A Skeptical Conservative

September 1, 2000 Topic: HistoryIdeologyPolitical TheorySociety Tags: Academia

A Skeptical Conservative

Mini Teaser: Rationalism and politics is a combustible mixture. We know this from history. Oakeshott knew it all along.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

It is now ten years since Michael Oakeshott died, in his ninetieth year and long after retiring from the chair of political science at the London School of Economics (LSE). So it is not surprising that some people should think that the time has come to rescue him from the limbo that claims celebrated writers after death and celebrated academics after retirement. It has been a long, quiet limbo, marked only by the publication of two small books he left in his desk drawers and not by the rise of any Oakeshottian school that might have applied or developed his teachings. Indeed, the only attention he has received in recent years has taken the form of musings about what possible relevance his metaphysical doctrines could have to political theory, not practical politics. As his most sympathetic expositor, Paul Franco, concluded, "To begin to work out what this political philosophy means for political life as we know it is the next step in understanding . . . Oakeshott's thought." Less sympathetic students might have discouraged that "next step" by recalling Dr. Johnson's observation, "A High Tory makes government unintelligible-it is lost in the clouds." The great height from which Oakeshott poured scorn not only on politicians but on political scientists and even political philosophers gave his beautifully crafted essays (and his famously spellbinding lectures were essays read out loud) a rarefied charm, urbanity and dignity; but more practical (and more realistic) students were left hungry.

When Oakeshott was appointed to succeed Harold Laski at lse, just when Churchill came back to power to end the era of postwar socialism in Britain, the appointment was condemned by many academics as a political one. To be sure, his airs and graces nourished the apprehension that he was a toff and a Tory dandy (in fact, he was the son of a civil servant), but he was no party man. The publisher's blurb on Steven Anthony Gerencser's The Skeptic's Oakeshott says that, "Mrs. Thatcher based much of her political philosophy on Oakeshott's theories", but this is wide of the mark. The systematic campaign Mrs. Thatcher ran to convert the Conservative Party to free-market ideology was exactly what Oakeshott condemned as "rationalism in politics" (and has been roundly denounced as such by John Gray in The Undoing of Conservatism). What theory she needed she got from Friedrich von Hayek, and Oakeshott would have none of his free enterprise ideology. In his view, "This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom-not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics."

Oakeshott's influence among students was surely conservative but not because he supported the right-wing case against Labour (he disdained polemics) so much as because he preached to them the vanity of any political activism whatever. J.L. Auspitz notes that, "Undergraduates from all over the world had flocked [to lse] in the expectation of learning exactly what Oakeshott averred could not be taught." As Jeffrey Hart remarks, Oakeshott appalled lse students by telling them "that their hopes for a better world were an illusion and that their guides had been charlatans."

Thought and Action

In today's jargon, what Oakeshott rejected was "the vision thing", "the big picture." Politics was not about that, he said, and politicians and intellectuals who said it was exerted a corrupting influence. Even if they avoided such dangerous flights of fancy, politicians found no favor with him, for politics was at best a necessary evil, a second-rate occupation. With what Robert Grant called "a sublime, even breathtaking aloofness", Oakeshott dismissed politics as "vulgar", "bogus", "callous" and a "false simplification." It was the domain of a hasty, truncated understanding of society. It was an endeavor of marginal significance, administrative in character, secondary in the life of a people, shallow and narrow, and superficial in its effects, especially when compared with the truly vital activities of art, literature and philosophy. How Bloomsbury can one get? The idea that politicians are not the great movers and shakers they take themselves to be is a familiar one, but the advantage is usually, and realistically, given to industrialists, scientists and entrepreneurs, not to artists, writers and philosophers. But science and industry are largely beyond Oakeshott's ken.

Other political scientists have held politicians in contempt (Pareto didn't think much of them, for instance), but this one did not think much of political scientists either. In an essay deceptively entitled "The Study of Politics in a University", Oakeshott curtly dismissed what passes for political "science" (notably in the United States) as mere vocational training, presumably for party hacks and journalists, and a failed and "worthless" training at that. His reasons for this low opinion of political science were not those of Hayek, for whom it was mere "scientism", the misguided application of the methods of natural science to intractable social material. Oakeshott thought the scientific treatment of human affairs was perfectly possible; it just was not profitable. As he wrote in On Human Conduct, it was "not an impossible undertaking. But it has little to do with human conduct and nothing at all to do with the performances of assignable agents." It would yield only certain statistical regularities, aggregates, and knowledge of unintended consequences, and no knowledge of human conduct. Wherefore: "In becoming scientific, political studies cease to be practical."

Other contemners of political science present their wares as political philosophy. After agonized hesitation about whether politics and philosophy could ever mix, Oakeshott agreed they could, and did in his own work, but only on condition that it was understood that political philosophy was useless, "has no injunctive force", and could never yield anything of interest or relevance to actual politics. It could not, for example, give guidance for action, suggest policies, rules, principles or programs. Of course, we expect philosophers to eschew propaganda and party politics, but Oakeshott was looking for something more remote, abstract and bloodless, something as far removed as possible from that mainstream of twentieth-century philosophy for which (in R.G. Collingwood's words) "all thought exists for the sake of action." The upshot was that his university teaching came down to lectures on the history of political thought, especially that of Hobbes. So it is the sign of a paroxysm of skepticism when a colleague at lse, Kenneth Minogue, reveals, "The older he got, the more Oakeshott tended to regard the very enterprise of a history of political thought as an impossible one."

After this litany of skepticism about the practice and theory of politics, the title of Gerencser's book, The Skeptic's Oakeshott, should not surprise. Oakeshott called himself a skeptic, and his critics have mostly agreed. Gertrude Himmelfarb said, "Oakeshott's animus against Rationalism issues in a radical skepticism, in a refusal to embrace any idea, principle, or belief lest that imply a commitment to some absolute truth." What Gerencser claims to detect is that, while maintaining his skepticism about politics, science and the rest, Oakeshott extended it to philosophy itself, thereby arriving at the position "that no voice-including that of philosophy-expresses an absolute certainty; rather truth is always dependent on certain conditions." This would have carried him toward the universal relativism of the postmodernists.

Whatever interest these arcane matters may have for metaphysicians, I think they can be laid quite aside when we consider what Oakeshott had to say about politics. For the extraordinary thing is that he did have something to say on that subject. After repeatedly telling us what we could not say or know or do in politics, he managed to advance a characteristic political doctrine; it is slender, repetitive and elegantly expressed.

It has been said that the world is made up of two sorts of people: those who believe that the world is made up of two sorts of people; and those who do not. Oakeshott belonged firmly in the former category. He thought there were two sorts of people, two ways of cohabiting in society, two kinds of politics, two sorts of state, and so on through a list of a dozen or so pairs. Predictably, these pairs of opposites correspond one to the other. The basic one is the contrast of two ways of cooperating in society: in a civil association or an enterprise association. (The distinction between the two is laid out in the essay "The Rule of Law", which is included in Liberty Fund's re-issued On History and Other Essays.) In an enterprise association there is a common purpose, a joint policy, and hence an obligation of members to behave in accordance with it or get out. Examples would include a business venture or a religious sect. In a civil association there is no common purpose, only an agreement (or a habit or tradition) to abide by certain general rules while pursuing various purposes. All that members have in common is this recognition of the authority of general rules. So their commonality is purely formal; they do not join together for certain transactions since their association is "non-instrumental." The chief example is the modern Western state.

Individuals, naturally, belong to both sorts of association and that may be why a confusion arises: some people seek to make of the state an enterprise association, to give it a common purpose and to subject it to overarching control and direction. They wish to impose on it forms that are consciously planned and deliberately executed, supplanting forms that have grown up unself-consciously over long periods of time. They think they can succeed at this because they are possessed by an ideology and armed with technical knowledge and formulas that will replace customary and traditional ways of doing things. Their outstanding characteristic is "doing things by the book", pursuing an ideal, rather than trusting to traditional skills, practical knowledge, conventional morality and educated behavior. This is what Oakeshott at first called "the politics of faith", in contrast to the "politics of skepticism" that is practiced by a civil association confronted by the need for change. Later he called it "rationalism in politics", against reliance on the "intimations" of traditional practice, meaning what is suggested as safe and reasonable and in accord with custom.

The Assault on Rationalism

Actually, the contrast Oakeshott was proposing had earlier been stated by Disraeli in these words:

In a progressive country change is constant and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.

But in 1872 Disraeli could not foresee what by Oakeshott's time was clear, the enormous damage that could be done by the irruption of passionate ideology into politics. Knowing that, Oakeshott brought to the denunciation of rationalism in politics as much ferocity as was compatible with his urbane and abstract style.

He said it corrupts and brutalizes a people, and leads to barbarism and tyranny such as the "cruel authoritarianism of the visionary leaders" of modern Europe (given the time, this was a reference to fascism and communism). He was especially harsh on the intellectuals, above all, the social scientists, saying that the impoverished way of thinking they had made fashionable was the most pressing cause of the corruption of our ability to live well. His ambition, says Anthony Farr, was to limit the authority of those who sought to direct other people's lives, be they scheming politicians or audacious academics. There is no question but that these are heavy hits when they are landed on the right opponents, namely, those who imagine they can recast society according to plan. But there is a question whether they are properly aimed at any state that undertakes the work of an enterprise association instead of confining itself to the "non-instrumental" activities of a civil association.

For consider what a state that did so confine itself would look like: consider, that is, Oakeshott's account of the civil association. Its government would be small and, by our standards, inactive, for it would have few policies. It would have scant resources of its own, and hence little to distribute, and so the political contest for spoils would lose most of its point. Its economic policies would not extend much beyond sound money and antitrust policing. Its main task would be enforcing general rules of social and economic behavior by adjudicating conflicts as they arose; Oakeshott insisted adjudication did not mean conciliation, which was altogether too activist a role. He said, "Government in this style is, we have seen, primarily a judicial activity", and indeed it seems less like a government than a High Court of Equity. It would preside over a society that was a congeries of private enterprise associations, from whose conflict, mysteriously, all violence, ruthlessness and skulduggery had disappeared, thereby relieving the government of the duties of coercion and punishment.

Oakeshott was quite open about how inadequate all this would seem to earnest policymakers. They would see it as excessively skeptical, he conceded, as underestimating human possibilities, as frivolous, ironical, even playful. None of which bothered him, for at least such a style of politics was not self-defeating, as the politics of passionate rationalism inevitably and disastrously was. This did not convince even political thinkers who were quite near Oakeshott in temper. Hayek, for example, was waging a campaign against social "constructivism" that was parallel to Oakeshott's assault on rationalism in politics, but Hayek reasonably insisted that at the center there had to be a government armed with effective coercive power, which was necessary to the functioning of the market system-but which was also dangerous to personal liberty, and therefore had to be limited and in some way supervised. Keynes, too, had foreseen the objections to Oakeshott's brand of indolent conservatism, saying, "It leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard; it is not even safe, or calculated to preserve from spoilers that degree of civilization which we have already attained . . . [we] must have an attitude, a philosophy, a direction"-in short, some sort of rational enterprise.

More fundamentally, it seems, there is the question whether, in the real world of politics from which Oakeshott was so remote, a state can even exist that is not in certain important respects a rational enterprise, notably in the matters of defense and foreign policy. His friend and editor, Timothy Fuller, says, after describing the modest adjudicator state, that, "Oakeshott thought that the main obstacle to enjoying such a government was the unavoidable and continuous preparation for war that imposed on all modern governments the undertaking to organize society in terms of uniformity of goals, reinforced by infatuation with technology, and the belief that human beings could not be entrusted to take care of themselves unless directed by an extrinsic goal or purpose, an ideology."

Now this is getting the wrong end of the stick, with a vengeance: what is being presented as the obstacle to good government is in fact the necessary condition for the existence of any government at all, namely, the external pressures of foreign policy and defense. As Otto Hintze said in a seminal essay, "All state organization was originally military organization, organization for war." Dismissing Marx's notion that class conflict was the driving force of history, Hintze added, "Conflict between nations has been far more important; and throughout the ages, pressure from without has been a determining influence on internal structure."

Cannon Fodder

Instead, Oakeshott chose to look internally and found the same driving force as Marx, though he put a different value on it: the power behind rationalism in politics was the rise of mass man (a.k.a. the proletariat). In an essay, "The Masses in Representative Democracy", he declared there were, and had been since sixteenth-century Europe, two sorts of people, individuals and individuals manqués, depending on whether they made or failed to make the adjustment to the dissolution of the pre-modern community. Some people failed in this because of some "combination of debility, ignorance, timidity, poverty or mischance", whereupon they became anti-individualists and "sank into guilt, envy, jealousy and resentment." When they turned to militant politics, their servility and submissiveness made them so many mice for the Pied Pipers of collectivism, for they wanted a state that would plan equality, sharing, partnership and solidarity. The mere availability of such cannon fodder called up the modern leader, a "cunning frustrate", an egoist whose only satisfaction came from commanding other people. Obviously, this same story could be told in different ways: not as the consequence of a lack or a failure but as the rise of a different morality, alternative to "possessive individualism"; or as the story of the widespread alienation produced by an economic system; or as the plight of people whose only acquaintance with the economy was through a factory or bureaucracy or other large organization in which individualism was scarcely known. But Oakeshott told it in heavily moralistic language, and decreed that all the consequences of individualism manqué were bad.

The tic of dividing things into two sorts and declaring one of them bad was alleviated when Oakeshott was brought to concede that political rationalism was inseparable from the European tradition and had to its credit what he called "many great achievements" over the centuries. Among these he mentioned "the supersession of violence by cooperative endeavor in many fields of human activity, and the whole movement of social and educational reform." It had not only promoted such chimeras as world government, the single tax, economic planning and open diplomacy, but also nationalism, federalism and the vote for women (though he has reservations about the last three, especially if the last is premised on the supposed "timeless rights" of women).

Thus, political rationalism was not some malady to be eradicated but an element in a complex European tradition, one force in a parallelogram of forces, one pole toward which policymaking might veer (like Left or Right). Ideology, too, after being deplored in comparison with the intimations of a live tradition, is restored to favor because, as a summary of a tradition, it can be of service to conservatism as well as to political rationalism. Moreover, since so much political rationalism is impractical and unworkable, what we are criticizing in it often is not the actual implementation of bad policies but erroneous belief, misdescriptions of society. When asked if that was worth getting so cross about, Oakeshott said trying to do what was impossible was "a corrupting enterprise."

That Oakeshott overlooked, or at least underestimated, the role of rationalism in the state was perhaps due to his reliance, which he often stressed, on English history. There is much in that country's story that can be represented as the working out of traditions, feeling the way by touch toward a balance of political forces, even doing great things in a fit of absent-mindedness. No such account could be given of the history of, say, Spain. As Ortega y Gasset said in Invertebrate Spain, that nation-state was "the great enterprise" of Castile during the centuries-long campaign against the Moors: "The vision of a united Spain was . . . an abstract ideal which could be realized, a plan which could fire men's minds." Generalizing from that case, he echoed Hintze: "The great nations have been made not from within but from without. A successful international policy, a policy of high enterprise, is the only thing that creates a fruitful internal policy-which is always, in the last analysis, a rather shallow affair."

But the massive counter-example that Oakeshott runs into, like Hayek and all the other critics of constructivism and rationalism, is the American Constitution, which, as every schoolchild is taught, was deduced more geometrico from natural law theory and cognate rationalist abstractions. When Walter Lippmann raised this objection, Oakeshott replied tartly that this was a typically shortsighted American view; there had been no Founding Fathers, only a series of limited decisions. Hayek had no better answer to the objection that the Constitution was "a product of rationalist constructivist liberalism." He said it was the "product of accident rather than design" and simply extended ancient English traditions. One must leave these assertions to the historians, but they have a prima facie air of desperate ad hoccery.

The Uses of Social Science

In general, theorists like Oakeshott and Hayek are often arbitrary in drawing the line between rationalist political constructions and those institutions that have grown to no one's design over long periods of time. The distinction is not as clear-cut as it sounds. Because the Constitution is a good thing, it cannot be allowed to be an instance of rationalism in politics; but because the welfare state is (or has become) a bad thing, it is travestied as a political design deduced from the rationalist construction "social justice." It is not seen to have grown imperceptibly out of an old tradition, but must have been created by a political party, perhaps at the time of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, or in Britain's Beveridge Report of the 1940s, or, in the German case, in backroom deals between Bismarck and Lassalle. In reality, the welfare state is a stage in the evolution from the poor relief of Elizabethan times, and from religious charity via private benevolence, to social insurance. It is a classic example of the unplanned, dispersed, incremental growth of an institution, and one that was only brought under central government responsibility after the Second World War. Of course, that does not protect it from any criticism one may care to offer, except from the charge that it is culpable "constructivism" or "rationalism in politics."

If there was one crucial turning point in the development of the welfare state it was not a political intervention but an application of natural science to social affairs, that is, just the sort of thing Oakeshott said would be of no interest or importance. This was when the Belgian mathematician and astronomer Adolphe Quetelet showed that social statistics (then called "moral statistics") could be collected on such things as crime, mortality and accidents. Until then, workers' compensation for the distressingly frequent factory accidents of early industrialism (mostly involving steam) could only be established by judicial action to determine individual responsibility. But once the frequency and regularity of accidents were fixed, there was the actuarial basis for a system of insurance to cover the risks. And once factory accidents were seen as an insurable risk, so were unemployment, poverty, sickness and so on, until the notion of comprehensive social insurance (as in the Beveridge Report) appeared. My point is not simply that workers' compensation is the historical basis of the modern welfare state, but that Oakeshott was wrong to think that the regularities and aggregates of social science were irrelevant to human conduct.

He was not only wrong but unfair to himself in saying that political philosophy is nugatory and irrelevant to political life. Insofar as it provides the tools for criticism of political ideas, it will always be of the utmost and urgent relevance, because politics is above all the domain of prejudice, fraud, deception and self-deception. The sort of criticism Oakeshott leveled at rationalism in politics-when he aimed straight and hit the planners and social engineers and not the modern state itself-was a useful weapon to put into the hands of conservatives. Much of his criticism of the state seen as an enterprise association, that is, as having in hand the interests of all members instead of protecting them to pursue their own chosen interests, was helpful in the exposure of solidarism, the passing off of limited sectional interests as everybody's interests. Since that is one of the most common frauds in politics, both on the Left and on the Right, Oakeshott had more relevance than he claimed.

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