A newer science of politics

In Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, the French political philosopher Pierre Manent praises the comprehensive understanding advanced by Aristotle in his Politics:

Aristotle’s Politics gives a description and analysis of political life that in a certain way is exhaustive—in any case more complete and subtle than any subsequent description or analysis. The bringing to light of the elements of the city, the critical and impartial analysis of the claims of the different parties, the exploration of the problem of justice, of the relations between liberty, nature, and law: the phenomenology of political life is presented without either prejudice or lacuna. Whoever wants to orient himself in the political world, for the sake of either action or understanding, finds in Aristotle’s Politics a complete teaching. It is therefore the case that only a historical accident could have obliged us to dismiss Aristotle and given us a reason to invent the notion of the sovereign will.

According to Aristotle, every human association has for its end a certain good; and every human action is done in view of a certain good. Therefore, when Aristotle studies the elements that constitute the city, he only encounters groups and “goods,” each group defining itself by the type of good it seeks and can attain, and on which it ordinarily bases its claims for power. At no time does the individual with his will appear: Aristotle does not even have a word to name him…The landscape is reversed with the founders of modern politics. Henceforth only one element enters into the composition of the legitimate city, the one for which Aristotle did not even have a word, the sovereign individual.”

The founders of the United States drew on “the founders of modern politics” to whom Manent referred. They proclaimed advances making for a new science of politics. In Federalist Number 9, writing as Publius, Alexander Hamilton reviewed the sorry history of ancient democracies and republics:

From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans. Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have, in a few glorious instances, refuted their gloomy sophisms. And, I trust, America will be the broad and solid foundation of other edifices, not less magnificent, which will be equally permanent monuments of their errors.

But it is not to be denied that the portraits they have sketched of republican government were too just copies of the originals from which they were taken. If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of government as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided….

I quote Manent and Hamilton at length because these excerpts are worth reading in themselves and because Michael Anton calls them to my American mind in his American Mind essay “Elite, not expert” (from a speech delivered at an event entitled “Lies of the Ruling Class,” hosted in May 2022 at the Claremont Institute’s DC Center for the American Way of Life). Anton writes near the top of his talk:

It’s hard to say what, exactly, the present regime is. I can find no precise analogue for it in the various regime catalogues of classical, medieval, or modern political philosophy. For classical political science, a regime is defined by who rules. But who rules ours? Who is sovereign? This is not, at least not for me, an easy question to answer.

Although he leaves it an open question, Anton postulates the answer “some combination of a corps of elites and the doctrine they follow.” He nevertheless raises a good question and the whole of his remarks as published are worth reading. I recommend them as published in the American Mind column.

As his tentative answer suggests, however, he knows better than I do that the present regime, whatever it is, derives from the “newer political science of politics” (as Dennis Mahoney calls it) of the progressives who rejected limited government and the Constitution in the name of history. They thought (think) the political science of the founders was outmoded and obsolete. The progressives sought rule by experts. Anton has me thinking that what we have here is a virulent variant of the original virus, which was lethal to begin with.

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