Incompetence, and A Remedy

An astonishing piece in the Wall Street Journal (subscription only), offers noted academic Harvey Mansfield casually rejecting — believe it or not — the rule of law. He’s not arguing that we should all be able to act in blissfully lawless ways, of course — simply that the laws of the nation should not be permitted to rule over (and occasionally over-rule) the president.

It’s wartime, you see (always seems to be, these days), and while we’re involved in this (perpetual) war, the Harvard professor favors a manly alternative. You guessed it: the strong, unitary executive. Now, it’s not as if we haven’t encountered this formula before, via John Yoo — that other manly professor — and his less academic henchpeople. Bush’s enemies have been saying all along that “unitary executive” is merely code (and cover) for the president’s illegal policies — but I believe that Mansfield is the first guy sympathetic to the administration to be this blunt: yes, it’s an invitation to extra-legal activity, and that’s a good thing.This tiny, perhaps inadvertent blurt of honesty — Straussians are not famous for being honest, much less explicit — has caused more than a little perplexity and outrage in the blogosphere. Allow me to contribute a modest spoonful of bile to the latter.Surely the best argument against Harvey Mansfield’s prepotent presidency — a particularly relevant argument, just now — is the possibility of incompetence. A unitary executive might be more efficient than a sluggish democracy should the absolute leader be something of a philosopher-king, or — more Mansfieldian — a prince quietly manipulated by a philosopher. But what if the supreme executive is neither? What if he is ignorant, and constitutionally incapable of exposing himself to reason? Do we really want such a figure to lead the nation in the absence of institutional checks upon presidential hubris?

Democracy is famously inefficient, yes, but it is also famously useful when it comes to curbing latent tyrants. And democracy — unimpeded democracy — is the best safeguard against executive incompetence. Should America find itself in the hands of, say, a raving presidential version of King George III, are we sure we want this man to have unfettered extra-legal privilege? Impeachment is always an option (until declared illegal, or rendered impossible — generally the next quiet step in a creeping tyranny); but do we really want this to be theonly option?

And there is little reason to believe, despite Mansfield (and his mentor, Leo Strauss, and his mentor, Carl Schmitt), that a plodding democracy is incapable of pulling itself together to act brutally and efficiently during wartime. America, Canada and Australia — to name a few reasonably democratic nations — were crucially effective in the last century’s complex wars. On the other hand, an incompetent absolute leader in the same situation (see under “Mussolini”) might well be brutal, but is unlikely to prove even remotely effective.


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