Thursday, January 22, 2015

Harvey Mansfield on Democrats

The chaps at the Manhattan Institute have signed up conservative Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield to write a two-parter on our national political parties. Mansfield starts with the Democrats in "Our Parties, Part One."

This creates a good opportunity for me to match my rather wild and crazy ideas against a man who is rather less wild and crazy, if still conservative.

Mansfield begins by noting that the Democrats are increasingly liberal, and think of themselves as progressive, while the Republicans are increasingly conservative. The two parties and the two philosophies face themselves as opponents. The parties and their philosophies are how we divide ourselves.

So, for Mansfield, our politics reduces into progress, for and against. Liberals and Democrats are for progress, and conservatives and Republicans are against it.
On progress, an interesting problem appears in the facts of American politics: on the one hand, progressives keep gaining their point, the latest one being the growing success of same-sex marriage; on the other hand, their opponents keep resisting progress, own half the electorate, and win half the elections.
That's why liberals are so enraged by conservatives: they don't understand why "reactionaries" continue to oppose them. Perhaps there is something "permanent in the nature of politics about resistance to progress that sustains conservatives".

Actually, I don't agree that liberals are progressives and conservatives are reactionaries. I believe the opposite is true.

For liberals progress is progress towards equality, and there are always "fresh inequalities requiring reform." Since conservatism is a critique of liberalism, that puts conservatives in a tricky position. But where will equality find an end? That is what is implied in the notion of progress, yet progress never seems to know where that end might be.

But liberals are also all in favor of democracy, and therein lies a problem.
The idea of progress is caught between democratic majority rule, which often sanctions inequality and requires stable institutions, and its own formless drive toward ever-increasing equality. 
But what happens if the majority votes for inequality? Marx calls that "false consciousness". What about liberals?

The fact is, according to Mansfield, that progress gets liberals in a complete tangle. They say that they are in favor of progress and reason and science, but what does science tell us about equality? What do its experts tell us? And anyway, liberals have moved away from reason, calling it "anti-foundational," so liberalism has become relativistic, except where its own foundational beliefs are concerned.

Liberals use science to justify their government by experts --  which goes against the grain of the expertise of the generation of Adam Smith -- and in due course the experts like Lord Keynes said that bigger government was better, reversing the early idea of progress that bourgeois morality and government frugality was better.

With economics enlisted in the cause of progress it wasn't long before social sciences like psychology and sociology joined the cause, casting the poor as vulnerable, transforming politics into the care and feeding of the vulnerable and overstressed. In any case, progressive politics is designed to be irreversible. Politics becomes the common good of entitled benefits rather than "sharing and cooperating in a common life." This makes life less social, creating a "kiudgeocracy," a "clumsy, complex, incoherent means of administering law" that are minimally effective but maximally clumsy.

Mansfield thinks that "In sum, progressive government is increasingly responsible for our lives and will increasingly be held to account by a generally ungrateful citizenry", because we take its benefits for granted but complain loudly when it fails us. And the problem is that the entitlements are based on borrowing, and the costs have been consistently hidden from the beneficiaries.

The point is that the notion of progress has contradicted itself. It said it was a rule of reason to banish unreason and superstition, but now it has lost faith in itself by failing to say what its progress consists in.

Mansfield's hope is that "multicultural, entitled progress" is not the only progress America has known. There is the only progress of the founding, that "made a place for virtue and was accompanied by virtue."

My problem with all this is that it gives liberals too much credit. I don't concede that the liberals have a coherent world view. I go straight to the postmodern idea that all political thought is a narrative for power. The point about "progress" is that it demands government action. The point about "inequality" is that it requires government action. And look, here we are, the progressives, ready, willing and able to deploy the power of government to deliver on progress, on inequality, on whatever. The genius of Marx was to set all this in motion with the idea that we needed to overthrow the bourgeoisie in bloody revolution, because exploitation.

I am saying that all the talk about progress and science and equality is merely an apology for power. There must be a need for government power, otherwise there is no need for a progressive educated elite, and there is also no need for battalions of scientists and activists and bureaucrats. There must be entitlements and free education and free school lunches and tax cuts for the middle class because that is how every ruling class looks after its supporters. The reason that Harvey Mansfield finds the progressive doctrine incoherent is that the idea of progress, of reason, of science, is not supposed to fit into any coherent world view. It is all just meant to justify the deployment of government power on behalf of the progressive ruling class. That is all.

And I contest the idea that progress is progress. The one coherent thing about the Marxists, the Fabians, the Progressives, the Social Democrats, the liberals, is that they are not looking to the future; they want to return to a nostalgic past, the past of primitive communism, the past of feudal paternalism, the past of proper and permanent hierarchy.

The one consistent thing about the left is this. It has always traded on the fear of the modern world and its requirement that every man submit to the will of the market, that every citizen become a responsible individual that lives to serve others that he may serve himself.

To understand the modern world we have to start from this truth, that the modern world, for all its wealth and comforts, is in reality terrifying. It sets everyone to work. It puts everyone at the mercy of the market. It forces everyone to subordinate his prosperity to the needs of others. No wonder that the story of the last 200 years has been one lefty reaction after another that seeks to promise a frightened populace that it will lead it to safety under the wing of big government and force the world to yield a competence.

But there is something more terrifying than the market. It is big government. Big government is like any great army and its military plan of conquest. It enlists gullible young men in its army and then marches them to death. At the end of it the conquerors may conquer, or they may fail in bloody defeat.

No worries for the officer corps, of course. The Napoleon will surely survive if his plan succeeds and likely survive if his plan ends in miserable defeat. But the soldiers, or the entitlement beneficiaries, will not be so lucky. They will likely be left by the roadside, as Napoleon's army was left on the retreat from Moscow. Too bad for them.

There must be a better way, something more modern and compassionate than the reactionary plan of progress. But first we must read what Harvey Mansfield has to say in "The Parties, Part Two."

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