Respectable Partisans of Modern Liberty

Fifty years have passed since Harvey Mansfield’s path-breaking Statesmanship and Party Government first appeared. It is a book so good that Leo Strauss is said to have wished he had written it. The original edition is now available as an e-book, so the busy Democratic operative may read it on hilarymail as she travels in search of wisdom from Hollywood to Havana.

Of course, she is unlikely to seize the opportunity. The illumination scholars could once offer well-meaning politicians about prudence, statesmanship, and natural law—topics Mansfield discusses—is today dimmed by academics’ enlistment as experts on turnout, traffic, taxes, and triage. Those few social scientists who are not useless have become appendages of the bureaucratic state. In any event, the pace of politics today leaves little time and less incentive to think and to observe, and books such as Statesmanship and Party Government demand reflection.

Still, our political origin continues to form all we do, and understanding it properly can help to guide our judgment. Politics should enhance our way of life. What is that way of life? The people’s self-government should guide administrations. How can we best effect this guidance? Administrative discretion within limits should deal with our necessities and emergencies. What are these limits? American and British liberal democracies are rooted in a practical resolution of the great religious conflicts of the 17th century. Yet, or consequently, the religious question persists, most threateningly in the way that the power of Islamist fanaticism now bewilders us.

What public direction about religion’s place in politics can our origin offer us today?

The purpose and justice of our way of life and form of government, and the recurrence of conflicts that intellectuals thought had become irrelevant, reflect the unchangeable context within which even what is most novel occurs. “The permanent things in life,” Margaret Thatcher once said, “tend somehow to surprise us more than the great changes we see around us.” These permanent things show themselves most purely in reflection that is separate from practical affairs but never whole apart from them.

Our current predicaments, indeed, stem from several kinds of ignorance: of our origin in equal natural rights, limited government, and free commerce; of how these link to modern enlightened philosophy; and, more deeply, of the origin of all thought in human openness to the mind’s natural objects. Mansfield’s book, with the “inquiries” it conducts and the “problems” it considers, probes at each of these levels. It is guided by the “natural attraction of the hidden” and thus helps us to step through not only our practical quandaries but also our intellectual fog.

The Possibility of Respectable Parties

The mystery that Statesmanship and Party Government plumbs is how political parties, condemned by political thinkers from Plato to James Madison, became respectable—so much so that we now think them indispensable to good government. Even the Nazi and Soviet tyrannies had Nazi and Communist parties. The central discovery of the book is that this respectability does not arise from a series of accidents but, rather, from considered action and choice.

The central figure is Edmund Burke, who defended parties for and among gentlemen and sought to make them accepted in Great Britain, not a fleeting or disreputable affair. Established, respectable, competitive parties, moreover, differ from parties whose grand purpose is to end parties by becoming the final or only party. We find the latter ambition, consummated in different degrees, in Thomas Jefferson, the founder of parties in the United States, and in Henry St. John Bolingbroke, a figure from the first half of the 18th century whose views and supporters Burke opposed in the second half, and whose teaching Mansfield explores at length in the book.

The element common to all—Burke, Bolingbroke, and Jefferson—is belief in modern natural rights. All three, moreover, were in a political situation in which the “Great Parties” based on religious differences had withered, dissolved, or been defeated. The circumstances allowed parties to be oriented to a commonly acceptable or agreed-on ground. But they did not as such suggest how smaller parties could become useful or respectable. Mansfield traces the traditional critique of parties until he arrives at Burke’s open and public defense.

Burke’s parties are not our parties, with our extensive programs and massive funds, but they grew from the same ground. His defense of their respectability at a crucial moment makes this ground, and the classical alternative it replaces, particularly visible. Burke’s understanding also reminds us of forgotten possibilities in governing liberal democracy itself.

Burke’s Parties

Parties can become respectable once the great religious parties are contained, but this seems merely to place the issue back on its traditional footing, and traditionally parties are condemned. The disagreement among mere parts of a country that, as parties, pretentiously claim to form the common good of the whole—parts such as the rich versus the poor—leads rulers and citizens to dislike them. The new agreement that grounds government in natural rights, however, now allows parties to be respectable because their clashes are no longer fundamental. Civil war does not loom over every clash.

Yet natural rights, and the liberty and economic interests they favor, look to be universal truths on which government may immediately rest its actions. Why, then, would one need parties? The issue, rather, seems to be to find ministers who are expert and effective, ministers whose virtue and ability would recommend their appointment and (in Great Britain) obviate the king’s need to placate groups through corruption or patronage. This is the view that Bolingbroke championed. Bolingbroke said his country needed a party and what he called a Patriot King (1738) to put this nonpartisan idea in place; but this party would be the last one.

It sounds something like the fantasies of the first American Progressives and their contemporary heirs, and Mansfield connects Bolingbroke’s party to today’s liberals, just as Burke’s party, if not Burke’s system, seems to be conservative. Burke considered Bolingbroke’s promotion of “supernaturally” virtuous and able leaders to be a cover for the self-interest of a group. More significantly, Burke said such a project tried to base politics directly on universal principles and that this could not succeed. His reasons, outlined below, are discussed most famously in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

As I indicated, Burke’s own view also begins from or accepts natural rights, equal liberty, and free commerce. Mansfield is clear that Burke’s thought is anchored in Hobbesian, not Thomistic, soil. To secure goods such as liberty, however, one must accept or promote various establishments and the property derived from long use—what Burke encapsulates in the term “prescription.” One must rely as well on the duties we derive from position and place, and on the virtue one can presume in those with property and standing. One must also advance parties of such men, parties that are based on friends or groups of friends with common history, experiences, honors, and principles.

A party would become “an establishment in society,” Mansfield writes. He goes on:

Parties are properly composed of men of property who have, in the past, acted together in public. Party thus depends upon the “natural operation of property” and upon the natural fondness of men of property for their own past deeds. These causes produce a natural grouping of parties such that a man entering the House of Commons can find a group with which he can agree nine times in ten.

Burke “considers the British constitution to represent popular government similar to that of The Federalist” and believes free elections are vital. But Burke “thinks it possible for the people to rule themselves only by means of the rule of gentlemen. To Burke, party is an establishment for the rule of gentlemen in the context of popular government.”

What functions would such parties serve? They should not, in Burke’s view, become responsible for legislative programs. His parties are not those of the current cabinet government of Great Britain. Their purpose, rather, is to “control, in the name of the people . . . the standing government.” Parties do this through broad “principledness” but not “authoritative instruction”—through party consistency, but not a party program; and through general guidance, but not involvement in governing.

Such control, moreover, should not be monolithic. It requires variety: “Burke has a preference for a particular party over the other parties, but he prefers the existence of a variety of parties to a single party.” Such control is also available through impeachment of the sort that Burke championed in his efforts against Warren Hastings.

Popular Government

Popular government mediated through and moderated by gentlemen exemplifies the particularity or attachment to one’s own that, for Burke, is the basis for securing and enjoying natural liberty. One cannot foster the trust that government or society needs by constantly recurring to the true, universal principle of equal rights or to the fear on which, so Hobbes teaches, it is based. Trust does not arise from fear but from settled benefit. Natural feeling and attachment, as they form various establishments or institutions that grow and change with little direction, safeguard liberty by making it particular.

Unequal property is one consequence of such liberty, and government should not interfere with the natural operation of commerce. But it is the people’s liberties and needs that government must aid. Gentlemen may know better than the people how to satisfy the people’s interests, but it is popular freedom that they serve, not a concrete notion of human excellence. They exercise prudence because they know the proper limits of government. But their prudence serves the people; it does not serve Aristotelian ethical, let alone intellectual, virtue. Prudential discretion is needed to give life to the law, but it is limited and directed by the law.

Burke and the Classics

This view of nature, parties, virtue, and statesmanship contrasts with Aristotle and Plato. Mansfield considers these differences at length on their own terms, but also to clarify Burke’s view. His effort to establish party government is an act of statesmanship. It goes beyond the ordinary prudence of seeing a particular remedy for a particular difficulty or discontent. It looks at the whole. Indeed, it looks at or helps to shape the future of the whole; it is the opposite of the people’s view or assessment of politics, which is always 50 years behind the actual forces of the day.

Yet, Burke’s statesmanship means finally to replace statesmanship, or to reduce it “to the rules of prudence, in order to serve the needs of party government,” writes Mansfield. Burke reduces statesmanship to “leadership” of the people in the direction they wish to go. He did not think that the overall forming of a regime or way of life that is visible in Plato or Aristotle’s legislator or founder was possible or desirable. While “Plato makes the statesmen responsible for producing a good people,” writes Mansfield, “Burke’s statesman cannot form the people’s feelings [because] he must presume a good effect from actions which do not attempt to form or educate the people.” Statesmanship, for Burke, “accepts popular desires as its limit and takes the present discontents as its signal.” It does not rule in order to enhance excellence; rather, it represents popular interests.

Even if actual virtue exists among a few, moreover, it is undesirable for them to rule: Government by those whose positions allow us to presume their honesty and excellence is safer and in practice wiser than rule by those with greater natural gifts. Such gifts, moreover, must prove themselves through trial by events. Opportunities to engage in important events must first be offered to men of actual virtue by men of property. Burke’s writings were almost all occasioned by particular controversies—that is, the trial of men by events. None save his early (1757) Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is visibly theoretical.

Burke’s Natural Law

What Burke does in effect is demote statesmanship to party government, by defending, in practical terms, presumptive virtue, or duty and responsibility that arise from and are connected to long-enjoyed position, place, and friendship rather than actual if rare excellence. This practicality, and Burke’s relative silence on the intellectual life, are connected to his understanding of nature and natural law.

For Burke, Mansfield tells us, duty is “a restraint given to the self, by the self, and for the sake of the self. Its effect is to transform short-run self-interest into long-run self- interest, as in the modern conception of natural law.” Nature does not give us an end, so Burke’s natural law is not that of Thomas Aquinas. Conscience does not punish vice. Nature provides the original condition of fear from which we flee, and gives us, as it were, directives to flee it.

Such natural laws guide action but must be enlivened by prudence. Central among such directives is to support the establishments, such as family and landed property, that embody the natural feeling connected to love of what is our own. Popular liberty grounded on natural equality and fear is in fact secured by practices based on a history of honor, friendship, and natural feeling that grow on their own rather than by abstract, formal institutions based directly on universal principles. We can freely meet our natural necessities only through the human prudence that adjusts natural feeling.

As Mansfield puts it,

In order to secure the natural rights of man in government, men must be taught more than “the little catechism of the rights of man.” They must be taught reverence for the duties and policy which secure those rights.

Natural law for Burke “is fundamentally two rules of prudence,” namely, “prescription and political economy. These two rules guide man in his contrivance against” the “savagery of [our] natural origins.”

Such contrivance is not unreasonable. On the contrary, “a society made up of establishments is the place where reason most predominates, however much or little that may be. It is the best place for man to live according to his natural feeling,” which “is not mere selfishness, but is love of one’s own.” The significant but limited place of reason in politics leads to Burke’s support of leaders rather than of rulers. As Mansfield says:

Men are by nature reasonable, because they can, through a natural aristocracy, use their reason to develop their natural feeling. If their reason were more than subordinate to their feeling, natural inequalities in reason would produce a natural aristocracy of rulers. But as reason serves to develop and protect natural feeling in the establishments, natural inequalities in reason . . . produce a natural aristocracy of leaders, instead of rulers. Natural law is the method of leadership by which man’s art perfects man’s nature. It therefore coincides with the interest of the people, in contrast to their will or opinions.

This view also means that for Burke there is not a naturally best way of life. Religion, and hence a religious life, is not manifestly reasonable, nor is revelation evidently experienced. Closet atheists—speculative or philosophical atheists—of whom Burke may have been one, need hide only their possible disbelief in Providence. Similarly, there is no best regime: A good aristocrat becomes indistinguishable from a dutiful or moderate oligarch; men of property and prudence are in practice not different from men of virtue; what moderates them is the popular liberty they serve, for liberty helps secure their own property and place.

Burke’s Regime

Mansfield further clarifies Burke and his party government by comparing them to Aristotle’s classification of regimes, to America, and to conservatism: Burke “in effect abandons the traditional threefold classification of regimes in the Thoughts. He uses the words ‘monarchy, ‘aristocracy,’ and ‘tyranny’ but not to classify regimes.” In the modern view that Burke exemplifies, “there is only one good regime, or legitimate regime, whose essence is the rule of law.” This regime is popular: “the end of the constitution is to secure freedom,” and “the use of freedom . . . is commerce.”

This importance of law, however, differs from arid, unbending legalism, for prudence is central. “The rules for the statesman’s prudence are found in the spirit of the laws or the method of political economy.” This means that

the importance of the laws for Burke does not lie usually in the laws themselves, as they are negative and inert, but in their permeation of the realm of prudence with the idea of lawfulness. For prudence, as Burke thinks of it, is not outside the laws, but only an extension of the laws in which the laws’ distrust of individual discretion is maintained.

Burke also seeks to reduce arbitrary discretion by advancing a view of separate, competing, governmental powers grounded in the people in different ways. He does this by dividing government and by controlling it. Parties, as we have seen, belong to such controls. No part of government, or even government as a whole, “is responsible for the common good.” This emerges through interaction or even competition “of the parts of the government and society.”

The Commons checks the king’s choice of ministers “by means of its separate connection to the people”; the people’s only “authoritative instruction” to their representatives is to engage in this control. That is, they do not authorize a governing program. As opposed to the United States, where Congress holds the active legislating power, Parliament’s “laws reach but a very little way.” The standing government, or active constitution, is in the Crown, the king’s ministers. The chief danger that concerns Burke, therefore, is the executive’s misuse of its discretion, not (as in the Federalist) legislative usurpation.

We see from this that Burke is not a partisan conservative in our sense, with a party program of deregulation, lowered taxes, vigorous defense policies, and sustenance for traditional mores and education. Yet he is conservative because he supports the equal natural freedom and commerce in which our country and his originate. And, he does so by advancing and supporting attachment to the friendship and virtue that are connected to the particular places and practices that are most our own. “We conclude,” writes Mansfield, that

Burke was a conservative, not by intention, but by his preparation for conservatism as a party doctrine. By intention, he reduced statesmanship to the rules of prudence, in order to serve the needs of party government.

We may say that Burke’s conservatism belongs within the greater radicalism by which modern natural rights replaces Aristotelian virtue. “In effect,” Mansfield laconically concludes, “he demoted statesmanship to conservatism.”

Forgotten Rights, Forgotten Virtues, Forgotten Habits

What do we learn from Mansfield’s Burke that helps with our current predicaments? We are reminded first of the importance of equal natural rights. Perhaps our gravest practical problem is that we have forgotten the meaning of these rights. Nature is dismissed by intellectuals as a meaningless or dangerous idea because it gets in the way of our project to change or construct ourselves. Or, it suggests that historical, ethnic or biographical identity might be secondary to what we naturally share. One’s “rights” are implicitly seen as anything one wishes to do, and vindicating them means demanding that others do precisely what one wishes.

These intellectual mistakes affect everyone because they infect education: The common sense that sees both natural differences and the importance of what is common is overwhelmed. The misunderstanding of rights leads to our current situation of foolishly used freedom combined with arbitrarily controlled speech, action, and uses of property. The first remedy for this must be education that displays the source of our natural rights in the individual authority to reflect, prefer, and choose; that shows the harm that results when we exercise these rights without government; and that indicates the proper limits to such government.

The place to find this education is in the great books of modern political philosophy, well-taught, and in sensible discussion of our political founders and statesmen. This teaching can occur in secondary schools and small programs; it need not be limited to our woebegone colleges and universities. With sufficient reach, it will support what is still a common if unexpressed understanding of the natural basis for liberty. Although the theoretical heart of this teaching is in John Locke, Burke is a central figure. Whatever his responsibility for the later historicism that helped foment ignorance of natural rights, Burke himself, in Mansfield’s discussion, shows the connections among free commerce, equal natural rights, and popular government. The particular attachments that Burke supported were meant to secure liberty, not substitute for or redefine it. It is important to see that his conservatism belongs within liberal democracy.

Our second predicament is that we tend to forget that to secure our liberty we require excellence of character. The virtues we primarily need are those that allow self-reliance to flourish. Effective liberty requires that we gain habits of responsibility by which we become people who can successfully compete our tasks, and continue to expand our influence. It requires tolerance toward those of other faiths, consideration of others’ rights, hard work, and versions of classic courage, moderation, and other virtues.

We not only tend to forget the need for virtue, we also tend to misunderstand it in a way that is part and parcel of our ignorance of natural rights. Considerateness and tolerance become easygoing “non-judgmentalism.” Burke helps us to see the importance of virtue, even if it is not fully classic or actual virtue. His connection of duty to long-run self-interest and of presumptive virtue to gentlemen also helps us to recognize that our duties, responsibility, and prudence differ, given the different range and scope of our actions, even if, in our country more than Burke’s, each station is in a sense open to all.

We also see in Burke what we would have expected from his reputation, namely the importance of attachment to particular institutions. A third predicament that we face is the dissolution of these institutions. Habitual obedience to long-followed practices, what we might call prescription in a broad sense, is fading. Burke offers no formula for replacing these practices. But he does make clear their ground in affection, in friendship and common success, and above all in family. Natural liberty flourishes when there is an extended love of one’s own—but only together with the proper understanding of natural rights and of character. Because such love of one’s own is natural, institutions that embody it may justly flourish. Religious practice is among these institutions, but in a regime based on natural rights, only with tolerance. The “solution” to today’s religious questions is found in liberal rights, virtue, and self-government, properly understood.

Recovering Self-Government to Reclaim Our Freedom

The declining control over government by the people, our declining self-government, is a fourth predicament. Burke’s understanding of the place and importance of parties teaches us something here, too. Competitive parties are required to control self-interest masquerading as virtue, dominance of others hiding behind good intentions, and narrow expertise pretending to be good judgment. These vices are as common in those who eschew parties as in those who believe that theirs alone is pure. But all our parties, and especially the party of limited government, should be influenced today by Burke’s insight that parties must control administration, not be part of it.

The “programs” we need are programs to reduce administration, not to engage in more of it, and to make government answer to purposes that the people and their representatives can judge clearly, however technical the means to achieving those purposes may have become. To establish at least for a generation or two a Burkean understanding of popular control in this sense would be the act of a democratic statesman.

This leads to our final predicament: how best to use our freedom, a question we will address by touching briefly on the discrepancy between the possibility and the substance of Burke’s actions—his statesmanship, in the service of party government.

The practical issue is to see that the statesman must sometimes revert directly to founding purposes to discover the path to reform. Burke, notwithstanding his caution about reverting to founding purposes, did something very much like this. His defense of party government is such an act of statesmanship. But that defense helps to secure a structure that seemingly has no place for his own statesmanly excellence.

One might say in reply that statesmen are sufficiently rare that they will arise as long as the understanding of virtue on which they draw is not actively discouraged. Yet the problem is that Washington, Churchill, and even Lincoln lived in worlds that permitted greater public resonance and support for their claims than does ours. We should therefore advance explicit teaching of their excellence. Hence the importance of philosophically clarifying what actual virtue involves, and of contrasting, as Mansfield does, actual virtue with Burke’s view of presumptive virtue. Burke’s leeriness of universal and theoretical standpoints in politics is well-taken. The classics, too, understood these limits. Aristotle’s regimes may form a way of life, but founding and improving one is restrained by the material facts of strength and necessity. One would not accuse Aristotle of demoting statesmanship to conservatism, but he was nevertheless conservative.