Having lived in an era which saw the rise of Nazism and the spread of Communism, Dr. Friedrich sometimes took a dour view of the human inclination for freedom.
In his 1967 book ”An Introduction to Political Theory,” he wrote that while the liberal tradition believed people wanted freedom maximized, ”experience in the last hundred years has shown this to be quite in error.” He added, ”Actually I think it is much more nearly true to say that people want a minimum of freedom, rather than a maximum. Most people are very glad to leave a lot of things to other people.”
Encountering Carl Schmitt for the first time is a shock, especially if one is raised to respect what Jeremy Rabkin, in his Liberty Forum essay, correctly describes as the liberal pieties. But if one cares about liberalism it would be a mistake to write Schmitt off as a Nazi, a nihilist, or a promoter of anachronistic theological irrelevancies. Schmitt was a prophet of doom, and doom did not arrive on schedule, and his solution was worse than the disease. But it is important to take a longer perspective: the problems he identified in liberalism have not gone away. Indeed they flare up repeatedly, and may well be arriving on a slower schedule, in different but related forms.
The risk of dismissing Schmitt is significant: to fail to see how fragile liberalism is, what its preservation requires, why the liberal bromides seem to much of the world to be cynical and empty justifications for the self-interested exercise of power, and, finally, why the skeptics might, quite reasonably, think differently. With the world convulsed by radical Islam, which overtly rejects liberalism and takes a theological form that cannot be fit into the painfully worked-out compromises that resolved the European wars of religion, one can hardly pretend that liberalism, especially of the kind derived from Wilsonian internationalism, has all the political answers for current world problems.
There are other reasons as well. One cannot really understand the Frankfurt School, or Leo Strauss, or Hans Kelsen, or Hans Morgenthau, without understanding what they both absorbed and rejected from Schmitt. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) is a perfect example of Schmittian reasoning, and the basic form of argument reappears in feminism and the various constructions of racism that dominate contemporary academia. And one cannot understand the kind of authoritarian liberalism promoted at Harvard by the Kantian Carl Friedrich, which influenced so many American political scientists, including his student Henry Kissinger, and also many of his Harvard colleagues in other fields, and consequently the conduct of American government, without understanding Schmitt as his hidden interlocutor.
Clinton Rossiter’s dissertation, Constitutional Dictatorship (1948), conveyed the same message as Schmitt’s Dictatorship (1921): that we had something to learn from the Roman institution of dictatorship about how to deal with political crisis. It was a small step to Rossiter’s fawning praise of the executive in The American Presidency (1956), his widely used textbook pointing out that the vaunted legislative checks on presidential power in the U.S. Constitution, such as the power of the purse, were largely meaningless and unusable. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency (1973) affirmed that this is indeed what had transpired: the executive had become unfettered and dangerous. In an age of presidential assertions of prosecutorial discretion that amount to rule by decree, these are live issues.
In particular, following the events of 9/11, Rossiter’s first book, the 1948 Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (reissued in 1963 with a new preface), was reprinted for the first time in nearly forty years. In that germinal study, Rossiter argued that constitutional democracies had to learn the lesson of the Roman Republic to adopt and use emergency procedures that would empower governments to deal with crises beyond the ordinary capacities of democratic constitutional governance but to ensure that such crisis procedures were themselves subject to constitutional controls and codified temporal limits.