Harvey Mansfield, contra American democracy

I’d heard of Harvey Mansfield before. He’s somewhat popular in American academic circles for giving “ironic grades” to his students as a way to combat grade inflation—he gives a real grade (usually a low C) and then an ironic grade (usually a B or A) that goes onto the transcript. This way his students know they don’t deserve the higher grade they are getting.

He’s a Harvard professor of political science and a conservative. Usually, when I hear “Harvard” and “conservative,” I assume that it means “progressive by the standards of 1950.”

But then, prompted by Spengler’s latest article, I did some more searching and found this excellent interview with him from the Wall Street Journal. If you’re not acquainted with Mansfield, you’ll be surprised that someone at Harvard is not only a real conservative but a reactionary, anti-democratic one:

The political task before every generation, Mr. Mansfield understood, is to “defend the good kind of democracy. And to do that you have to be aware of human differences and inequalities, especially intellectual inequalities.”

American elites today prefer to dismiss the “unchangeable, undemocratic facts” about human inequality, he says. Progressives go further: “They think that the main use of liberty is to create more equality. They don’t see that there is such a thing as too much equality. They don’t see limits to democratic equalizing”—how, say, wealth redistribution can not only bankrupt the public fisc but corrupt the national soul.

“Americans take inequality for granted,” Mr. Mansfield says. The American people frequently “protect inequalities by voting not to destroy or deprive the rich of their riches. They don’t vote for all measures of equalization, for which they get condemned as suffering from false consciousness. But that’s true consciousness because the American people want to make democracy work, and so do conservatives. Liberals on the other hand just want to make democracy more democratic.”

Equality untempered by liberty invites disaster, he says. “There is a difference between making a form of government more like itself,” Mr. Mansfield says, “and making it viable.” Pushed to its extremes, democracy can lead to “mass rule by an ignorant, or uncaring, government.”


5 responses

  1. Mansfield is a pretty big Straussian, i.e. neocon, i.e. perhaps wants a few modifications to the Cathedral (like some new counter tops or carpet) but probably no substantial changes. He might talk about inequality in the abstract, but if you presented him with HBD, I suspect he would react with righteous indignation, as did his buddy Leon Kass (http://www.vdare.com/posts/james-d-watson-vs-leon-kass?page=6). I get the sense that Straussians are pro-Cathedral; they just prefer the older drapes and carpet.

    October 24, 2013 at 4:52 am

    • I’m sorry to hear that. I would think that his belief in the naturalness of inequality would not pair well with neoconservatism, which believes that underneath every exterior is a freedom-loving SWPL waiting to be born.

      October 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      • I think that is a bit of a caricature of neo-conservatism. A bit, at least. I read Neuhaus for years. For every one waving of his proggie bona fides (marching with MLK, etc.), there were at least 10 substantive putdowns of the equalitarian zeitgeist. They aren’t that wrong… and that’s wut makes ’em so dangerous.

        October 24, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      • Indeed. I think they believe in the superiority of Western culture, which is why they want everyone to adopt it. The body count is just birthing pains as far as they’re concerned.

        October 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

  2. Pushed to its extremes, democracy can lead to “mass rule by an ignorant, or uncaring, government.”

    Can? CAN??!!!! (“Did” is the word you’re looking for, Sir.)
    Or? OR??!!!! (“And” is the word you’re looking for, Sir.)

    October 24, 2013 at 9:32 pm

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