The evident purpose of Taming the Prince is to provide a respectable philosophical pedigree for the usurpations and abuses of power by American Presidents since FDR. (Professor Mansfield dedicates the book to his father, “constant advocate of a strong presidency from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan.”) Where conservatives such as Corwin, Kendall, Burnham, and Samuel Francis have seen danger in the growth of extraconstitutional presidential power. Mansfield finds “ambivalence.” We need “some general understanding favoring strong executive power to resist legislative usurpation and its partner, overbearing bureaucracy.” Mansfield seeks to provide that understanding by illogically obscuring the distinction between execution of the laws and tyranny: “since some taint of tyranny necessarily accompanies law, law can only be executed tyrannically.”
Having conflated law enforcement and lawlessness, Mansfield claims that political philosophy provides two ways to “tame and use” the necessary tyranny of executive power. The first method of reducing “the necessary risk of tyranny” inseparable from executive power is Aristotle’s. In the ideal regime, the executive would be transformed from “the destroyer of law unto a king, the guardian of law.” In practice, it is only possible to achieve the second-best option—the rule of law, achieved by the dispersal of executive power among a number of magistrates in a mixed regime.
Mansfield is disappointed that Aristotle fails to anticipate his perception that executive power is necessarily beyond the law. “Again we watch Aristotle passing up an opportunity to develop executive power” by failing to postulate “a fund of arbitrariness with which to govern willful men” and by his failure to “construct a guise of legality” for such arbitrary one-man rule. Even worse, in Aristotle’s Politics, the executive offices “are discussed in the plural without reference to the need for unity in one man that modern theories of the executive assert.” Mansfield forgets that the Swiss executive is the seven-member Federal Council, and the British executive the Cabinet, not the prime minister. Aristotle (like the US Supreme Court, which has consistently upheld the constitutionality of independent agencies) mistakenly believes that a plurality of independent executive magistrates is necessary to maintain the supremacy of the legislative assembly; whereas Mansfield claims, in language that would have warmed the heart of Louis Napoleon, Hitler, or Peron, that “the people should be embodied in one man . . . to secure the unity of executive powers, despite their separate definitions, through the unity of one human body.”
Mansfield, unable to find his “ambivalent” or innately extralegal executive in Aristotle (or in medieval thinkers such as Aquinas, Dante, or Marsilius of Padua), claims that “a second remedy was first proposed by Machiavelli . . . This is to recognize openly the necessity of tyranny in the character of the prince, who initiates and innovates, even while he seeks democratic sanction for his actions so that he may seem merely to execute the people’s will.” This “modern doctrine of executive power” is, however, alien to the author of The Prince and The Discourses. Where the real man was concerned with achieving political stability in a world subjected to unstable fortune, Mansfield’s Machiavelli is primarily exercised by “the problem for which the modern notion of executive power is the solution”—namely, the difficulty of reasoning from generals to particulars in the application of law (a problem that bothered Kant and Condorcet far more than Machiavelli).
When Mansfield discusses Machiavelli’s views on dictatorship, his Machiavelli loses all resemblance to the historical one. “Machiavelli denies that dictatorial authority was harmful or that it was the cause that brought tyranny to Rome, as had been alleged.” By paraphrase and selective quotation, Mansfield makes it sound as though Machiavelli approves of dictatorship in general. In fact, in a passage that Mansfield curiously does not quote, Machiavelli argues that the specific Roman institution of dictatorship did not harm the Roman republic only because of the virtue of the Roman people, the “short duration of the dictatorship,” and—most important—because the Roman dictator’s “limited authority” permitted him to “do nothing to diminish the constitutional position of the government, as would have been the case if he could have taken away the authority vested in the senate or in the people, or have abolished the ancient institutions of the city and made new ones.” In other words, Machiavelli is making the very distinction Mansfield claims he does not make—between the temporary dictator, governed by law even in crisis, and the founder or reformer of a city, a genuinely despotic “prince” who creates or purges “modes and orders.”
Machiavelli goes on to argue that in emergencies government by a council. not by a single man, is best. He also warns against giving either a single or a collective temporary dictator “power to make laws and in general to act as if they were the . . . people.” Long-term authority should not be given to any individual, even an elected executive, unless accompanied by “supervisors . . . appointed to see to it that they should not be able to abuse their authority.” So far from arguing that the executive is inherently or necessarily beyond the law, Machiavelli praises Roman dictators who “could not annul a decree of the senate, nor . . . make new laws,” and claims that “[n]o republic is ever perfect unless by its laws it has provided for all contingencies, and for every eventuality has provided a remedy and determined the method of applying it.”
Another of Mansfield’s claims, that Machiavelli “abandons all concern, vital in the Aristotelian tradition, for the distinction between the tyrant and the king who rules justly,” is equally groundless. In a chapter of The Discourses entitled “Those who set up a Tyranny are no less Blameworthy than are the Founders of a Republic or a Kingdom Praiseworthy,” Machiavelli argues that law-abiding kings and republican magistrates in life “rest secure and in death become renowned,” whereas tyrants in life “are in continual straits, and in death leave behind them an imperishable record of their infamy.” How can Mansfield, then, write that “Machiavelli thought his new doctrine would bring men more glory and security no matter what regime”? Because Mansfield’s doctrine of executive power, which he claims was passed on, with modifications, from Machiavelli to the American Founders by way of Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu, is not to be found in Machiavelli at all, the subsequent argument of the book collapses.
Mansfield ends Taming the Prince with a paean to the prince (his, not Machiavelli’s) untamed. “Periods of executive leadership such as the Reagan Revolution show what American government means,” writes Mansfield. “The Reagan Revolution . . . promised to produce a certain America, peopled by a certain kind of American with certain virtues—not just the same America better off or more secure.” This comes as news to many of us who voted for Ronald Reagan, unaware that we were granting an “ambivalent,” that is, inherently lawless executive the authority to mold us into the American equivalent of the Soviet New Man. Aristotle, with his preference for divided power and the rule of law, “would not have approved the modern executive in whom one-man rule becomes actual and the rule of law comes to seem theoretical,” and Machiavelli, champion of senatorial oversight, would have been horrified by the lawlessness of Admiral Poindexter or Colonel North. But we should not worry, according to Mansfield, as long as the California actor or Texas oil man who happens to occupy the Oval Office has “the perfection of the soul” that is virtue. And besides, we do not need to worry about executive tyranny, since “while previous republics were fearful of great men, Americans are proud of their ‘great presidents.'”
Praise God we Americans can all sleep tight in our beds for evermore.
[Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power, by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (New York: The Free Press) 358 pp., $24.95]