clear where would be the plateau regarding the introduction of social democratic and mercantilist measures in the political economy.

The thing is, we've had 400 years of history in this country and there is not much indiction that the broad mass of the public is dissatisfied with careers-open-to-talents with some ad hoc qualifications.

The real problems we face would be the conviction of broad swaths of the professional-managerial class that they stand in a tutelary position regarding the rest of the population and their conjoined impulse to manufacture patron-client relationships. Add to that a substrate of racial resentment and you have witches' brew. Radical egalitarianism in not the cause of this.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, the first thing to remember is these guys are arguing philosophy, not current events--the 1000-year stare.

Mansfield's not arguing Rawls, he's arguing Plato.

Leo Strauss had a famous correspondence with Alexandre Kojève, who was active in the formation of the European Union. Kojève's student Francis Fukuyama wrote "The End of History," basically a synthesis of Kojève's prediction that the world would soon become one "Universal Homogeneous State," one of liberal bourgeois democratic capitalism.

This is, however, frighteningly similar to Nietzsche's lazy, timid and smug Last Man, and Strauss--although not denying the possibility of it happening, sees "The End of History" as the end of philosophy, the end of excellence--the very things valued highest by the classical Greeks and Romans.

Kojève's dream of the "universalization" of knowledge and wisdom is nothing more than a universal dumbing down of Western Civilization--indeed a tyranny of mediocrity.

And if we look at the decline if not doom of modern-day Greece and Italy, the "end of history" is not looking so sweet. These societies are broke, dispirited, and don't produce enough children to sustain themselves. "The End of History" may turn out to be a nadir, not the zenith of Western "progress."

For those interested, here's most of Strauss's famous "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero," which caps his book [and correspondence with Kojeve], in his book "On Tyranny."

So the argument is Ben Franklin's--"A republic, if you can keep it," to which Mansfield would say, but you can't. Look at Greece, italy, and soon America, populated by nothing but Last Men.

Art Deco said...

Mansfield's not arguing Rawls, he's arguing Plato.

The summary offers this:

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.

He's offering an opinion about the effect of memes on collective behavior, which is to say a point which should be manifest in history and contemporary society. As for 1,000 yard stares, we've 500 years' worth of modern history and 400 years' worth of American history.

Tom Van Dyke said...

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.

This is Europe already. We used to get lectured by the Eurowienies about the superiority of the welfare state, but the modern Eurostate was only 50 years old.

Now the bills are coming due and if we look at Germany, it works but if we look at greece it does not. Further, the Scandinavian paradises seem to be ill-equipped to handle racial and cultural diversity.

Somalis don't do

and remember, multiculturalism is all part of radical egalitarianism--no idea or culture is better than any other. Mansfield's argument can't simply be conveyed in a single article, and although I adore him, Tom West is a Jaffa ally and isn't fleshing out Mansfield's argument here. {I happen to be aware of it because of my familiarity with Strauss, whose idea of "natural right" I think is much more like Mansfield than Jaffa's "natural rights."]

Leaf through the Restatement and the Kojeve correspondence to get a better idea. The controversy is much deeper philosophically than mere political science, which by necessity is highly dictated by time, place and culture.

We learned in Iraq [and learn every day with Islamic terrorism]that not all men yearn to breathe free. Some want to rule, others will abide a Saddam Hussein tyranny if it means he keeps the Islamists off our backs.

Freedom and equality is the fundamental premise of Jaffa and natural rights--and of the end of history--but it's far from self-evident that's what man even wants.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And, may I add, that freedom and equality are often at odds! Creating more of the latter often comes at the expense of the former.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I just ran across the above argument, chapter and verse.

Macho isn’t a problem in Sweden. Dubbed the least masculine country on Earth by anthropologist Geert Hofstede, it’s the place where male soldiers are issued hairnets instead of being made to cut their hair.

[Heh. Mansfield wrote a book called "Manliness."]

But Scandinavian cohesion may not work in conjunction with massive immigration: Almost one-third of the Swedish population was born elsewhere. Immigration is associated in the Swedish mind with welfare (housing projects full of people on the dole) and with high crime rates (these newcomers being more than four times as likely to commit murder). Islamist gangs control some of the housing projects. Friction between “ethnic Swedes” and the immigrants is growing.

Welfare states work best among a homogeneous people, and the kind of diversity and mistrust we have between groups in America means we could never reach a broad consensus on Nordic levels of social spending.

Anyway, Sweden thought better of liberal economics too: When its welfare state became unsustainable (something savvy Danes are just starting to say), it went on a privatization spree and cut government spending from 67 percent of GDP to less than half. In the wake of the global financial crisis, it chose austerity, eliminating its budget deficit (it now runs a slight surplus).

As for its supposedly sweet-natured national persona, in a poll in which Swedes were asked to describe themselves, the adjectives that led the pack were “envious, stiff, industrious, nature-loving, quiet, honest, dishonest and xenophobic.” In last place were these words: “masculine,” “sexy” and “artistic.”

Scandinavia, as a wag in The Economist once put it, is a great place to be born — but only if you are average.

The dead-on satire of Scandinavian mores “Together” is a 2000 movie by Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson set in a multi-family commune in 1975, when the groovy Social Democratic ideal was utterly unquestioned in Sweden.
In the film’s signature scene, a sensitive, apron-wearing man tells his niece and nephew as he is making breakfast, “You could say that we are like porridge. First we’re like small oat flakes — small, dry, fragile, alone. But then we’re cooked with the other oat flakes and become soft. We join so that one flake can’t be told apart from another. We’re almost dissolved. Together we become a big porridge that’s warm, tasty, and nutritious and yes, quite beautiful, too. So we are no longer small and isolated but we have become warm, soft and joined together. Part of something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes life feels like an enormous porridge, don’t you think?”

Then he spoons a great glutinous glob of tasteless starch onto the poor kids’ plates.

That’s Scandinavia for you, folks: Bland, wholesome, individual-erasing mush. But, hey, at least we’re all united in being slowly digested by the system.

The Last Men.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Prof. Mansfield to the Last Men, the Porridge People, the Sons of Modern Mediocrity:

"Before I begin the lecture, I have a brief announcement concerning the class's grading policy," he said that day. "As many of you know, I have often been, ah, outspoken concerning the upward creep of Harvard grades over the last few decades. Some say that this climb—in which what were once Cs have become Bs, and those Bs are now fast becoming As—is a result of meritocracy, which has ensured that Harvard students today are, ah, smarter than their forebears. This may be true, but I must tell you that I see little evidence of it."

He paused, flashed his grin, and went on. "Nevertheless, I have recently decided that hewing to the older standard is fruitless when no one else does, because all I succeed in doing is punishing students for taking classes with me. Therefore I have decided that this semester I will issue two grades to each of you. The first will be the grade that you actually deserve—a C for mediocre work, a B for good work, and an A for excellence. This one will be issued to you alone, for every paper and exam that you complete. The second grade, computed only at semester's end, will be your, ah, ironic grade—'ironic' in this case being a word used to mean lying—and it will be computed on a scale that takes as its mean the average Harvard grade, the B-plus. This higher grade will be sent to the registrar's office, and will appear on your transcript. It will be your public grade, you might say, and it will ensure, as I have said, that you will not be penalized for taking a class with me." Another shark's grin. "And of course, only you will know whether you actually deserve it."