Conservative Classics: Michael Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics”


Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) was one of the great conservative thinkers of the last century. After serving in World War II, Oakeshott was appointed Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he replaced Harold Laski. The two men could not have been more different: Laski was a Marxist thinker and a life-long apologist for socialism; Oakeshott was an important conservative political philosopher.

The year he joined the faculty of the LSE (1947), Oakeshott published an essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” which has become one of the classics of conservative thought. In this age of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, an unfettered EPA, Common Core, the exponential growth of government regulations, ad nauseum, this essay deserves to be read widely (a pdf copy of the essay is available here).

It is a short, brilliant critique of the mode of thought that now dominates leftist thinking in America (and, sadly, the kind of thinking that animates far too many politicians who call themselves conservatives).

Oakeshott’s aim in the essay is to skewer one of the pillars of modern thought: the idea that society can be organized on a scientific basis by disinterested experts who are unelected, but who operate with vast amounts of delegated power.

This kind of big-government rationalism goes back to the philosophes of the French enlightenment, it was the centerpiece of the great debate between Thomas Paine (“Government, in a well-constituted republic, requires no belief from man beyond what his reason can give”) and Edmund Burke in the late eighteenth century, and it found its way into modern American political thought via John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and many others. It is the crown jewel of the left’s agenda for the twenty-first century.

Early in the essay, Oakeshott makes it clear that he holds no brief against rational thought or against making decisions, political and otherwise, based on rational analysis focused on the prudential process of weighing facts and options.  Oakeshott attacks the narrowness of those who believe if they  do (or pretend to do) only that kind of analysis, their job is done.   The greatest flaw, Oakeshott, argues, of this kind of rationalism that its proponents are unwilling to consider anything else, such as tradition, past practice, or cultural habits.

Let’s turn to Oakeshott’s words.

The kind of “Rationalist” that is the subject of Oakeshott’s criticique “stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’ His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual.”

This is the kind of expert (the polar opposite of the prudent Burkean gradualist) who summarily rejects tradition and past practice: “He has no sense of the cumulation of experience . . . .: the past is significant only to him as an encumbrance.”

The Rationalist convinces himself that he stands outside politics, that like Sergeant Joe Friday, he is interested only in the facts. But he also loves innovation as an end in itself:

“He believes that the unhindered human ‘reason’ (if only it can be further brought to bear) is an infallible guide in political activity. . . . To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. . . . To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient.”

A case in point: Obamacare. Rationalists like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi [I know, it’s hard to suggest that either is “rational”] ask their functionaries to draft a 2,000 page bill that must be passed so we can find out what is in it. There is no deliberation, no public debate (before passage); the contents of the bill are the province of nameless, faceless “experts” like the now infamous Jonathan Gruber (he of “speak-o” fame). These are the experts and bureaucrats who claim to master a unique form of knowledge: “technical knowledge or knowledge of technique.”

A second kind of knowledge, which Oakeshott calls “practical knowledge,” is of no value for the Rationalist because “it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules.”

Thus, the Rationalist believes that the “sovereignty of ‘reason’ . . . means the sovereignty of technique.” The Rationalist eschews practical knowledge because it “can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired.” Standing alone in their technocratic magnificence, they are quite immune from anything as mundane as good old common sense (and are apparently incapable of asking practical questions like “will the dogs eat the dog food?”).

It is here that the Rationalist makes two major mistakes.

First, he mistakes “a part for the whole”; “technical knowledge” is only a part of the equation: if (as they always do) the Rationalists ignore human nature, how we got where we are, and the oft-proven idea that a bureaucratic dream and practical reality rarely resemble each other, they create omnipresent government (and, to add insult to injury, omni-incompetent government).

Second, “he is no less deceived by the apparent certainty of technical knowledge.” This faith in the “sovereignty of technique” is almost always a failure because it “turns out to be a dream and not a reality.” The modern Rationalist errs in believing “that government [is] nothing more than public administration and [can] be learned from a book.”

For Oakeshott, the prime example of the triumph of this kind of rationalism over experience was the widespread adoption of Marxist ideas: “No other technique has so imposed itself upon the world as if it were concrete knowledge; none has created so vast an intellectual proletariat, with nothing but its technique to lose.”

For Oakeshott, this kind of rationalism has many failings, but the most central failing is this:

“Rationalism in politics . . . involves . . . a misconception with regard to the nature of human knowledge, which amounts to a corruption of the mind. And consequently it is without power to correct its own shortcomings; it has no homeopathic quality; you cannot escape its errors by becoming more sincerely and profoundly rational. . . . [T]he Rationalist has rejected in advance the only external inspiration capable of correcting his error; he does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which could save him, he begins by destroying it. First he turns out the light and then complains that he cannot see. . . . In short, the Rationalist is essentially ineducable; and he could be educated out of his Rationalism only by an inspiration which he regards as the great enemy of mankind. All the Rationalist can do when left to himself is to replace one rationalist project in which he has failed by another in which he hopes to succeed.” 37

Oakeshott concludes with a passage (remember, this was written in 1947) that anticipates the social destruction wrought by the big, unwieldy liberal experiments that have so encumbered the world in the last seventy years:

“Moral ideals are a sediment: they have significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition, so long as they belong to a religious or a social life. The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it off as worthless) that they are only left with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority [because of its alleged abuse], then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes,’ and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction. And it is for this reason that, among much else that is corrupt and unhealthy, we have the spectacle of a set of sanctimonious, rationalist politicians, preaching an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they and their predecessors have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behaviour; and opposed by another set of politicians dabbling with a project of converting us from Rationalism under the inspiration of a fresh rationalization of our political tradition.”

This has been a brief review of a brilliant piece of thinking and writing. There is much, much more to be found and pondered in the essay.

Like Richard Weaver, I believe that “ideas have consequences.” Oakeshott, by attacking the foundation of the rickety edifice of the modern welfare state, has provided us with ideas that (1) help explain what has been happening to us and (2) why the foundational ideas of the great leftist experiments in social engineering (see, e.g., Obamacare) never work.

Read the essay. It will make you a better, smarter conservative.


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