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Tradition! a la Oakeshott

by on October 25, 2020

Referred to by Terrence Ball and Richard Dagger as one of the leading representatives of classical conservatism in the twentieth century, Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) suggested that politics must be rooted in tradition and experience, not abstract reason or principles. Oakeshott’s article, “On Being Conservative” was published in Ball and Dagger’s “Ideas And Ideologies: A Reader” (2004), where I first read Oakeshott. “On Being Conservative” can also be found here.

In many ways conservatism, or being conservative, sounds natural. Many of us – probably all of us – have some inclination “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, the prefer to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible,” the “convenient the perfect,” and other marks of conservationism Oakeshott expressed. Conservatism is the aversion to change, he tells us. More remarkable, that means that “change … appears always, in the first place, as deprivation.” We’re being deprived of the familiar.

Change is inevitable, Oakeshott concedes. The last several centuries have been marked by change. Change naturally happens. It’s just that conservatives “will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden” changes. Change, after all “is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction” of the familiar. A conservative is “strongly disposed to preserve his identity” as he knows it.

This is not to say that innovation is bad. Conservatives – at least conservatives in Oakeshott’s world – know that innovation can be improvement. He says that the conservative temperament will see innovation in a few ways: “innovation entails certain loss and possible gain” and thus the “onus of proof, to show that the proposed change is beneficial may be expected to rest with the would-be innovator”. A conservative would be more likely to go for an innovation that responds to a defect, and this is much more preferred than “one generated by an idea of perfection”; conservatives “prefer small and limited innovations to large and indefinite”; and thus “favours a slow rather than rapid pace” to innovation”; and lastly, “he considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.”

Conservatism makes sense in the personal world that Oakeshott discusses, such as maintaining a friendship is inherently progressive. If we extend it to our own habits like food choices , and other habits of being in our ‘comfort zone’ it makes sense.

While all of the above relates to conservatism as a political philosophy, the quotes and habits I’ve commented on are merely one of a conservative person; a person that Oakeshott says is often seen as “rooted in ‘human nature’,” who simply has a “propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to look for something else”. In his concluding section Oakeshott moves on to what these means for “a conservative disposition in politics”. As a non-conservative person I am trying to fathom how conservatives see the world.

This conservative disposition “is nothing to do with a natural law or a providential order, nothing to do with morals or religion”. We can only assume what Oakeshott would think of today’s conservatives in the United States. Our current politicians, including nominees to the Supreme Court, extend conservatism to morals that they themselves don’t follow, and religion that they bastardize for their own use.

Conservative disposition in politics “has nothing to do with morals and religion.” What the disposition is, Oakeshott says, “it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief … that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood not as imposing substantial activities … “. The government does not exist to “impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects,” for which we should be thankful for under past, present – and likely – future governments. Nonetheless, “the office of the government is merely to rule”.

There are currently a few representatives in government – and oddly, Oakeshott might find, they tend to be progressive representatives – that would agree with Oakeshott that

it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities and which gives them the authority to to impose upon their subjects quite a different manner of life.

In addition, they’d probably agree with Oakeshott that the government and its representatives should not be zeroed-in on one issue on which they “spend their energy and wealth,” and spend no energy or wealth on any other issue.

Oakeshott’s conservative government exists to “preserve the peace … not by substantial unanimity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike”. As a system, contrary to our current administration and its followers, conservatism is “found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behavior, not in the search for truth or perfection”.

In theory – yes, this is all theory – conservatives approve of innovations, but the modifications should “never on any occasion be so great” as to destroy the equanimity. Conservatives, he makes clear ” will have nothing to do with innovations designed merely hypothetical situations”. It would be best to “delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the chance of circumstance it is designed to reflect has come to stay a while”. The conservative would be “suspicious of proposals for change”. All this, apparently, while appreciating innovations.

Oakeshott’s conservative, perhaps unlike the contemporary conservatives in the U.S., would be suspicious “of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes”; especially, perhaps if those changes are “tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or ‘social justice’. Despite the reality of a ruler who demands extraordinary powers, the conservative of Oakshott’s world might view policies as thing to be lightly renovated and trimmed from time to time, not severely changed.

Oakeshott recognizes that some politicians want to use the “government as an instrument of passion” and that to inflame the masses is the best course of change. The conservative is certainly against this; the business of a government is “not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activity of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to pacify, and to reconcile” is the goal of the conservative.

Now I will try to understand conservatism as Oakeshott believes it to be in relation to modern and current U.S. politics. The conservatives – who in theory want to “maintain the peace” through an equilibrium – are in charge of the executive branch, and the Senate. Certainly it’s the Democrats who are more inclined to promote transformative programs of the suspicious notion of ‘social justice’. Programs like the Green New Deal, universal healthcare, and the call to defund the police – which, although it must have a threatening sound to the conservative ear that wants to maintain the status quo, is merely a call to reallocate funding that goes to the police. None of these will happen at the federal level as long as conservatives – anyone interested in not rocking the boat – is in charge of what bills get passed and approved. There is no promise that these changes would happen under a Democratic administration.

Some programs to “maintain the peace” are, or were, programs not limited in scope. For instance, the eighteen-year long war in the Middle East was a blow to the equilibrium of the status quo. So was the response to the immigration crisis, especially at our southern border. The war, and the immigration crisis that has resulted from U.S. policies were drastic changes in behavior and action that has become a norm of the conservative to accept and promote.

Oakeshott certainly believed in the separation of church and state, and thought that no religious outlook would interfere with, or mingle with, the conservative disposition. Remember that he said that conservatism “has nothing to do with morals and religion” and is merely a tempered response to the the reality around us. While the reality is debatable, the classic conservative of Oakeshott’s world responded with a realism not connected to religion or morals to the contemporary world. Extend this thought to a current Supreme Court nominee and you’ll see that Oakeshott’s classic conservative is different from the current conservative.

While conservatives are not inclined toward radical change in policy, this doesn’t imply that liberal Democrats are naturally in favor of drastic change. Also conservative in nature, the contemporary liberal in government is very much a proponent of delaying “a modification of the rules until it is clear that the chance of circumstance it is designed to reflect has come to stay a while”. It appears that the liberal leadership is”suspicious of proposals for change,” even when studies present evidence that the change would be good financially, morally, ethically, and with broad approval. Like the classic conservative, it seems that liberals “will find small and slow changes more tolerable than large and sudden” changes. While small and slow changes occur, there will be no transformative, radical, necessary, changes made by the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Seeing that conservatism in both its current form and the form that Oakeshott propounds and that liberalism in its current form is not working to bring about changes necessary changes in policy the logical suggestion would be to think beyond conservatism and liberalism. Even Oakeshott’s conservative knows that change happens and can appreciate it; it’s time for the government to abandon conservatism and bring passionate change of necessary, positive, changes for the people.

From → Politics, US Politics

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