Harvey C. Mansfield is a professor of government and political philosophy at Harvard, where he has taught since 1962. He is the author or translator of fifteen books, including The Spirit of Liberalism (1978) and A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy (2001). In his 2006 book Manliness, Mansfield sought to defend traditional “manly virtue” against the effects of the sexual revolution. Mansfield is a frequent contributor on national politics for periodicals such as The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal and National Review. His most recent book is Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction (2007). Mansfield sat down with the editors of The Point at Chicago’s South Loop Hotel in April.
The Point: We were interested in an article you wrote for The Weekly Standard recently, where you argued that Obama’s desire to transcend partisanship demonstrated a misunderstanding of politics in some way. Could you clarify why you think partisanship is necessary for politics?
Harvey Mansfield: Every regime that isn’t perfect is partisan. But in a free society, these partisan differences will come out in public—and there is a great difference between a free society that frowns on parties and one that regards them as respectable. That’s something I once wrote a book on. Edmund Burke had a great deal to do with it, making a party respectable in a free country. As did some of the Jeffersonians, and Martin Van Buren in our country. So if you have organized parties and those are considered respectable and not divisive and destructive of harmony, then you give people the possibility of a principled choice. That’s what we have today. And you see it very well in the Obama healthcare proposal. On the liberal side, there’s the principle of justice, which imposes more equality than we have automatically through the working of the market. Liberals want to rely on the power and wisdom of government to promote justice and to bring it into our lives more visibly. And then on the other side, Republicans oppose this on the grounds of self-reliance or independent spirit. They believe self-reliance or independent spirit is a greater virtue than justice understood as equality. It is better for people to do things on their own in free association with others, through business or through local government, than through bureaucratic centralized government.
So that gives us a decent choice between alternatives. And some people are partisans of one thing or another, and a lot of people in the middle are just waiting to see what’s working at the moment.
TP: And you think that Obama wants to move forward as if this weren’t a choice of principle?
HM: That’s right, as if the only true principle or the only respectable principle is the liberal principle, and conservatives are reactionaries or they are people without hearts or senses of justice.
TP: Doesn’t every political party try to do that? Try to frame its position as precisely the natural and true position?
HM: That’s quite right. But I don’t think that conservatives believe that they can do away with liberals; they have enough realism to see that this will always be a temptation, and that makes them more tolerant as people, I think, and as citizens. Whereas liberals really think conservatism is based on prejudice and not principle—it’s not respectable, and so, also not necessary to exist. They really have greater confidence that they can do away with their opponents, that permanent victories can be attained.
TP: Speaking of partisanship, what do you make of the increased use of the filibuster in the last few years? It has become routine that a party needs a supermajority to achieve its goals. Does that worry you?
HM: You know, it may not be worrying because it establishes a conservative constitutional principle. Really the fundamental idea behind our constitution is that it’s not simple to run a democracy. It requires the three branches and the separate powers given to each, which include the power to check.
TP: That notion is in the principle of the constitution but the idea of the filibuster per se is not there.
HM: No, of course not. But it’s kind of consistent with the idea of the Senate as a checking institution— somewhat less democratic than the House— because the senators have a longer term. A piece of legislation should not get through unless there is a determined majority able to push it through over time.
TP: Would you describe yourself as a conservative?
HM: Well, I’m often called conservative and there’s some reason for that. And I sometimes call myself a conservative. But it isn’t the full truth or even the main truth, it’s the partisan truth. My gods live higher in the sky than conservatism— something like natural right: Is there some natural basis for justice and principles by which we live? What is the foundation for that? It really brings us back to a question more than a position.
But conservatism is my position. That’s because of the excesses of liberalism, or what is called liberalism today. I first became a conservative because of my anti-communism. In the 1950s, it seemed to me the liberals were soft on communism— and so I turned against them for that— and since then on other things, especially, these days, the question of big government. But I understand conservatism as a reaction to liberalism. It isn’t a position that one takes up from the beginning but only when one is threatened by people who want to take away or harm things that deserve to be conserved. I think today that the principle task of conservatism is to save liberalism from the liberals. They misinterpret their own doctrine; pervert it and render it dangerous to freedom and peace alike. Therefore, one cannot make a complete contrast between conservatism and liberalism. Locke, for instance, is a liberal of the finest kind who I’m confident would be a conservative today.
TP: So do you think that there could be a non-liberal conservatism in a different kind of society? For example, if you grew up in a society with an aristocratic background?
HM: Yes, that’s just what you see in Edmund Burke. I didn’t mention that … but yes, in America conservatism means going back to our revolution, our founding, which is certainly liberal. Although if you read some of the writing of our founders, especially The Federalist Papers, you’ll find what would be considered today a lot of conservative doctrine.
TP: You mentioned liberalism and conservatism’s relationship to liberalism. Do you see a difference today between what is called liberalism and what is called progressive liberalism?
HM: It’s partly a question of mere nomenclature but in truth I think there is a distinction between the initial liberalism of Locke and Lincoln— all the liberal heroes— and progressivism. The biggest difference is that progressivism is anti- constitutional. The progressives in the early twentieth century were opponents, critics of the American constitution. Woodrow Wilson, a progressive, was the first president to criticize the American constitution and he had a historical, or historicist, understanding of it— resulting in a so-called living constitution, the title of a well-known book by a progressive in the 1920s. And that progressivism is still alive today. I recently criticized Obama for being that kind of progressive.
TP: You said earlier that the goal of conservatism is to save liberalism from itself. Would you say more precisely that’s it’s really to save liberalism from progressivism?
HM: Yes, that’s a nice way of putting it.
TP: You said that liberalism tends to undermine itself through progressivism. Could you give an example of how that would work?
HM: Liberalism undermines itself by undermining political liberty and by focusing on cultural or intellectual liberty. It does this in several ways, but the way I mentioned in the article on Obama is that it so increases the welfare state of entitlements that the issues of a welfare state are no longer alive, and all of us will feel so indebted to the government that sustains us that we will not need to exercise our political liberty, or in the particular case of healthcare, we won’t need to re-raise a question that Obama wants to settle once and for all. So the Democrats hastily passed this misshapen healthcare reform, in the belief that once it is there, it will remain and one can never go back. That’s a tenet of progressivism: that progress is inevitable. So if you get something designated as progress, then your party, which was responsible for it, will get the credit for it, will always get to attack the other party for opposing it, and will find a continual source of votes in future elections by defending it. And that assumes that people will passively accept this narrowing of the range of political controversy and enjoy the individual relationship that each person has with this huge government that sends checks in the mail.
TP: That reduces our political liberty because it reduces the space of our discussion?
HM: Yes, it does prevent responsible discussion by trying to give the impression that there’s no going back, no raising the fundamental issue again.
TP: So you have no truck with a kind of Hegelian idea that the state really is the full realization of freedom, that without the state, we can’t be free?
HM: Well, I don’t think we can be free without the state. But the way in which to be free with the state is through political liberty— especially through elections and organized parties for the most part— and presenting choices of principles to the electors and praising the great diversity and variety of elections in America.
TP: For Tocqueville though— whom you have written about and translated— the choice is between big government and actual individual participation in government. Part of political liberty for Tocqueville seems to be forming groups and assemblies that actually perform some of the services of local government. But today, you bring up healthcare, and for most people it’s more of a choice between one bureaucracy and another. The insurance company is another bureaucracy. I wonder if you think that the situation has changed in that regard.
HM: I don’t think that the private bureaucracy is as bad as the public. We’re about to discover that, with regard to healthcare. As I see healthcare now, or just before this so-called reform, it was still mainly local in character. You got to know who you were dealing with. It was a bureaucracy, but one within your reach and that you could develop some familiarity with. You would know what the choice of hospitals was in your area. You’re young, so you don’t know this. I have greater occasion for such things. I developed certain experience with Boston hospitals or what’s available in Cambridge and such. And it’s true, I work with a Harvard HMO and it has a bureaucracy, but it’s not stifling and I have personal relationships with the doctors.
TP: You think that will really change?
HM: Yes, I do. It’s true that this healthcare, Obama-care, still uses private insurance companies, instead of directly taking over all of healthcare, which I think was the real goal. But I think that they do so, or will attempt to do so in such a way as to discredit private insurance companies and force people into ever more public and bureaucratic solutions. It’s hard. I mean, it’s hard to know, because if you look at the countries that do have government healthcare, all European countries, there’s a diversity of different plans and different solutions, some of them better than others.
TP: As there is in America, with veterans’ hospitals run on similar lines to Britain’s NHS. Do you think there’s any value to the thought that having a public institution is a democratic way of organizing things relative to one that is a market oriented organization structured around shareholder-value? The public institution is in some ways answerable to the public and its political freedom ultimately.
HM: Through elections.
TP: Through elections, yes.
HM: But if the institution becomes a fixture, then it’s less accountable. Democratic isn’t always good; it isn’t always a component of liberties. And a private bureaucracy has public accountability of a sort. It has to make money or it collapses. So while there is public accountability for many public bureaucracies, who is more accountable, the Post Office or FedEx and UPS?
TP: But in countries—Great Britain for instance—where there’s a public bureaucracy in charge of health, it’s very much an electoral issue and— probably slightly unfairly— the politician in charge will get sacked if something goes wrong. You know, they’ll have to answer questions in parliament like, “I had this problem at the hospital the other day, what are you going to do about it?” So there is some direct accountability.
HM: Absolutely, one hears those stories on PBS. When you expand the role of government, you make it responsible for people’s health or happiness divided into all its different sectors, which leads to people calling on government to do more than it can do— thus bringing it into disrespect. This is, again, all in Tocqueville’s analysis of French democracy in the old regime, which looked for administrative remedies for people’s irrational demands. But then they became responsible for making things better. And once you do that, people will treat you as though you have the responsibility of God.
TP: What is so appealing about Sarah Palin to conservatives?
HM: Well, she’s appealing to me, personally, and I like her. I like her for her enemies mostly. And when she came out on the stage at the Republican convention and referred to her husband as “my guy,” my heart went out to her. What a man always wants to hear … so the feminists hate her.
TP: Do you think that’s what’s responsible for her support among conservatives right now?
HM: And of course her good looks. That doesn’t hurt.
TP: What about her anti-intellectualism?
HM: And of course her anti-intellectualism has played in her favor with many people.
TP: Can one be an intellectual at the same time as a conservative?
HM: There are many intellectuals who are conservatives.
TP: But is there any tension between intellectual conservatives and the popular base of the party, which seems to be attracted to anti-intellectualism?
HM: An intellectual is a tinhorn philosopher who wants to spread philosophy rather than make claims with his own intellect, his working brain, as Marx said— which is a real perversion from the highest use of one’s intellect. But intellectuals are a feature of the modern world which isn’t going to go away, so I think conservatism might need to have intellectuals. Conservatives need alternative policies to the ones liberals propose and for that you need intellectuals, divided into big ideas people and wonks who are good at social science.
TP: Are you implying that the popular base of the conservative movement are anti- intellectual but would be pro-philosopher?
HM: Yeah, that’s right. If they knew a little more— if they were able to be more discriminating in their distrust of the intellectual.
TP: One issue that the conservative base seems to be very passionate about is gay marriage. From your perspective, why should gay marriage be illegal?
HM: A lot of gays, I think, they should be questioning just why they want gay marriage. Indeed, that’s how I would approach the question. It seems to me that the gay person is unconventional. He isn’t like other people entirely— and it’s also a difference that is a misfortune. Not so much a moral wrong, but not to be able to live on intimate terms with the opposite sex and endeavor to be a parent or a good parent is a misfortune. And you see part of the ethos of gays is to flaunt their unconventionality, and in doing so they do perform a good function for liberal society, bringing out the defects of our conventions. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t defend those conventions, such as the convention of marriage, even if those conventions have certain defects and impose considerable restrictions on one’s freedom. Marriage may not be the best idea for some people, but the most common form of human happiness is to be well-married. That’s the easy way to be happy. You don’t have to be “successful.” If you have a good marriage, then that’s success enough. But why would the gays, who pride themselves on their own unconventionality, want to submit to this bourgeois convention? It seems to go against the pride they take in being outlaws.
TP: There seem to be two relatively obvious reasons: tax benefits, from a purely material standpoint, and being able to express love and commitment to a partner. To say in front of a community, in a ritual way: “I am committing that I will not transgress this relationship.”
HM: They could do that without having the support of the law. And indeed that would be the braver and, from a certain point of view, more genuine commitment than one supported by the law—which once you commit to it, you’ll have trouble getting out of. You don’t get out of it scot-free. So they should be asked why they desire to do something really contradictory to their way of life. And also, I do think that marriage needs to focus on children. It’s the way in which our children have their identity.
TP: From a liberal standpoint it seems odd that the state gives tax breaks to people in one kind of relationship and not to people in another kind of relationship.
HM: I do think that tax breaks should be given to the married—and the married shouldn’t include gays—but this is not something that I would go to the barricades for. The conservative view is that those who have children take on a great responsibility in raising the next generation. Gays don’t do it. So it’s a satisfaction that they are missing in their lives. No, it’s not the worst thing in the world to be gay, far from it, there are many worse misfortunes. But it isn’t a life one would choose.
TP: Some people would say that that is why gay people ought to be able to adopt. So they can have the benefit of having children.
HM: Well … then the question is whether that’s good for the children.
TP: Could you give us some examples of how we fail to understand manliness today?
HM: I think that part of the way we fail to understand it is by believing that it’s ephemeral, that it’s something that’ll go away and therefore can be educated out of our children. One of the worst things you see is how white boys are treated in elementary, junior highs and high schools these days. I think that’s a really big problem that Christina Hoff Sommers at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) addresses. She’s written books on the way education now has become feminized partly through the influence of feminism and partly through the influence of psychology, which wants to unbend the bow, make you relax, keep you from being uptight or tense or stressed. Psychology is against stress, but conservatives ought to like stress or have an appreciation for the value of risk. Risk means stress. Stress is the consequence of doing something unusual or remarkable or outstanding or, to use another word, noble. Not that manliness itself equals nobility, but it is a precondition for it, as the willingness to seek out risk and challenge.
TP: Speaking of risk, how much should we blame manliness for the financial crisis?
HM: A lot of excessive things can be blamed on manliness. But do you want a life which is mediocre, which never has any problems? That’s what Democrats want to bring us, our entitlement state. In life, are all of your problems to be solved for you by somebody else? By science or by government or science and government together? Manliness just stands in the way of this “progress,” and it’s for that I mainly defend it— to the extent that I defend it.
TP: What would you say to the thought that your view of manliness is an Homeric as opposed to a Platonic view where andreia becomes a preservation of true belief about what things really are to be feared, which per se looks a lot more like resoluteness. It’s not gendered in any way even if certain people have it more than others.
HM: That’s Heidegger more than Plato. But you’re right, there’s certainly a critique of Homeric manliness by Plato in Plato’s Republic. You could almost say altogether a critique of Achilles, the he-man, from the perspective that judges Greek culture as a whole as too manly. But there is also a Socratic and philosophical manner, a courage to question established beliefs, and to question the value of things which are precious to you and always have been. So that’s very high-level manliness, which is in many ways a contradiction of low-level manliness. Because low-level manliness is not fond of thinking or people who think or poets; it has a bias toward men of action. To get to the high level of manliness you have to be able to rise above, to transcend— something that very few people do.
TP: It might be that in today’s society, given the equality between the sexes, we’re better off trying to approximate to that higher-level manliness.
HM: Well that’s what we do, but in a mediocre way—and mainly through professionalism, or the idea of professionalism. When I was in the army, the sergeants would always address you as “man” and say that in order to be a good soldier you had to be a manly one. That was conveyed in all of their threats and their curses. Whereas now, I think that’s altogether suppressed and it’s all about being a professional. The idea of professionalism is one of the great enemies of manliness. Professionalism is closer to science and rational control instead of temperament; it’s a steady risk aversion for the most part: rule-following, rational behavior. I give the example of the movie Fargo, where all the men are either violent or criminals or totally weak characters. But there’s this professionalism of women police officers. I really think this is a critique of the present situation. The main character’s husband gets up early and makes breakfast for her, and his job is a professional designer of stamps, and at the end of the movie his design for the two cent stamp has been accepted, it’s a big triumph for him. But meanwhile, pregnant as she is, she plods through the movie without any show of courage, but just by following the rules and being sensible— as opposed to all the stupid and erratic men in the movie— does her job successfully. So that’s an example of professionalism as a substitute for manliness.
TP: Do you think a lot of men feel the issue of manliness as a problem in their lives today?
HM: I’m not sure that they would speak of it that way but that’s because the very word “manliness” is under a shadow. But yes, there’s a lot of underground resistance to official feminism, or what I call the gender neutral society.
TP: Who is the most important political philosopher to read today, particularly in America, and why?
HM: Aristotle for his wisdom, Locke for his relevance. Aristotle is very wise. Anytime anything comes up, it’s always good to consult his opinion. But he’s not very relevant to our times because we don’t live in a polis—not that his horizon was limited by the polis, but it isn’t something that we have before us today. Whereas Locke is, I think, the most balanced, most moderate, modern philosopher. Also quite close to America because, actually, some of his words are borrowed for the Declaration of Independence, including the idea that a long train of abuses is the trigger for resistance against government, and also his sober constitutionalism, and his combined argument for toleration and for property. Toleration as free speech—that is the freedom that appeals most to our intellectuals; and property as free enterprise—which is the freedom that speaks to our businessmen. Somehow the elite in our liberal society is divided into intellectuals and businessmen. This division happened after Locke, but he, in a way, is the founder of conservatism. He is the founder of both conservatives and liberals, the two groups in our elite, which criticize and sometimes hate each other.
TP: Does Locke or any other political philosopher speak to a specific problem or particular set of problems in political life today?
HM: Sure. Aristotle, for example, speaks in defense of politics, and that’s something that we very much need. His discussion is really rather modern because he contrasts a political understanding of things, an understanding which emphasizes man’s freedom and nobility, with a philosophy of determinism, which he expresses either as a disembodied philosophy, or a merely money-making philosophy—somehow those two are linked. This is in the first book of the Politics. And this is still an important consideration today. What kinds of things do we need to think in order to sustain our freedom and especially how can we sustain it against science— which seems to want to control us or to offer itself as an instrument of control by some human beings over others? Perhaps science is the greatest potential enemy of freedom today.
TP: Would you share a concern that Leon Kass has expressed, that there may be an inverse correlation between scientific progress and moral progress?
HM: Yes, although that’s not something that we can totally lift away. It’s not possible to live in a modern society and totally to despise or oppose science. It’s everywhere. And it’s both the way we understand things theoretically and also practically, through technology. So Apple comes out with something new— you can’t treat that as the devil incarnate.
TP: You mentioned earlier that there are different regimes in Aristotle and also in Plato. What kind of regime do you think America is now? In principle and in fact?
HM: A kind of moderate democracy. You could call it, in the older sense, a mixed regime. Because it’s, as Tocqueville would say, a democracy through and through. But then that’s because the democracy is the only public principle, and as a principle it can never be challenged. So any time you try to qualify democracy or introduce something unequal, you always have to do it in terms of what is equal or offers an advantage to equality or something democratic. But in fact there are many features of American society that aren’t just all Western liberal democracy. For example, the amount of one man rule is really quite amazing. Our American republic was established against the monarchy, as the republic versus the monarchy. But right at the beginning, the idea of a strong, single executive took hold in the Constitutional Convention, and the fact that we have a strong president in a republic— America was the first republic to have a strong executive— has I think much increased our reputation and success, and has had a big effect on our private life and business when we see the amount of attention someone like Obama gets. And every institution—even universities now— has one man in charge. And the democratic justification for that is that one person is more accountable than a committee because a committee can just blame each other. If there’s just one man, he has to take the credit or the blame.
TP: Some critics would say that America is more like an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy.
HM: There’s a lot of truth in that. The U.S. is oligarchic in the amount of inequality which we take for granted. People tend to attack the kind they don’t profit from, so intellectuals attack economic inequality and forget that they have above-average access to newspapers and TV and internet and so on.
TP: Do you think there’s a certain amount of inequality that’s toxic to a democracy?
HM: Sure, that needs to be a concern for a stable and successful democracy. And I would say that our CEOs are way overpaid. It’s one thing if you invented something new, or some terrific service. But Bill Gates and Warren Buffett— that’s a totally unnecessary quantity. To get millions of dollars and to become a multi-multi-millionaire, just because you’re a CEO of a company, doesn’t seem in our interests.
TP: To liberals, conservatism can often seem like a justification for selfishness or the satisfaction of individual economic interests. We were wondering what resources you see conservatism as offering for curbing excessive individualism, which is also something that Tocqueville was very concerned about in the American experience.
HM: One of the things to talk about is associations, free associations, private associations—not just business corporations but also including them—as ways for free individuals to become strong. The trouble with libertarians is that they assume that an individual as such is strong and can make his own decisions, but when Tocqueville used the word “individualism” he meant something bad, something to worry about. What it meant was a tendency in democracy to let the government run things and withdraw into your own life, private life, family and friends, under the assumption that one person cannot do anything by himself. It is because each individual alone is weak that Tocqueville mentions that democracy seems greatly to strengthen the people. Added up they’re a huge force, but divided into individuals, each is powerless against the masses of things. So associations and so on are one way around this, but so are other things Tocqueville mentions, like decorum and formalities, such as due process, which apply not only to the judiciary but to all of government. And things like manners are good too, forms of etiquette or conventions in general; here’s where we ought to go back to Burke to support conventions of politeness that shouldn’t be laughed at, although they often are. Because democracy does have this burlesque tendency to dislike anything which delays immediate enjoyment of what you want. But it’s a better, more human and more proven life, if there are formalities which slow you down, which give you time to reflect.
There’s a very interesting book by Arthur Brooks, the new head of AEI—an economist, but a rather thoughtful economist— called Who Really Cares. Brooks points out that liberals, for all their profession of caring for other people, give much less to charity than do conservatives. He cites one finding that the city of San Francisco has about the same population as the state of North Dakota. But San Francisco is very liberal, very rich, compared to North Dakota, which is much poorer and more conservative. And North Dakota gives twice the amount to charities as San Francisco does in a year. Nor is this just a matter of money; it also applies to volunteer activity such as giving blood, which you don’t have to be very rich to do. So he begins to speculate—perhaps not carrying it far enough—that the reason is that liberals believe in justice and to them justice crowds out other virtues such as generosity or charity or Aristotelian virtue, or being Christian. And liberals criticize people who give, because it makes you feel too good; it gives you a warm glow and it makes you fond of yourself, as if you were worth more than the person to whom you’re giving. So it’s better and more equal and more egalitarian to make it all compulsory and take it away from the rich through taxes, rather than allowing them to exercise their voluntary choice of not giving their money to things that they personally don’t think worth doing. So I guess one thing conservatives can do is to emphasize other virtues besides justice, since justice in our democratic age seems to be understood as an egalitarian impulse.
TP: Should virtue be a goal of politics in your view? Given the huge difference in individual understanding of the good life today, is it really plausible that we can have a virtue-based politics in America?
HM: It seems like conservatives are more comfortable using the word “virtue” than liberals are. And somehow conservatives are both for virtue and for money. If you like a whole lot of money or if you like virtue, you’re probably conservative. How to put those two together …
TP: … is the big question. How those two came together historically is not exactly obvious.
HM: It’s striking, isn’t it?