The Quiet Man

It’s not like I’m an authority, but I could probably name 20 big-time faculty members out of all of Harvard University.

But I couldn’t name him:

‘We have now an American political party and a European one. Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans. But it doesn’t matter because that’s what they’re voting for. They’re voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency.”

Few have thought as hard, or as much, about how democracies can preserve individual liberty and national virtue as the eminent political scientist Harvey Mansfield. When it comes to assessing the state of the American experiment in self-government today, his diagnosis is grim, and he has never been one to mince words.

Mr. Mansfield sat for an interview on Thursday at the Harvard Faculty Club. This year marks his 50th as a teacher at the university. It isn’t easy being the most visible conservative intellectual at an institution that has drifted ever further to the left for a half-century. “I live in a one-party state and very much more so a one-party university,” says the 80-year-old professor with a sigh. “It’s disgusting. I get along very well because everybody thinks the fact that I’m here means the things I say about Harvard can’t be true. I am a kind of pet—a pet dissenter.”

He had me at “disgusting”. Actually, he had me at “We have now an American political party and a European one.” But despite the fact that I’ve lived in Boston for almost 20 years and Mansfield has been at Harvard for 50, I’ve never heard of him.

Yet once one has heard of him, one begins to understand why one hasn’t:

“All modern social science deals with perceptions,” he says, “but that is a misnomer because it neglects to distinguish between perceptions and misperceptions.”

Consider voting. “You can count voters and votes,” Mr. Mansfield says. “And political science does that a lot, and that’s very useful because votes are in fact countable. One counts for one. But if we get serious about what it means to vote, we immediately go to the notion of an informed voter. And if you get serious about that, you go all the way to voting as a wise choice. That would be a true voter. The others are all lesser voters, or even not voting at all. They’re just indicating a belief, or a whim, but not making a wise choice. That’s probably because they’re not wise.”

Nothing wrong with saying that—or there shouldn’t be. Those of us who helped reelect George Bush in 2004, after voting against him in 2000 (you’re welcome), were told how unwise we were every day. Maybe we were, but I have a two-word refutation: President Kerry.

Cat got your tongue?

Back to Professor Mansfield:

Harvey Mansfield Jr. was born in 1932 in New Haven, Conn. His parents were staunch New Dealers, and while an undergraduate at Harvard Mr. Mansfield counted himself a liberal Democrat.

Next came a Fulbright year in London and a two-year stint in the Army. “I was never in combat,” he says. “In fact I ended up in France for a year, pulling what in the Army they call ‘good duty’ at Orléans, which is in easy reach of Paris. So even though I was an enlisted man I lived the life of Riley.”

A return to the academy and a Harvard doctorate were perhaps inevitable but Mr. Mansfield also underwent a decisive political transformation. “I broke with the liberals over the communist issue,” he says. “My initiating forces were anticommunism and my perception that Democrats were soft on communism, to use a rather unpleasant phrase from the time—unpleasant but true.” He also began to question the progressive project at home: “I saw the frailties of big government exposed, one after another. Everything they tried didn’t work and in fact made us worse off by making us dependent on an engine that was getting weaker and weaker.”

Hang on, that sounds like me! Only roughly 45 years later, and in reverse order. It was the failure of liberalism to produce results in keeping with its goals that first soured me on the movement—and 9/11 that finished off liberalism for me once and for all. My research into the evils of communism really only began after communism itself was dead and buried.

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.

Consider the entitlements crisis. “Entitlements are an attack on the common good,” Mr. Mansfield says. “Entitlements say that ‘I get mine no matter what the state of the country is when I get it.’ So it’s like a bond or an annuity. What the entitlement does is give the government version of a private security, which is better because the government provides a better guarantee than a private company can.”

That is, until the government goes broke, as has occurred across Europe.

He’s not always so quotable—the text of the interview isn’t as easy to understand as it might have been when spoken—but those points are indisputable.

The entitlement quote reminded me of the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when there’s a run on the bank. Jimmy Stewart and the lovely Donna Reed have to abort their honeymoon and turn the taxicab around to stave off insolvency and ruin. Owing to a forgetful bank clerk, the bank’s available cash has been misplaced. There’s no way Stewart can satisfy everyone’s demand to cash out. There’s barely any money at all, until Donna Reed holds up their honeymoon cash to offer it to the panicked customers. Stewart pleas with each depositor to take only what they need, not every penny. But the first guy insists on closing his account. It’s his, he’s owed it, he demands it—and he gets it. The second person, a young Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton), meekly asks if ten dollars would be too much: crisis averted. Following her example, the rest of the mob settles for less than they’re owed, and the bank is saved.

Retirees believe (even if they know it’s not true) that there’s an account with their name on it, flush with cash that has been accruing over the decades they’ve worked. As far as they’re concerned, it’s theirs, they own it, and they demand it. For decades, their delusion was sustainable, especially with politicians repeating the lie year after year, decade after decade. We had a generation called the Baby Boom, working in an expanding economy, more than able to pay for retirees whose Golden Years lasted perhaps two decades or more. (Life expectancy in the early 30s, when Social Security was conceived and delivered, was either side of 60.)

But what would happen when those Boomers retired (all 3.8 per family of them), to be supported by the barely two children (or fewer) they had? Wasn’t anyone doing the math? Of course they were, but it was always someone else’s problem to solve. Social Security—just one of the entitlements—was the “third rail” of American politics, not to be touched by anyone who valued his political life.

And only one guy at Harvard had—has—the balls to say it. Just don’t tell anyone where you heard it.

Leave a Comment