Michael Oakeshott

We should salute the legacy of a philosopher who explained why the conservative disposition is inimical to big government

The Tories appear poised to regain power, so it is timely to recapture a sense of the conservative disposition amid all the policies, programmes, plans and “isms” floating around. In America, where conservatives have lost power, there is a scramble to remember what it means to be conservative. 

During the nearly 50 years since Rationalism in Politics appeared in 1962, Michael Oakeshott’s work has gained much ground in the academy. More and more of his work is published for the first time, or reprinted, and books and doctoral dissertations in Britain and North America abound. But do the politicians who have inherited the conservative mantle pay attention to what he said to us on this subject? 

It is perhaps less to be expected in America where Oakeshott’s sort of conservative thought is often seen by Republicans and neo-conservatives as a sceptical, foreign element. But in Britain one would like to hope for more. Oakeshott (1901-1990) chose specifically to talk of the conservative disposition because he did not associate being conservative with ideological plans to reconstruct or remake society. 

He thought that to be of a conservative disposition was to enjoy the possibilities of the present moment without excessive anxiety for what we had been or what we imagined we were going to be. He thought that maturity meant to live in the present, neither in a state of guilt nor of heroic aspiration. Heroic aspiration he thought was proper to the individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune, but was not an attitude for governments to impose on the polity as a whole. 

We should, he said, “attend to” the arrangements that had brought us together by chance or choice. Living in the present did not mean to him living self-indulgently, but rather living to the highest possible degree without the distraction of an endlessly regretted past or a wished — for but illusory future liberation from all our problems. He understood that many of our “problems” were recurrent predicaments that we had to manage but from which there would be no permanent liberation. He believed that individuals would be better off without constant hectoring from political leaders’ moralising pinpricks. 

In its broadest sense, the conservative disposition expresses gratitude for life and seeks to enjoy the gifts we have by making fruitful use of them. At the same time, the conservative disposition does not wallow in alienation and complaints about life’s imperfections. Of course, one fixes what one can, reforming where necessary, but not under the illusion that there is a cumulative and progressive resolution of the conditions that make us human.

Oakeshott cared a lot about the scope of governmental power. He distinguished between the “politics of faith” (progressivism tending to utopianism) and the “politics of scepticism” which aimed to limit the centralisation of power, to keep the ship of state afloat, remaining suspicious of would-be pilots claiming to guide us to a final port of destination. In On Human Conduct (1975), Oakeshott distinguished between “civil association” and “enterprise association”, arguing for the former concept of how we ought to relate to each other against the latter. Civil associates are bound together by a rule of law that facilitates their freely chosen transactions with one another. Government has a limited role to maintain a stable environment and to adjudicate disputes, having at its disposal only limited resources to redistribute, and individual freedom can flourish because people pursue their own purposes and meaning in life. 

Politics, he famously said, was a “necessary evil”, meaning that it was unavoidable for lack of something better, but it was not for the purpose of dictating the meaning of our existence even if the temptation always loomed in the background. “Enterprise association” imagines us to be role players in a corporate enterprise that has a unifying purpose articulated by those who hold
power — what we may call in other terms the “administrative-regulatory state” as opposed to the “rule of law state”. This corporate concept, coupled with egalitarianism, modern technology and continual preparation for war, threatens individual freedom and responsibility. These opposed positions on how we should relate play out against each other and, while neither totally defeats the other, the administrative state has increasingly, in the present age, dominated the way we think about the scope of governmental power, encouraging its unlimited expansion. 

Amid debates over reforming health care, education, immigration and all the rest, it is a good idea to clarify the underlying convictions and presuppositions of those who wish to gain our trust in future governments. These are often obscured in the rhetoric of public policy debates. 

There is great value to rereading Oakeshott. Without telling us what to think, he most helpfully guides us to what we often ignore but need to think about. 

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