Grab a Whip and a Chair


Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power, by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., New York: The Free Press, 358 pages, $24.95

Harvey Mansfield's inquiry into the nature of executive power poses a disturbing challenge for political theory. If Mansfield is right, classical liberals (along with many others) have some tough thinking to do about the sufficiency of the rule of law.

Taming the Prince explores the largely ignored territory of the ambivalence or ambiguity of modern executive power. The executive—especially the American president—is both subordinate to and independent of the legislature. Consider the ordinary sense of the term executive as the office that "executes" the laws made by others. On the surface the executive is said to follow the "will of the people," strictly as an agent. But the executive is also an independent political power in his own right, in ways that go beyond the enumerated powers to veto, command the military, and so forth. Remember, in the presidential oath the executive promises to execute the office of president, not merely the laws.

Beyond the consideration of the formal and informal aspects of political executives, Mansfield makes a serious philosophical argument about executive power: Strong executive power is necessary because the rule of the law is incomplete or insufficient without it. The implication is that nonarbitrary politics is inherently impossible. Executive power, says Mansfield, is "intended to secure the difference between free government and tyranny by giving the former some of the power and techniques of the latter." Moreover, this necessity—and the true nature of executive power—must be concealed. Another way of thinking about this would be to say that the executive is the point of tension between the theory and practice of politics.

We should derive little comfort from the fact that the modern executive has been republicanized and constitutionalized. The American president "claims the silences of the Constitution" (Richard Pious's phrase in The American President) and so is "above the law," not in the sense of being exempt from it, but in the sense of transcending it. Although libertarian theorists such as F.A. Hayek identify executive administration as the "gap" through which a people's liberty may be driven out, Hayek and others view executive power in the same way as judicial power—as being merely instrumental to the rule of law.

For theorists such as Hayek, legislative power is the keystone to the rule of law and successful politics. For Mansfield, executive power is the keystone to the rule of law and successful politics. In light of Mansfield's powerful argument, libertarians need to confront and "tame" executive power for themselves.

The greater part of Taming the Prince is a sweeping survey of the evolution of the idea of executive power, beginning with Aristotle, who had no explicit theory of executive power. Aristotle's political science aims to discover the one "best regime" according to nature, which would promulgate the attainment of human excellence—human excellence being understood as the perfection of the virtues outlined in the Nicomachean Ethics. Such a regime might be founded and governed through the "kingship over all" by the man or men of superior excellence and virtue. But Aristotle, unlike Plato in the Republic, knows that such a ruler is unlikely ever to be found. Thus, Aristotle concentrates on improving actual regimes, which is to be done through the rule of law and the pursuit of justice.

Mansfield's account perks up when he arrives at Machiavelli. Mansfield is among those political theorists who see Machiavelli as the decisive break in Western political thought. Machiavelli rejects the Aristotelian notion that there can be a best regime according to nature. For Machiavelli, the flaw of classical political science is that it sets its aims too high by seeking to achieve justice and human excellence. Better, Machiavelli teaches, to lower the sights of the regime and abandon the pretense of justice. If there is no best regime according to nature, no objective claim to justice, then politics will always be an imposition and a fraud, and all rule will be tyrannical to a greater or lesser degree.

For Machiavelli, the rule of law cannot attain what it attempts; for a regime to succeed—and Machiavelli wants a regime to succeed grandly—outside assistance is needed, in the form of a strong-willed, unscrupulous prince. The purpose of Machiavelli's executive, says Mansfield, is to remind men of their fear. Machiavelli thought the strong, amoral prince could conquer chance or fortune, which, for Aristotle, was the factor that made the one best regime unlikely to be founded or preserved. Paradoxically, Machiavelli's regime of the strong prince would be much more likely to promote both human excellence and justice, albeit a more modest form of excellence and justice.

The remaining history of the doctrine of executive power consists in "taming" or "domesticating" this ruthless prince so as to make the executive palatable within liberal constitutional regimes, which aim at preserving and enhancing individual liberty. Mansfield traces this taming process at length through Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and The Federalist. For Hobbes, Locke, and the social-contract school, individuals are free and equal in the state of nature, but their self-preservation requires government. Recall Hobbes's memorable line that life in the state of nature without government would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Locke brings us what might be called the sanitized version of Machiavelli's strong prince in the form of "executive prerogative," which Locke understands as the power to do public good without a rule—a power Locke admits to be arbitrary. Together with Montesquieu and the American Founders, Locke developed the doctrine of the separation of powers, which further "republicanizes" executive power.

Mansfield is an open admirer of strong executives, and he believes only strong executives can direct a nation toward its chosen ends. His models are Roosevelt and Reagan, and although he says an executive must be principled to succeed, Mansfield as a political scientist is neutral as to what those principles should be. In fact, he makes it clear in his conclusion that he views principles as merely instrumental to political success.

Executive power has always been a troubling feature of politics, not just for ordinary liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (The Imperial Presidency), but also for true partisans of liberty such as Robert Higgs, whose Crisis and Leviathan traces the way activist executives have used periods of crisis both to expand permanently the power of the state and to curtail individual liberty. Machiavelli might well have approved of these aggrandizements of the American state. But if Mansfield is right that executive power is the keystone to politics, then libertarians need to think hard about how to square a regime of individual liberty based on the rule of law with the executive power "to do public good without a rule."

The answer to this may seem disconcerting. Libertarian political theory, especially that of Hayek and Nozick, would appear to be designed within the lowered horizon of post-Machiavellian political philosophy as adapted by Hobbes and Locke, which stresses the protection of individual rights through limited government. But by combining the liberal understanding of limited government with the recent insights into the nature of free markets, libertarian political theory is rather more Aristotelian than anyone has explicitly noticed. It aims for a substantive, nonarbitrary outcome—in a word, justice. Libertarians believe they have the design for the best regime according to nature.

The pure libertarian theory of the self-regulating spontaneous order of free individuals bounded only by a body of law based on natural right and free exchange is, however, inadequate without executive power. So we must tame executive power for libertarian purposes, as Machiavelli would put it. Alas, this probably cannot be done through constitutional means or in theory, but instead requires politics. In other words, only executives who understand the importance of the minimalist state will do. If this seems daunting, remember that Machiavelli would probably say that libertarian political science, like Aristotelian political science, sets its aims too high. To this charge we should cheerfully plead guilty, even as we go about the difficult task of taming our princes with the doctrines of liberty.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Project.