An Impressive String of Debacles
- the Afghanistan pullout
- urban crime waves
- easily foreseen inflation
- mayhem at the southern border
- a self-generated energy crisis
- a pandemic response that wrought little good and vast ruin
Perennial National Embarrassments/Failures
- a mind-bogglingly expensive welfare state that doesn’t work
- public schools that make kids dumber
- universities that nurture destructive grievances and noxious ideologies
- news media nobody trusts.
Ruled by Dunces
With this unsavory array of America’s public life in the 21st Century, how can one not believe that we are being ruled by idiots? Readers might object to parts of the list, but it is hard to “deny feeling that the country’s government and major institutions are run by people who don’t know what they’re doing,” argues Barton Swaim in his WSJ interview with Harvard historian James Hankins, author of “Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.”
Political Leaders’ Venality and Incompetence
Mr. Hankins’ 2019 book, explains Mr. Swaim, is a study of Italian humanist writers and statesmen beginning with Francesco Petrarca (1304-74), known to English speakers as Petrarch, one of the earliest humanists. Fourteenth-century humanism arose, according to Mr. Hankins, from a widespread disgust with the venality and incompetence of political and ecclesiastical leaders in late-medieval Italy.
The Best Regime?
The humanists basically rejected the central question of Greek and Roman political theory: What is the best regime?
For Petrarch and his followers over the next century, “constitutional form was far less important than the character of rulers,” Mr. Hankins writes. By the early 14th century European political thought had degenerated into narrowly legalistic arguments about why this or that ruler has a superior claim to office. To the humanists, that preoccupation was being beneath the notice of serious thought. Their goal “was to uproot tyranny from the soul of the ruler, whether the ruler was one, few, or many.”
The Giveaway – Call It the Science
We saw the abandonment of phronesis most clearly, Mr. Hankins says, in the Covid response. “It became evident very early on that science didn’t speak with one voice on the subject. There were different opinions about what it all meant, different views of the data. But elites determined to subject themselves to the science.” He emphasizes the definite article. “That’s always the giveaway, when you call it the science.”
Because of Swain’s attachment to classical liberalism, he is skeptical of any philosophy purporting to empower “good” and “wise” leaders without first attending to the limits on their authority, he tells readers. Hawkins does admit, “At the moment American constitutional democracy doesn’t seem very good at limiting the damage done by bad and foolish officials.”
In fact we seem overrun with rulers who possess lots of Machiavellian guile but no Machiavellian competence. Maybe we have something to learn from virtue politics?
Mr. Hankins considers himself a classical liberal — “I think less government is better than more.” But Hankins doesn’t see Anglo-American constitutionalism as the final word on political thought.
“Look at the humanities George Washington was trained in,” he says. “If you read about Washington’s education, it was basically on a Renaissance humanist mode — not only memorizing moral maxims but reading Plutarch and Roman history and the famous plays of antiquity that were so crucial in communicating proper forms of behavior.”
When Mr. Swaim suggests a compromise – “surely we’re not going back to virtue-based politics, but maybe there are things we can learn from the humanist tradition” – Mr. Hankins rejects the premise.
“I’m not sure I agree with that. You need a moral revolution to make it happen, but political meritocracy is something that can be revived, in my view.
The younger generation out there is disgusted with the older one.
The people who get all the attention from the press are the woke, but there’s another big part of the young population that’s ready for a moral revolution.”
Where’s the Moral Revolution?
It is building, Hankins tells Swaim.
The scientism. The abdication of moral judgment. The idea that our leaders are just following the science, following the algorithms, following the experts, and we’re not even going to look into the faces of people who are losing their jobs because we shut the economy down? We’re going to let our grandparents die in isolation and talk to them on iPhones as they’re dying? It’s obscene.”
All this talk about venal, incompetent leaders made Swaim wonder about Mr. Hankins’s shortlist. “I keep a list. Whenever someone in Washington does something admirable, something not for political advantage but for the country, I write that person’s name on the list,” confesses Hankins. Who, wonders Mr. Swaim, is on it?
“I think, for example, of some genuinely accomplished people who went to work for the Trump White House out of a sense of duty, knowing the hell they’d take for it. James Mattis, William Barr, Mike Esper, Don McGahn, some others.”
Taking the Long View
On the subject of Donald Trump, we each lament the inability of some otherwise serious people, on the left and the right, to talk about the 45th president in anything but the language of civilizational catastrophe.
Why is Mr. Hankins, the author of a 700-page book on virtuous political leadership, not similarly undone by Mr. Trump? Because his profession has prepared him to take the long view.
History – a Road to Sanity
“I think of it as an historian,” he says. “Many people don’t think deeply about what it would be like to live in a different time. They have no sense of comparison. Thinking long about history, you get a much broader view of human life. History is a road to sanity.”
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