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Too Much Government, and Not Enough Politics

Has the welfare state become financially unsustainable? And what is the role of virtue and responsibility in politics? Martin Eiermann sat down with Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield to discuss.

The European: We are half a year away from the next US presidential election. What does the political landscape look like?
Mansfield: There is a lot of worry about America becoming less political, but I don’t think that is accurate. I see the polarization of American politics into two parties, with each determined to defeat the other. The aisle in between them has pretty much been cleared out. There are few conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans. This means that each side regards the coming election as a crucial conflict for the next few years. And politics is concurrently facing a big change: The discovery that the entitlement or welfare state cannot be paid for. That is a simple fact, and the question is whether democracy continues to award itself greater benefits than it can afford. Many conservatives seem to be aware of that question, but maybe not many liberals are. Much has been promised to voters but it cannot be paid for. This is the paramount political issue at the moment.

The European: You began by saying that America is not becoming “less political.” What is the value we assign to political or civic engagement today?
Mansfield: A lack of engagement is inherent in either bourgeois capitalism or modern democracy. Tocqueville already wrote that democracy produces a taste for material well-being that takes people away from political exercises that cost time and money. And our equal claim to power makes it hard to persuade people to submit themselves to a long-term goal that has negative material consequences. Instead, we turn towards short-term goals, which are more palpable material enjoyments. We avoid a real engagement in politics and dismiss political discussions as too troubled or too distant. We leave politics to governments and bureaucracies and administrations that don’t require any action on the part of the ordinary citizen and compensate the citizen with material benefits. It might be done with good intentions, but it undermines the idea of civic participation. Will the question of the welfare state lead to more engagement? Possibly, but it might also lead to even more polarization.

The European: Many discussions about the future of the welfare state have been framed in purely economic terms. But even if we disagree on whether welfare spending needs to be reduced for the sake of financial sustainability, there’s another argument to be made: What does this do to our idea of society and the social contract?
Mansfield: The welfare state was intended to calm down politics and give you benefits that would no longer be disputed and that were considered irrevocably yours. “It’s yours,” that is what the word “entitlement” means. This was done without reference to the common good or the political circumstances at the time. The state would take care of your most crucial concerns. You could still argue about politics, but it would be more of a sport, since your basic needs had been met by welfare programs. Until now, that was a consensus opinion among liberals and conservatives. Both sides agreed that the welfare state was a good thing to keep people secure and happy and content. That hasn’t really worked, because differences over the role of government still persisted. And in the future, it certainly will not work, because any benefits that we have or wished to have will be quite insecure.

The European: How can we have that discussion about the role of government, about what it means to live in a society, about what is good “for the city and the man”?
Mansfield: The trend will lead not only to a scarcity of resources but also to a situation where we won’t be able to take things for granted anymore, even though we have grown up in the belief that they were to be taken for granted. This makes political discussions very difficult. When you simply have to deal with scarcity, you can sit down and figure out how much everyone is going to get. But this is worse. We have been counting on benefits, and suddenly we are told that we cannot count on them any longer. The Left will struggle more with this than the Right, because the policies of the Left depend on the proposal of further benefits to voters. In a time of austerity, that is impossible. So the Left finds itself in a defensive position, where they have to protect the benefits that already exist. And soon, they won’t be able to do that anymore either.

The European: The answer of the Left is: This is not a question of financial impossibility but of poor political priorities. If we value the right things, we can protect the welfare state despite economic pressures – and must protect it precisely because of these pressures. Hence the question: What would we have to value?
Mansfield: Right, we don’t want to give up reasoned political discourse. We have to value virtue more, and incentives less. If times are tough, looking for what virtue you have within yourself might allow you to withstand the hardship. Americans in the 1930s were much less resentful and did not resort to violence or the use of revolutionary language as much as you might have expected. The reason is that the system of benefits was not in place, and that we placed less emphasis on the idea of security. Security is a troublesome idea, because it is not sustainable.

The European: Arguably, the Left has been increasingly articulate in pointing out that austerity must not lead to atomism and the abandonment of the civic project.
Mansfield: That would be the Left at its best, with its strongest argument. But the monetary contributions turn out to be insufficient to cover the monetary promises, and the scandal is that those who administer the benefits have made sure that they are best provided for. The public sector unions have tried to secure rather cushioned benefits form themselves and have really not paid very much attention to the idea that these benefits are for the common good.

The European: This seems to link back to the idea of virtue. What does it mean to be a good politician, and what does it mean to be a good citizen?
Mansfield: To be a good citizen right now is to be thrifty, and to avoid bankruptcy. That is different from what the government has been encouraging us to do, which is to spend. Spending supposes that things will be better in the future. But if you have considerable debt and the future doesn’t look too bright, you might want to be careful about spending too much. And with a view towards those who are worse off, you might want to give charitably. For the Left, sacrifice for the common good often just translates into taking it out on the super-rich. But we have moved beyond the question of rich and poor and are in a situation where there is simply not enough money.

The European: For a long time, liberals – and especially neoliberals – have encouraged the idea of living on credit, in anticipation of future growth. And now there seems to be a lot of confusion about what it might mean to be a liberal in the future.
Mansfield: Yes, there is much confusion: Should we be big spenders or big savers? Those are two different ways of life, and the big saver might become en vogue again. We have to deny ourselves some benefits, and we have to deny those benefits to others as well. That is virtuous but it is also a bit selfish.

The European: We have to live more in the present, and less for the future?
Mansfield: We have to live with a view to the future, instead of buying everything that presents itself.

The European: Can liberalism survive this crisis?
Mansfield: Not unchanged. Liberals have to learn fiscal responsibility, and that will be something new for them.

The European: You once wrote that the most indispensable philosopher for today is Nietzsche, because he taught liberals to be skeptical of themselves and their own beliefs. And you criticized that skepticism as being dangerously close to relativism. Do you still stand by that?
Mansfield: I was very critical of Nietzsche. He caused liberals to lose faith in any principles, so I don’t think that we should go back to Nietzsche. If we want more virtue, we need a belief that virtues exist and make you happier than you would otherwise be, and that are attainable in practice.

The European: Is it more important right now to be careful and skeptical of established beliefs, or is it more important to be bold and daring in trying to overcome the crisis?
Mansfield: That is a hard question. When you are in a critical situation, cautious things are sometimes the same as bold things. We have to be cautious about reducing our debt, and we have to be bold about the politics and principles that got us into this situation. So we should probably not be generally careful or generally bold, but rather careful in this way and bold in that way.

The European: You are a philosopher. What do you have to contribute to these debates?
Mansfield: Philosophy is raising questions about things that are normally taken for granted. It begins from questions that force themselves into your consciousness. Abstraction should not be for the sake of forgetting that initial impulse but rather for the purpose of looking more generally at the permanent questions. We got into this mess through theories, particularly through economic theories that made it seem as if deficits and debt don’t matter, and also through theories that seek progress through equality. The problem is with theories that don’t know limits. And the trouble is that a lot of theorists did not know what they were talking about when they arrived at these theories. Their abstractions were not examined in light of politics, or in light of our way of life.

The European: Everybody seems to agree that education is central to the political and societal project. Do you think that schools and universities are up to the task?
Mansfield: Universities should not try to be progressive and stay ahead of changes. The role of the university should be to cultivate the minds of students, and they should spend their time doing that – not with exercises of public charity and good works. The time for the practice of virtue is later, after graduation. There are many students who are very interested in doing something in the world that people take notice of. It’s almost a commercial honor: Get rich, and also gain the recognition of people you respect. That is a form of virtue, and we should not make the mistake of confusing virtue with altruism. You should not shy away from things that bring fame or honor.

The European: Can we still say: Certain ambitions are more appropriate than others – for example, because they result not just in personal wealth but in good works?
Mansfield: Sure, you have to do that. There is always something tawdry about money. I think that people who go into finance are often more interested in honor than in the amount of financial comfort they want. They want to be on top, they want to rule. This is the half-political character of business: ruling deflects you from politics, but it also provides for a certain satisfaction.

The European: Has the logic of the market been applied in contexts where it should not have been applied?
Mansfield: Yes, and I am very much against that. Game theory is one example, and economic thinking in general. Politics is about honor, not financial gain. It cannot be reduced to numbers – maybe to the number of votes, but even that does not bring you honor if you do a bad job as a politician. Economics is good for money, and that is where it should be kept. Unfortunately, honor is not discussed very much today. In the social sciences, the two key disciplines are psychology and economics. One is about gain, and the other is about being content. But in a democracy, the main question should be about personal liberty and self-government. You should be in charge of yourself and your country, and that requires sacrifice and effort and thought. A country like the US can easily fall into decay when it neglects the central importance of politics. We need to take responsibility for our own affairs. When we begin to give that responsibility to government in the name of security, we become less free, less thoughtful and more dependent.

The European: If this observation is correct, is the gradual takeover of economic logic a sign that philosophers have failed to be persuasive?
Mansfield: It coincides with the decline of politics. It is easier to manage people through the sub-rational inclinations – what economists call “incentives” – than it is to rule them directly. Democracy began with a non-economist, Machiavelli, but it has learned from economics how to manage people and satisfy their desires instead of their political goals. It’s the idea of rational control through irrational means. You don’t appeal to reason but to incentives. You nudge them, as Cass Sunstein has called it. When people desire security and material things instead of valuing active political participation and persuasion, you end up with a system that caters to those motives.

The European: The idea of persuasion is quite interesting. As long as you can present coherent numerical arguments, you don’t have to be especially persuasive.
Mansfield: That is right. I was rather encouraged by the Tea Party for that reason. We have too much government and not enough politics.

The European: But the flip-side of being persuasive is the willingness to be persuaded by good arguments. You have to avoid dogmatism.
Mansfield: The problem is that we are in a regime of political correctness which narrows the range of questions we can ask and engage with. Many students come to the university to become ideologues with fixed principles and policies. There is not enough self-doubt, especially since liberals dominate American higher education.

The European: The Tea Party is often rather dogmatic.
Mansfield: The trouble is that the liberals are the mainstream, so there is very little space left for alternative ideas. That leads to more and more polarization of American politics. Conservatives have mostly been pushed to the margins.

The European: I guess it depends on your perspective. Many American liberals would qualify as conservatives in Europe.
Mansfield: I don’t think that American and European liberals are too different from each other. Here, they argue with European examples, they are becoming less patriotic and less convinced that America is special in its own way.

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