Sanchez or Mansfield: Who's Manlier?


It's not getting a ton of attention, but Harvey Mansfield's essay on the founders and their desire to make the president all-powerful is the kind of apologism that was getting creaky two, even three years ago. Blogging at The Economist's "Democracy in America" blog, Reasonoid Julian Sanchez picks up a Mansfield-shaped pinata and gives it a good thwacking.

Even taking into account that intellectual history is Mr Mansfield's bailiwick, the entire discussion feels airily disconnected from the contemporary wrangling over the scope of presidential authority that he purports to address. It is as if Mansfield, in the desultory manner of the muttering, slightly batty uncle who makes family reunions so awkward, had taken a discussion of tax policy as an occasion to launch into an extended discourse on Hobbes' account of the emergence of political authority from the state of nature. Aristotle's rather abstract critique of the rule of law may be as insightful as his analysis of eudaemonia, or (as it will doubtless seem to Hayekian eyes) as naive as his theory that birds can be impregnated by the wind. But it is not enormously helpful when it comes to resolving particular questions about the scope of executive authority in the contemporary American context: May the president unilaterally declare certain persons "enemy combatants" and detain them indefinitely? May he bypass the ample emergency procedures written into the law itself in order to authorize wiretaps without judicial oversight? I can imagine Machiavelli's answer; I doubt it should also be ours.

Sanchez is guesting at the blog all week. 

NEXT: Friday Funnies

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  1. I want to give Harvey Mansfield a good John Wayne punch to show him I’m more manly than him.

  2. Gotta disagree.

    The tendency to focus on the minutaie of policy and avoid discussion of first principles is one of the failings of contemporary political debates.

    Mansfield’s actual argument may be all wet, but Sanchez is also wrong. The whole problem we’re having is that NOT ENOUGH people approach issues the way the crazy uncle does.

  3. I’d be willing to give a tax-free status to worshipping of the Founding Fathers if we all will admit that it really is a kind of religion.

  4. It still kind of gets to me when these guys just come out and say we need a Strong Man to lead us. Usually it’s more subtle with codewords and winks and the like. This should be a fringe opinion in the land of the free but he’s on the WSJ and I’m posting a comment on a blog.

    I’d think wingers would see President Hillary Clinton coming down the pike and would get off this President = God Emperor above and outside the law thing.

  5. Is it possible to have a manliness contest between a guy named Harvey and a guy name Julian?

  6. From Mansfield’s piece: This is not the first time that a strong executive has been attacked and defended, and it will not be the last. Our Constitution, as long as it continues, will suffer this debate–I would say, give rise to it, preside over and encourage it. Though I want to defend the strong executive, I mainly intend to step back from that defense to show why the debate between the strong executive and its adversary, the rule of law, is necessary, good and–under the Constitution–never-ending.

    Sounds quite reasonable to me.

    When the current consequences of a policy are against you, pound constitutional doctrine. When constitutional doctrine is against you, pound the current consequences. When the current consequences and constitutional doctrine are both against you, make a pinata and pound that.

  7. The case for a strong executive should begin from a study […] of the American republic. The American republic was the first to have a strong executive that was intended to be republican as well as strong, and the success, or long life, of America’s Constitution qualifies it as a possible model for other countries.

    Wow! First paragraph after the introduction, and Mansfield is already begging the question.

    And Sanchez is mas macho.

  8. “Now the rule of law has two defects, each of which suggests the need for one-man rule. The first is that law is always imperfect by being universal, thus an average solution even in the best case, that is inferior to the living intelligence of a wise man on the spot, who can judge particular circumstances. This defect is discussed by Aristotle in the well-known passage in his “Politics” where he considers “whether it is more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or the best laws.” ”

    And Mansfield (in company with so many others) succumbs to the patently false assumption that good and wise men are not only attracted to power, but will be successful in getting elected. The restraints of the Law over the individual (power-mad) President exist specifically to protect us from the independent judgements of the President that he should be the Decider of what is good for us.

    The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal is comprised of a bunch of hysterical cowards and National Socialists.

  9. This should be a fringe opinion in the land of the free but he’s on the WSJ and I’m posting a comment on a blog.

    Mansfield’s essay just might be a coded suck-up to his new boss-to-be, Rupert Murdoch.

  10. I can’t believe people still argue this way. Local knowledge? Distributed intelligence? Great men actually holding office? Helloo?

  11. Taken as a whole, Mansfield’s piece seems disingenuous. He argues that the Constitution formalized the idea of certain executive prerogatives, but none of the examples he gives pertain to the way Bush has been busting the envelope in the GWOT. Likewise, he makes a case for why a viable republic needs a “strong” executive, but he never explains what he means by “strong.” Third, his paragraphs about the executive’s sense of “responsibility” and most people’s admiration for “strong” leaders are totally woolly.

  12. [Warning: pedantry ahead]
    I think that Sanchez needs to reread his Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a big fan of the equitable rule of law.

    Unless of course, he was just referencing the colloquial use of Machiavelli’s name.

  13. Sanchez,

    Machiavelli is transformed into a kind of patron saint of American political thought, providing Mr Mansfield with an occasion to litter his piece with superfluous Italian.

    I take it that you’ve never read JGA Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment?

  14. The more I read commentary on this essay, the more I’m convinced that Mark Kleiman is right: the essay is Straussian misdirection. Summary: Mansfield is a Straussian, which means he believes that writers often have to hide their points in times of trouble. A smart writer will seem to defend the position he actually opposes, but do so in such a way that those not already committed to the position will see how reprehensible it is.

  15. I’d think wingers would see President Hillary Clinton coming down the pike and would get off this President = God Emperor above and outside the law thing.

    But see, if you attain absolute power, you don’t need to worry about the Dems wielding it, because there won’t be another presidential election that means anything. More than anything, that’s what I’m terrified of: that Republican claims to massive powers for the president, if granted, will lead to the presidency 1) continually gaining more powers, and 2) being in Republican hands forever. I don’t think this is what will actually happen, but part of the reason that transfers of power between the parties happen so peacefully is that not that much is at stake. If everything is at stake, then you can’t risk losing. This is the not-so-hidden danger in a broad reading of executive power.

  16. There’s still plenty of time for the current administration to arrest the traitors in Congress and cancel the next election in the interest of security.

    Then Bush can rule through a rump, “Long Congress” until Jenna or Babs (maybe one will have the other assassinated or sent into exile) is ready to take the reins.

    Naah. There’s no one in the current administration who’s half the man that the Lord Protector was.

  17. There’s no one in the current administration who’s half the man that the Lord Protector was.

    You got that right. But it’s probably a good thing.

  18. Rimfax,

    More importantly Machiavelli was obsessed with how republics are founded and stay together; in particular how blood loyalties and the like can be overcome (given the history of his own city that isn’t surprising). The “founders” were also obsessed with how a stable republic is founded, and they drew in part on the broad Machiavellian lessons which had been much discussed in that Atlantic world prior to the American Revolution.

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