Dec 1, 2012

Harvey Mansfield and Americanization, Europeanization, and Whatever...Also a Picture of a Little Girl Riding a Dinosaur

The Wall Street Journal today has an interesting weekend interview called "The Crisis in American Self-Government" with Harvey Mansfield, a government/political science professor at Harvard.  He's well known for giving students their 'official' inflated grades and their 'unofficial' grades that he would give them if Harvard had no grade inflation.  So, he hands out unofficial C-minuses like candy.

"This blog deserves a gentleman's C-"

Mansfield is kind of a token conservative voice at Harvard.  He's also their token defender of the classical Western canon of thought (Greek philosophy, Christian lit, Enlightenment writings).

I wrote a few years ago about meeting Prof. Mansfield while I was a college student:

Flash forward to college. I had but recently turned 21, and I was attending a dinner at the Quad Club at the University of Chicago, in honor of Harvey Mansfield and his book Manliness (I know, right?). The Quad Club is pretty swank, and, naturally, there was but one choice of beverage besides water: wine....I spent the dinner talking with a professor of mine and listening to the Committee on Social Thought debate...and drinking wine. I have no idea what the conversation was about; I remember wanting to know more about wine.

Looking back again, I do remember a bit about the tenor of the conversation, though not much of its substance. Mansfield was there at the invitation of Nathan Tarcov (and others, presumably).  He seemed as though he wanted nothing more than to enjoy some company and a meal.  All the University of Chicago people clearly wanted to have a symposium on Manliness.  Talk about a subject that gets people up in arms!  Like a sad pincushion, Mansfield eventually resigned himself to taking their barbs and answering their questions.

One thing that struck me then and strikes me now in his arguments is the "self-government of the soul."  That is, the notion that, for a democratic system to function, the people must act as checks on themselves.  Not in concert, mind you, but within themselves.  The individuals within a body politick must be enlightened and wise, so their votes are not cast on mere whim (who is most handsome, who said something that you thought was funny), but on a serious understanding of the arguments being made and choice voters face.  Democracy depends on the people not being drones or morons.  Mansfield's argument is that

[w]e have to take measures to teach the poor and vulnerable to become a little more independent and to prize independence, and not just live for a government check. That means self-government within each self, and where are you going to get that except with morality, responsibility and religion.

Besides the notion of people simply living for a government check (which some do, I'm sure, but not all; it's a bit of a cop-out to addressing more substantive issues on those voters' minds), I think he leaves out 'education' in that list, which is a quintessential need for understanding government and its role on society.  But these are things, whether you like them or not, that a system like ours must have to survive.  He thinks that the American, constitutional, amendable rule-of-law system is being overtaken by a quasi-European, cultural, unchangeable welfare state mentality.  Basically, that a constitutional system is changeable based on people's preferences, but an entrenched entitlement system is not changeable.  It doesn't seem to address, however, the issue of people wanting the entitlement system.  Maybe it's not changeable because people like it?

But I guess that's his argument against government checks.  It's that, when given money by the government, people lose a bit of that self-governing within, because the external impetus of cash overwhelms the internal sense of responsibility and independence.  Hmm.  Sounds like that famous sentiment attributed to Ben Franklin or Alexis de Toqueville or some guy named Alexander Fraser Tytler:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

Mansfield also believes that there is a difference between American and European students; that Americans are trained by their families and the culture of the States to be ambitious and to think big, while the European system trains students to think small, stunting their ambitions.  Now, I don't know how much of that is simply American hubris coming through, but I can see a bit of truth to it.  The American culture is a far more liberal one, in a classical sense.  The average American worker will change professions (not just jobs, but professions) something like six times.  We have an interdisciplinary notion of work, where many things connect, many things help qualify us for other careers, and ideas in use in one industry regularly cross over to others.  The European model, where you train for a single career from the time you're in secondary school, is far more rigid, and therefore, presumably, far less open to change and creativity.  Of course, I have no experience with the European system.  Maybe I'm just full of American hubris too.

Because all that is very heady and it's a Saturday, I'll take a step back from the academy now.  Here's a picture I drew yesterday of a little girl dreaming about riding a T-Rex:

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