May 03, 2007

Gracchi elsewhere

I've just posted a critique of an article by Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in favour of a strong executive. I hope its an interesting article!


ashok said...

I'm probably not going to do a very good job defending Dr. Mansfield, but as you cite your teachers in attacking him, I'd better at least try.

The argument about Locke and the English Civil War you advance says that since all parties in society said that the law was violated, questions of power can be seen to be entirely within the framework of the rule of law. To this end, you say that Locke and the Federalist are concerned with those narrower questions stemming from how people in their time conceived the debate.

What you miss is how loaded every single sentence Mansfield writes is. If you know Locke and Federalist, you can see that the notion of the "one" comes up time and time again. He's not making this up - it's coming right from the text, as if Locke and the Federalist are not bound by how their peers conceive of them.

As long as I choose to fight you on grounds of history, I'm going to lose this argument. The reason why is that you have an inexhaustible source of third-rate argumentation. I can always say stuff like "we didn't find so-and-so in someone's bookshelf or letters, so we don't know if he read them or not, we do know what the Parliamentary debate was like though."

But if I shift the grounds of the argument to "what is the more pressing question," I can put you in a spot. In this case, you've decided the most pressing question is saying that Harvey is wrong because his history isn't yours, since he goes to the texts themselves and not what other people say about the texts. (I'm not saying that to be nasty, btw, that's the purpose of historicism, to tell me what Locke and the Federalist think relative to immediate context, not relative to the questions and ideas they engage).

Harvey puts the question directly and beautifully, and it is a hard-hitting question you want to dodge, for good reason - liberals don't quite realize anymore how much illiberal stuff had to happen in order to get democracy. Unfortunately, there's a whole realm of academic debate independent of Straussian thought and closer to historicist thought which you seem unaware of, which does address the question on Harvey's terms. Corwin's work on the Executive puts it as bluntly as he does: Is the Executive defined by emergency ("tyrannical") power, or is he defined by the rule of law simply?

What's interesting is how you ignore the fact that while people are yelling about the rule of law breaking down in England, and blaming each other, society is in tatters. Your own history points to this - Locke did get exiled, the climate was one of paranoia and openly subversive and murderous acts. To imply, as you do, that debating the "rule of law" is a necessary and sufficient condition for a free society is to ignore why the tyrannical question has to come up with serious thinkers.

Pocock is fundamentally not serious. Read the last chapter of Machivellian Moment again, where he literally says that because all we could conceive of were republics until now, we were somehow less as a people or something. He places all his stock in "progress," like as if our ancestors had nothing to say of value, or were limited by their time. I'm gonna say this once and for all: before you knock my teachers for not knowing history, look at your teachers and ask if they give a damn about other people's opinions. You have to reconstruct the best possible argument someone could make, not just say "we know Machiavelli thought X because everyone else around his time said X."

Also, I love how you say that the power of acting out of necessity is reserved in the US Constitution. Given that we have a concept of God being constrained and defined by the Laws ascribed to him, how on earth can law ever fully take into account necessity?

Please reread Thucydides. You are not attuned to the strongest possible way these questions could be framed, and are thinking idle gossip can refute the very framework of the questions. I'm being harsh because you're a seriously nice guy, and you mean well, and you should have the best ideas and information before you, and not be constrained by what literally are the faults of your teachers. Harvey is problematic, I'll concede that - I have criticisms of his take on Tocqueville, and his manliness thing I have a few quibbles with. But he's putting the debate forward in the best way right now, in the way anyone, with historical knowledge or not, could participate.