Conservatism & Liberality: Michael Oakeshott's Quirky Fusion. (Transcript: Words Worth Repeating)

The American Enterprise, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Conservatism & Liberality: Michael Oakeshott's Quirky Fusion. (Transcript: Words Worth Repeating)


From a Bradley lecture delivered recently at the American Enterprise Institute by writer and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan:

The name Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) instills dread in many American conservatives. They recognize him as one of the most important contemporary political philosophers, and feel they should have read him, but most haven't. Or if they have read him, it's only a smattering. So they nod knowingly when you bring up his name, but don't know quite what to think of him.

For Oakeshott, conservatism was fundamentally about the skeptical temperament. His conservatism wasn't based on the notion that there are certain rights of man that we can know for sure, let alone truths that are self-evident. It wasn't based on the fact that a free society generates more wealth or power. It was based simply on the notion that there are limits to human understanding.

As an empirical matter, as a practical matter, human beings do not know the consequence of their actions. They cannot see the future. Their information, based on what has happened in the past, is extremely limited. We operate constantly in a fog--a mental, intellectual, psychological fog. This is our reality.

This fog extends not simply to abstract conceptions of what is true or not, but into practical matters as well. How do we know that what we're going to do will produce the results we want? How do we know that a certain policy is going to bring about the consequences it is designed to bring about? How do we know, when we start a war, how that war will end?

The best rationale for a small government, therefore, is something simpler than the arguments most conservatives traditionally rely on. It is based on the lack of knowledge of any group of people in knowing what on earth they are doing. Keep the government small so it can do as little damage as possible. Whenever certainty arises in public debate, question it, suspect it, doubt it. And alongside this, have a form of government, a form of statesmanship, of politicking, which deeply understands the limits of its own knowledge, which moves forward with a sense of judgment, not certainty; by prudence, not conviction.

When you look at the United States, you see a rather successful attempt to instill this notion in the state. The U.S. Constitution is designed to create permanent restraint on any group or any notion that seeks to impose the truth on the rest of us. But government itself, even in non-constitutional societies like the United Kingdom, where the law of the land is whatever anybody decides it is at any particular moment, the practice of government is still an exercise in restraint, prudence, caution, doubt.

Here is Oakeshott's own description of exactly what this kind of politics is about: "Into the heat of our engagements, into the passionate clash of beliefs, into our enthusiasm for saving the souls of our neighbors or of all mankind, a government of this sort injects ... the irony that is prepared to counteract one vice by another ... the raillery that deflates extravagance ... inertia, and skepticism." Oakeshott warns that "the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny."

Perhaps it's understandable that this doctrine hasn't really taken root in America, a place where dreams are constantly remade. But of course, Oakeshott's point was precisely that those dreams in the populace at large, the restlessness and vibrancy and enthusiasms and zeal of Americans in general, require above all the temper and restraint of cool prudence and limits in government. The two go together.

Notice Oakeshott's ability to embrace contradictions. A society can be full of dreams, but its government shouldn't be. In fact, it is government's avoidance of dreams that allows its people to dream even more ambitiously in their own personal lives.

In his famous metaphor, Oakeshott described politics this way: "In political activity, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea. …

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