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.”