Where Have All the Achesons Gone?

By  | 

In discussing the Electoral College and voting reform, we’ve been seeing various plans in the light of mass, direct, participatory democracy as an inherently good thing. The people and the president in direct power hook-up. The more the better. But where’s the proof we’re better governed today than we were in 1800?

Michael Lind offers one shaft of illumination on the topic. He writes a sober defense of the crucial role of the “mandarin” class in a modern liberal democracy, claiming, “one of the main reasons that the experiment with large-scale democracy has worked is because it was accompanied by the creation of a modern mandarinate.” He defines this as “a meritocratic elite, based in the middle class but not limited to it, provided the natural leadership for a modern society.”

He notes the American Founders’ fears “that universal suffrage would produce ‘mobocracy.’ But the nightmare of mass democracy never fully materialised, in large part because of the political and cultural role of the mandarinate ….”

In constitutional politics, the meritocratic mandarinate would moderate tendencies toward demagogy, plutocracy and special-interest corruption by supplying the leaders of the career services within government and the informal establishment outside of it.

It worked. Mobocracy was averted in universal-suffrage democracies by a version of the Polybian “mixed constitution.” For Polybius, Cicero and many later political thinkers, the ideal constitution was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The mixed constitution is not to be confused with the separation of powers advocated by Montesquieu and found in the US federal and state constitutions. The purpose of the mixed constitution was to balance social forces, not to separate government functions.

The modern mixed constitution is a blend of democracy and meritocracy. In it, the mandarinateâ€â€?in government and out of itâ€â€?plays the role of the aristocracy in the Polybian system, checking the elective “monarchy” of democratic executives and the majority “tyranny” of democratic legislatures.

As Lind notes, this is an “unofficial system.” The American Founders saw the states, and the Seante chosen by the state legislatures, as the equivalent of the aristocracy. But the Civil War broke that balance entirely. Into the gap, temporarily, flowed the mandarin class.

[The system] has been breaking down for some time, as the elected executive has overpowered the mandarinate as well as the legislature. In parliamentary democracies like Britain, the separation of the roles of head of government and head of state helped to restrain plebiscitary populism for several generations after universal suffrage was adopted, as did the strict rules and conventions on government behaviour guarded by senior civil servants. However, by the late 20th century, as many have observed, prime ministers like Thatcher and Blair were behaving like presidents, while US presidents were behaving like kings. The increasingly powerful mass media, instead of acting as constraints on plebiscitary populism, have tended to act as cheerleaders for it, even while savaging particular governments and political leaders.

… Four sources of authority are invoked to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the modern humanism that legitimated the mandarinate: pro-fessionalism, positivism, populism and religion.

Professionalism is the opposite of mandarinism, in the sense in which I am using the latter term. It was not always so. In the Anglo-American countries, more than in continental Europe, the professions have in the past served as the basis of democratic mandarinism. In the US, for example, the great law firms and investment banks that would allow their members to serve in the government for years on end sometimes compensated for the absence of a high civil service. Nevertheless, over time professionalism and mandarinism have diverged.

While the mandarin is a generalist, the professional is a specialist. The mandarin’s claim to social authority rests on a liberal education, which is assumed to be the best preparation for public and private service. The professional’s claim to authority rests on mastery of a complex body of technical or scientific knowledge. The needs of professional accreditation have tended to make professional education increasingly technocratic. Legal education in the English-speaking world, for example, once consisted chiefly of a gentleman’s liberal education plus Blackstone’s Commentaries. Now a liberal education is at best an optional preliminary to a legal education.

He has some intriguing observations of the contemporary American scene:

To the extent that the mandarin ideal of duty to the public survives in the US, it is found among America’s career public servants in the national security executive: the military, the foreign service and the intelligence agencies (America’s domestic bureaucracy being weak and patronage-ridden). The most damaging opposition to George W Bush and the neoconservative clique has come from soldiers like Anthony Zinni, career civilian experts like Richard Clarke, the former “terrorism tsar” and diplomats like Joseph Wilson, whose wife Valerie Plame was “outed” as a CIA operative by Bush’s chief adviser, Karl Rove, as part of a campaign to punish Wilson for rejecting the president’s claim that Saddam was importing nuclear material from Niger. These and other career public servants have been models of Ciceronian rectitudeâ€â€?a fact that is more than a little troubling, because Cicero was one of the few leaders of Republican Rome who was a civilian. It is not a good sign that in the American republic the officer corps has become the mandarinate by default.

America’s unofficial mandarinate, the northeastern establishment, crumbled in the last quarter of the 20th century. The result is a social experiment in today’s US as audacious, in its own way, as that of Soviet collectivism: an attempt to have a government without a governing elite. The US ship of state veers now in one direction, now the other. From a distance, one might conclude that the captain is a maniac. But a spyglass reveals that there is no captain or crew at all, only rival gangs of technocrats, ideologues, populists and zealots devoted to Jesus Christ or Adam Smith, each boarding the derelict vessel and capturing the wheel briefly before being tossed overboard.