Rationalism in Politics

In anticipation of a talk I’m giving later on in the week on Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism”, here is a nice little piece by my chum Gene Callahan serving as a good introduction to RIP.

The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentieth-century intellectual history. He is known mostly as a “conservative political theorist,” although he rejected ideology and his conservatism was primarily temperamental. Furthermore, his work on politics was only a fraction of his output, which comprised idealist philosophy, aesthetics, religion, education, the philosophy of history, and even horse racing. His popularity reached its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on the BBC and becoming the favorite philosopher at National Review. But he never seemed to seek popularity, and did little or nothing to boost his own when it subsequently faded. Today, despite the growing interest in Oakeshott since his death in 1990, even his best-recognized work, his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” is, I contend, not appreciated widely enough—thus, this article.

Lovers of liberty should keep Oakeshott’s work on rationalism in mind for at least two reasons. First, it offers a complementary but still significantly different critique of planning to those of Mises and Hayek. However, at the same time, it provides a warning to the advocates of freedom not to fall into the rationalist quagmire themselves. The relevance of the latter point is demonstrated by, for example, the tendency of many development economists, even those who are “market oriented,” to attempt to impose their theoretical schemes for taking a shortcut to westernization on some Third World country, while running roughshod over all the traditions, customs, and morals native to the place, which, whatever their short-comings, at least managed to sustain the society in question over previous centuries. Freedom cannot be “imposed” on a people according to some preconceived scheme. We all need to watch out for “the rationalist within.”


Hayek and the “Use of Knowledge in Society”

Here is a draft of my entry for the SAGE Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences.

Albert Camus

Here is a review article I came across in The Economist. Having read Camus in my youth knowing little about his life and even less about his philosophical perspective, time permitting I’m inclined to rediscover him (I was taken by Visconti’s adaptation of L’Étranger). And anyone sidelined by Sartre (a fate to befall the great Raymond Aron as well), is worthy of admiration.


Albert Camus, 50 years on

Prince of the absurd

In search of the real Camus

Jan 7th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

Albert Camus: Solitaire et Solidaire. By Catherine Camus. Michel Lafon; 206 pages; €39.90. Buy from Amazon.fr

Les Derniers Jours de la Vie d’Albert Camus. By José Lenzini. Actes Sud; 144 pages; €16.50. Buy from Amazon.fr

Albert Camus, Fils d’Alger. By Alain Vircondelet. Fayard; 396 pages; €19.90. Buy from Amazon.fr

Albert Camus. By Virgil Tanase. Gallimard; 416 pages; €8.10. Buy from Amazon.fr

WHEN Albert Camus was killed in a car crash 50 years ago on January 4th, at the age of 46, he had already won the Nobel prize for literature, and his best-known novel, “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger” or “The Outsider”), had introduced readers the world over to the philosophy of the absurd. Yet, at the time of his death, Camus found himself an outcast in Paris, snubbed by Jean-Paul Sartre and other left-bank intellectuals, and denounced for his freethinking refusal to yield to fashionable political views. As his daughter has said: “Papa was alone.”

Today, by contrast, the French are proud to consider Camus a towering figure, while Sartre’s star has faded. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy, from the political right, has proposed transferring the writer’s remains from Provence to the Panthéon in Paris. Several new books mark the anniversary of his death, including an elegant illustrated volume by Catherine Camus, one of his twin children and custodian of her father’s estate.

The reader in search of literary criticism, or even the origins of absurdist thought, will not find it in the three new biographies. That by José Lenzini, a French former journalist, is the most unusual, retracing Camus’s last journey from Provence to Paris as a series of imaginary flashbacks through his life. The other two are more conventional but both finely drawn, digestible portraits of the football-playing “little poor child”, as Camus called himself, from Algiers, who came to leave such a mark on literature and moral thought.

A double haunting presence looms throughout all the books: that of Algeria, where Camus was born, and of his mother, Catherine. Before he was a year old, the infant Albert lost his father, an early settler in French Algeria, in the battle of the Marne. His mute and illiterate mother, and her extended family, raised her two sons in a small flat in Algiers with neither a lavatory nor running water. Alain Vircondelet writes movingly of the “minuscule life” in the apartment with nothing: “those white sheets, his mother’s folded hands, a handkerchief and a little comb.” Her purity and silent dignity marked her son, as he struggled to confront his own shame at such poverty—and his shame at being ashamed. “With those we love,” he once said of her, “we have ceased to speak, and this is not silence.”

That the young Albert went to the French lycée, and then to university in Algiers, was thanks to two inspiring teachers with whom he kept in touch throughout his life; he dedicated his Nobel prize to one of them. Camus began writing, as a reporter and dramatist, in a land that was then part of France—and yet apart. His was the solitude, self-doubt and restlessness of dislocation and displacement. The young man who emerges from Virgil Tanase’s biography in particular is seductive, funny and loving, but constantly on the move: between the raw, sun-drenched Mediterranean and cramped, grey Paris, ever in search of respite from crippling bouts of tuberculosis, as well as comfort from the various women he charmed and loved with a passion.

History finds Camus on the right side of so many of the great moral issues of the 20th century. He joined the French resistance to combat Nazism, editing an underground newspaper, Combat. He campaigned against the death penalty. A one-time Communist, his anti-totalitarian work, “L’Homme Révolté” (“The Rebel”), published in 1951, was remarkably perceptive about the evils of Stalinism. It also led to his falling-out with Sartre, who at the time was still defending the Soviet Union and refusing to condemn the gulags.

Camus left Algeria for mainland France, but Algeria never left him. As the anti-colonial rebellion took hold in the 1950s, his refusal to join the bien pensant call for independence was considered an act of treason by the French left. Even as terror struck Algiers, Camus was vainly urging a federal solution, with a place for French settlers. When he famously declared that “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice,” he was denounced as a colonial apologist. Nearly 40 years later, Mr Lenzini tracked down the Algerian former student who provoked that comment at a press conference. He now confesses that, at the time, he had read none of Camus’s work, and was later “shocked” and humbled to come across the novelist’s extensive reporting on Arab poverty.

The public recognition that Camus achieved in his lifetime never quite compensated for the wounds of rejection and disdain from those he had thought friends. He suffered cruelly at the hands of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their snobbish, jealous literary clique, whose savage public assassination of Camus after the publication of “The Rebel” left deep scars. “You may have been poor once, but you aren’t anymore,” Sartre lashed out in print.

“He would remain an outsider in this world of letters, confined to existential purgatory,” writes Mr Lenzini: “He was not part of it. He never would be. And they would never miss the chance to let him know that.” They accepted him, says Mr Tanase, “as long as he yielded to their authority.” What Sartre and his friends could not forgive was the stubborn independent-mindedness which, today, makes Camus appear so morally lucid, humane and resolutely modern.

Hayek: cognitive scientist avant la lettre

Here is the uncorrected proof of my essay – do not cite.

Hayek’s Inevitability Thesis

Hayek’s notion of cognitive closure, a mark of the human condition, can be ameliorated if the social and artifactual world functions as a kind of distributed extra-neural memory store manifest as dynamic traditions, part of the resources for acting, thinking or communicating. This cognitive¬epistemological¬liberty tripartite is closely related to a long-standing bone of contention in Hayek centering on the two-fold claim:


(a) epistemological immodesty is the sine qua non of a mixed or socialist economy, and that

(b) this inexorably leads us on “the road to serfdom” (Samuelson, 2009).


The manifold ways in which this so-called “inevitability thesis” (Hayek 1944/1976, Chapter IV) can be interpreted is discussed by Farrant & McPhail (2009). Working from the 1976 edition of The Road to Serfdom Hayek gives out a mixed message. The cover trumpets the book as “A classic warning against the dangers to freedom inherent in social planning” (emphasis added). In the forward Hayek claims that he has “never accused the socialist parties of deliberately aiming at a totalitarian regime or even to show such inclinations” (Hayek 1944/1976, pp. xiv, xxi). Hayek is of the view that the source of misinterpreting the inevitability thesis is terminological – that is, socialism at the time he was writing really did mean complete and utter centralization. Thirty years on, socialism in Western Europe pretty much denoted a mixed economy. So what are we to make of Hayek on this issue?


Hayek definitely does believe that a necessary condition of socialism is a degree of centralization, political and economic, which seriously infringes personal freedom. This looks like a causal claim: socialism cannot operate without this degree of centralization. It’s a quite different (though still causal) claim that a mixed economy either leads to socialism or, for other reasons, itself produces a degree of centralization, political and economic, which seriously infringes personal freedom. I’d agree that the link between central planning and the kind of socialism Hayek had in mind is logical. One might even see it as definitional. One might think that the diminution of freedom is itself a logical consequence if what is centrally planned, since it is no longer a matter for personal choice. But this line of argument, whether Hayek’s or not, neglects the calculus of freedom. It’s logically perfectly possible for central planning to restrict some freedoms but to create or increase others. Why not? Hayek can’t logically rule it out. It’s a causal matter. In any event, it should be remembered that Hayek’s target was a rationalist zeitgeist that infected “socialists of all parties”: this was, after all, the polemical point of the book (note the tongue in cheek dedication; p. 35).


Of course it matters whether one is focusing on the Hayek of 1944 or the Hayek of 1967: it is clear that Hayek had refined his views. Consider the later essay “The Theory of Complex Phenomena” (Hayek, 1967, p. 42) where he concludes that:


. . . we may well have achieved a very elaborate and quite useful theory of some kind of complex phenomena and yet have to admit that we do not know of a single law, in the ordinary sense of the word, which this kind of phenomena obeys . . . I rather doubt whether we know of any “laws” which social phenomena obey . . . in the field of complex phenomena the term “law” as well as the concepts of cause and effect are not applicable without such modification as to deprive them of their ordinary meaning.


Hayek rightly admits that the “inevitability” is a vague and imprecise expression. So far as I can see, Hayek’s “infelicity” is generated by a lack of philosophical precision – but his critics fare little better on this point. A philosopher would talk about some (specified) kind of necessity. I’d guess Hayek assumes causal necessity but the covering law(s) would have to contain ceteris paribus clauses – which rather undermines the dramatic claim of inevitability. And what is the covering law or set of covering laws? Hayek can, it seems to me, assume causal necessity and does so at various points in his argument. The spontaneous social order emerges causally. Epistemologically we can’t predict its features but it’s not spontaneous in the sense of being metaphysically uncaused. Clearly ceteris paribus clauses water down a law’s necessity, and in this sense make its operation contingent. And contingency means that the law has a probability of less than 1. This is so even if the law “works” with exceptionless regularity: that’s just a contingency. But ceteris paribus clauses don’t tell you, without extra assumptions, what the actual probability is between 0 and less than 1. If there’s a social law with ceteris paribus clauses to support this probabilistic generalization, then we need to know what the clauses are and what in turn their probability is. Central planning leads to the general erosion of freedom unless:


 x, y, z where ‘x, y, z’ individually or as a disjunctive set have a probability of 0.9 (or whatever).


If, on the other hand, Hayek is offering a social law as an exceptionless generalization, then presumably his whole interlocked social theory will be needed to deliver this law (note 1). The claim might be that there’s a high probability, approaching 1, that central planning will lead to the erosion of freedoms. Not just economic freedoms but any freedom that relies on the rule of law, since central planning will need to override the rule of law. What is this probability claim based on? If on enumerative induction, then Hayek cannot make good this claim because his sample base is tiny. Enough said.

Note 1: By the way, while Marx does talk of the “iron laws of history,” there are other passages where historical transitions are seen as trends of extremely high probability. Epistemologically, of course, Marx never claims chronological precision as to what will happen: he can’t give even the roughest of timelines.

Farrant, A. & McPhail, E. (2009). Hayek, Samuelson, and the logic of the mixed economy? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 69 (2009) 5–16.

Hayek, F.A. (1944/1976). The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F.A. (1967). Studies on Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Samuelson, P. A. (2009). A few remembrances of Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992). Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 69: 1–4