The Reactionary Utopian
Michael Oakeshott and New Orleans
Dont these guys get it? The Government should Do Something, and if it doesnt make sense, that makes no difference.
At times like this my mind wanders back to Michael Oakeshott, the greatest British political philosopher of the twentieth century. He was born over a century ago now, and lived until about the age of 90. An old friend of mine is writing his biography.
Oakeshott was a skeptical conservative, not a partisan. He usually voted for the Tories on the simple grounds that they are likely to do less harm than the Labor Party; but I can well imagine him voting, at times, for the Democrats here, if the Republicans posed a more immediate menace.
Oakeshott didnt have a political program and never trusted those who did. His bête noire was what he called rationalism in politics (the phrase became the title of a book of his elegant essays) the desire to use government for ends it could never achieve, at least not without sacrificing the good it might achieve. He described this as making politics as the crow flies.
Government, for Oakeshott, should be an umpire, not a player. If the umpire makes rulings that will ensure the outcome he thinks preferable the victory of the poorer team, say then he wont rule impartially, and the game itself will be corrupted. The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny, he summed up the problem in a fine epigram. Dreams had no place in politics.
Oakeshott drew a basic distinction between enterprise association and civil association. Enterprise association occurs whenever people unite in the pursuit of a specific shared purpose making profits, curing a disease, saving souls. Civil association is the sharing of certain rules among people pursuing different, even clashing purposes; you and I may sell rival products, but we may also agree on the laws of the market at least negative rules against stealing, cheating, and the like. Government, for Oakeshott, means the maintenance of those laws by a neutral party, aloof from the purposes of all the competitors.
Oakeshott also made a distinction between rules and commands. A rule is impersonal, general, usually negative a Thou shalt not. A command expresses someones personal will and usually requires a positive action Do this for me. Good laws have the character of rules, not commands. They are limitations on action that benefit everyone (no theft, no murder, no speeding). Laws for the special benefit of certain parties at the expense of others, however compassionate their alleged purposes, are bad laws.
Governing, said Oakeshott, is a specific and limited activity. A government that undertakes vast projects, like eliminating poverty or needlessly waging war, is probably exceeding its proper role. Oakeshott called himself a conservative, but he recognized that many people who now claim that designation are just as rationalist as any socialist when they try to use the state to pursue their pet purposes. In a famous passage, eloquent but, alas, too long to quote fully here, he observes the modern tendency to view government as a vast reservoir of power that may be turned into an instrument of the desires and passions it should properly be a check upon.
I often recommend Oakeshott to my liberal friends. Frequently they are delighted to find a reflective, pacific (though not pacifist) conservative who is so utterly different from the belligerent fascists who have usurped the label. Oakeshott doesnt tell you how to vote; without pretending to have the last word on politics, or insisting that you agree with him, he simply invites you to think.
Hes a subtle corrective to the impulse to demand, on all occasions, that government Do Something.
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