Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 9, No. 3; Winter 2003

The Case for Dictatorship

The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now. By Carnes Lord. Yale University Press, 2003. xvii + 275 pgs.

President Bush’s invasion of Iraq made many observers gasp with amazement. What could have motivated such hasty and ill-advised action? Surely Iraq, a country of minor importance, posed no threat to the vital interests of the United States. It soon transpired that a deep design lay behind the thrust into alien territories. Neoconservatives such as William Kristol, who enthusiastically supported the invasion, wished to export Western-style democracy to the countries of the Middle East so benighted as to wish to govern themselves. And these writers were rumored to have the ear of key policymakers, most notably, Paul Wolfowitz, in the Bush administration. There was method in Bush’s madness.1

Some went on to discover a further dimension in the neoconservative scheme. Kristol and his fellow propagandists did not devise their plans for worldwide democracy out of nothing. They looked for political wisdom to the writings of Leo Strauss, a historian of political thought who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Kristol, some alleged, was a Straussian; so was Wolfowitz.

Defenders of Strauss at once ran to their battle stations. Wolfowitz had only a passing acquaintance with Strauss; and, besides, Strauss never supported the universal imposition of democracy. Those in search of the intellectual antecedents of neoconservative foreign policy should look elsewhere.

The defenders have a point. Strauss devoted the bulk of his work to detailed textual studies of Plato, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau, among many others. He rarely intervened in contemporary political issues. In his youth, he strongly supported the Zionist movement; and his only appearance in National Review was a letter to the editor criticizing the magazine for its advocacy of an anti-Israel foreign policy. He also signed a letter supporting President Nixon in the Watergate affair. I can recall nothing else.

Further, it is quite possible to be a Straussian, in the sense that one thinks Strauss had important things to say about philosophy, and at the same time oppose an interventionist American foreign policy. Straussianism in the sense just distinguished seems compatible with disparate philosophical and religious doctrines. There are, for example, Roman Catholic Straussians, such as the late Father Ernest Fortin, Peter Augustine Lawler, and Robert Kraynak.

But the defenders of Strauss protest too much. Throughout his studies of the classics, he emphasized the role of a philosophical elite as advisors to those in power; and if we consult the works of those who declare themselves Straussians, we find precisely the same stress on leadership.22 Carnes Lord, a distinguished translator of Aristotle who occupied high positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, is universally acknowledged as a leading Straussian. Even Myles Burnyeat, the leading critic of Strauss’s views on Greek philosophy, has good things to say about Lord.

His Modern Prince gives us an excellent picture of Straussian elite politics in action.

Lord wastes no time in letting us know where he stands. Machiavelli must be our guide. In particular, we must learn from him that the supreme form of political leadership consists of founding "new orders." The founding prince molds his society according to his ideas: "Listen to Machiavelli: ‘It should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old order as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all who might benefit from the new orders’" (p. 8, quoting Machiavelli).

The leader must innovate; but what sort of innovation earns Lord’s praise in the American context? It transpires that Lord’s Machiavellian new orders do not amount to very much: he has merely dressed up in fancy language Alexander Hamilton’s familiar program of a strong executive who follows a mercantilist economic policy.

Here Lord stands on familiar Straussian ground. Straussians revere the Federalist; and whenever you find someone yammering about the wisdom of "Publius," it is a good bet that you have found one of Strauss’s acolytes.

Lord is a case in point. He tells us, "Hamilton’s case for a strong executive does not rest primarily on the argument from administrative competence. Rather, the key requirement in the design of the presidency, and indeed in the design of the nation as a whole, is what Publius calls ‘energy’" (p. 77).

Hamilton, or Publius, if you prefer the affectation, wishes to use presidential "energy" both in foreign affairs and domestically. For a reason that I hope will become obvious later, I shall save foreign affairs for last. Domestically, interference with the free market is on occasion required, a position with which his later-day admirer enthusiastically agrees. "While they were by no means enemies of free trade, Hamilton and [Friedrich] List argued on behalf of the importance of limited protectionist measures designed to support domestic industries at an early stage of their development" (p. 144).

Did it ever occur to Lord that economists have heard of the infant industries argument and have had something to say about it? (Mises offers a characteristically insightful discussion in Human Action. Mises sums up his discussion in this way: "The infant industries argument is no less spurious than all the other arguments advanced in favor of protection" [Human Action, Scholar’s Edition, p. 507].) What concerns me is not so much that Lord arrives at the wrong conclusion as that he fails even to grasp the relevance of economic analysis to the question he is addressing.

Instead, he serves up a few clichés about the importance of national defense. "Hamilton supported a diversified national economy with a strong manufacturing center that would provide at least a measure of self-sufficiency in military production. . . . ‘Rich country, strong army’—this maxim of the Meiji reformers is not as alien to our own traditions as it might sound" (p. 143). Lord does not tell us why impoverishing American consumers by interfering with the international division of labor will promote national defense.

In domestic politics, then, a leader who follows Lord will subordinate economic well-being to "higher" politics. Given this requirement, it is not surprising that our author is on the whole an ardent partisan of Franklin Roosevelt. (Supreme honors do not go to Roosevelt, though. Lord thinks that Ronald Reagan surpassed him as an excellent leader.) As with tariffs, there is no pretense of economic argument. Instead, all we are told is that, given the dire circumstances of the Depression, Roosevelt had to act: "In 1932, almost everyone agreed that the nation faced a dire economic crisis, that strong measures were needed to deal with it, and that such measures had to involve a greater degree of government intervention in the economy than seen before in the United States" (p. 8).

So what? Are not Hamiltonians and New Dealers all-too-common phenomena? Why make such a big fuss about Lord and his Straussian views if these involve no more than normal economic illiteracy? What Lord adds is the ruthless pursuit of power that he apparently derives from his account of Machiavelli.

For our author, Roosevelt’s attempt in 1937 to pack the Supreme Court was not an assault on constitutional government. It was a justified attempt to repel a challenge to the Supreme Leader. If the constitution, as interpreted by the "nine old men," blocks the way of the New Deal, must not something be done? "It is customary to decry FDR’s move against the Court as a prime example of the abuse of executive power by an American president. . . . Politically, though questions can be raised about the way it was handled, it can certainly be defended as an extraordinary act of statecraft in circumstances of national crisis" (p. 128).3

The Supreme Court is not the only possible danger to the leader’s program. What if the press criticizes the president? Might this not impede the leader’s program of needed action? Of course, there is the little matter of the First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech; but this is readily swept aside. "The model of ‘objective control’ in civil-military relations may be said to have its counterpart in a bargain whereby government respects media autonomy and facilitates its coverage of national issues in return for the media observing certain fundamental norms of behavior and respecting certain government requirements. The fundamental norms are political and ideological neutrality [!] and a reasonable respect for the symbols and traditions of the nation. The government requirements are protection of sensitive information and the integrity of government operations" (pp. 188–89). If the media do not agree to the bargain, the government will take them over.

But am I not here treating Lord unfairly? Elsewhere in the book, he shows himself alert to the danger of executive abuse of power, and he sometimes speaks of the need to preserve the independence of the three branches of government. Perhaps he is not so extreme as I have pictured him. Only when a great leader like Lincoln or Roosevelt is faced with an emergency will Lord favor tossing the Constitution into the garbage pail.

I would like to be generous, but unfortunately Lord gives away the game. When he speaks of the executive’s having too much power, what concerns him is only a situation when the president is officially assigned too many tasks. In doing so, he weakens his real power; Lord thinks that French president François Mitterand was for this reason ineffectual.

But where what is in question is power to achieve great Machiavellian enterprises, matters are entirely different. If we have a genuine leader, limits and checks and balances are mere devices to deceive the masses: "Paradoxically, the presidency can be strong precisely because it is weak. Because of its formal subordination to the people and the legislative power, it is seen fundamentally as an instrument of others or as not fully responsible for its actions and therefore can disarm to a degree the resentments of those adversely affected by them" (p. 83). A leader of true Machiavellian excellence must not openly assert his full power: he should operate behind the scenes to disarm opposition.

But are we not so far missing something important? Leo Strauss, whatever criticisms one may advance against him, was undoubtedly a philosopher. But in Lord’s Straussian politics, as I have so far presented it, there is nothing of philosophical interest. Is there anything to Lord’s position beyond blind power worship?

At one place, Lord endeavors to engage with the thought of a genuine philosopher, but the results are hardly compelling. The leader, Lord informs us, illustrates in his conduct Aristotle’s virtue of prudence. "The mode of knowledge that is at the core of statecraft in its traditional sense is political judgment, or to use another old fashioned term, prudence. . . . It implies that politicians, because of their greater experience of political matters, develop an intellectual ability that enables them to make sound political decisions. . . . The classic articulation of the notion of prudence appears in the thought of Aristotle" (p. 27).

Lord’s strategy here is to my mind deceptive. His view, as will become apparent in the discussion of foreign affairs below, is that leaders are free from the restraints of principle. They are superior beings whose judgments are not to be questioned by the inexperienced. He disguises this position as Aristotle’s view that one needs judgment to apply general principles to concrete situations. Aristotle’s prudence is not an amoral doctrine of reliance on the superior statesman, Lord to the contrary notwithstanding.4

When Lord discusses how the leader is to use force in foreign affairs, the restraints of justice never cross his mind. Instead, the leader, in correct Machiavellian fashion, must follow an energetic, impetuous course of conduct. He must avoid a danger: he must not pay too much attention to advice from the military. Not, of course, because the generals are apt too readily to counsel military intervention; quite the contrary, they tend to be altogether too cautious.

I have promised to save the best for last; and, with Lord’s help, the promise is easily fulfilled. Many people, according to our cheerleader for "energy," entertain an erroneous assumption. They have the strange idea that, faced with a crisis, one should endeavor to reduce tensions and settle the issues in dispute peacefully. What nonsense! "Particularly troublesome is the idea that visible preparations for war should be avoided in a crisis for fear such actions will lead to unwanted escalation. . . . There is a tendency today in some quarters to understand crisis management as a form of ‘conflict resolution’ in which third parties set out to prevent or end violent conflict between other states. . . . Some conflicts are stubbornly resistant to mediation by outsiders, and there may well be cases . . . where military action is the only realistic option for advancing the prospects for a political settlement and eventual lasting peace" (p. 204).

We must not let the nasty mediators get in the way of Impetuous Leader, as he blasts and bombs to insure eventual peace. And it gets even better. A crisis atmosphere is in many cases desirable. Otherwise, the leader cannot get what he wants: "In a larger perspective, one should bear in mind that crises can have their positive side. They present opportunities not always available to policy makers to mobilize the country behind certain policies and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to firm action. . . . [Crises] may also open avenues for skilled leaders to strengthen alliances, bolster the legitimacy of their regimes, and enhance their international prestige" (pp. 204–05). Carnes Lord, whatever his virtues, has not given much help to those who endeavor to acquit Straussians of bellicose tendencies.

1See my review of Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq, in the Mises Review, Spring 2003, pp. 1–6.

2For a valuable discussion of Strauss, see the recently translated magnum opus of the Heideggerian philosopher Reiner Schürmann, Broken Hegemonies (Indiana University Press, 2003). Schürmann asks: "And what is the crucial truth that Leo Strauss himself presents exclusively between the lines? This ‘truth’ is that the historic division between the classical and modern epochs, and thus that the ‘teleological vision’ of which the division marks a loss and a mourning, are but tools of political intervention to constitute the new aristocracy and to confer on it full powers" (Broken Hegemonies, p. 667).

3F.A. Hayek, surprisingly, also criticizes the Supreme Court for overturning too many New Deal measures (The Constitution of Liberty [University of Chicago, 1960], p. 190).

4Harry Jaffa uses the same false appeal to Aristotelian prudence to justify Lincoln’s lawless conduct. See my review of his A New Birth of Freedom in the Mises Review, Summer 2001.


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