Enlightened Statesmen

My old friend Harvey Mansfield, who I have known for more than a decade, knows more about the Founders than I could ever hope to. But one phrase is absent from the essay that Mark refers to right below: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” As Harvey notes, whether an energetic executive is an instrument of, or a danger to, a republic has everything to do with the use that is made of the constitution’s (necessary) discretionary power. The real issue at this time in the history of our republic is not whether strong executive power is necessary to republican government–I believe it goes without saying that it is–but how it has been used. That is, the important question to be asked is not theoretical but practical–has this president, at this point in time, used the power that the constitution apportions to him in a way that has served the “permanent and aggregate” interests of our nation. Is it possible, with all that we know now, to believe that he has? To put the point more sharply, “enlightened statesmen” are not, currently, at the helm. That is the point that all of us–conservative and liberal–must grapple with today. Faced with such a condition, therefore, elegant exegesis of constitutional intent is quite beside the point.

Hamilton in Federalist #70 observed, sagely, that, “a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Can anyone–of the right or left–doubt, after all we know now, that we have a “government ill executed?” The real issue that I would hope Harvey would address in the future is this: what does one do when the executive office is occupied by someone who experience–not theory–has shown to be utterly incompetent?

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.