Oakeshott’s Conservatism

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Oakeshott was very much a creature of his times. He had endured the rise of many -isms: Communism, Fascism, Socialism. And like many of his contemporaries he rejected the facile notions of Progress as manifested in the wretched exponents of the Isms of his time.

    But was Oakeshott really all that Conservative? Insofar as he was prepared to see history through the lenses of the pluralist and skeptic, this Liberal has no quarrel with him. He wasn’t a Libertarian: there was a role for government, just not a Government by Ism which would crush down the individual.

    Proverbs 11:14: For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure. Though I’m not an Oakeshott scholar, that’s been my take-away from what little I have read. Government, insofar as it’s doing its job, is helping the individual, but it’s only when we’re willing to apply the salutary scrub brush of skepticism to the Wonderful New Solutions we’re proposing, we’ll never see it from all sides. The worst of evil is done with the best of intentions.Report

    • Avatar Anderson in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Admittedly I haven’t read any Oakeshott, but you make an argument here for decoupling Oakeshott-Burkean conservatism from today’s definition of conservatism that is echoed, beautifully I think, by Andrew Sullivan in a recent essay: “as I studied political philosophy more deeply, the core argument for conservatism was indeed that it was truer to humankind’s crooked timber; that it was more closely tethered to earth rather than heaven; that it accepted the nature of fallen man and did not try to permanently correct it, but to mitigate our worst instincts and encourage the best, with as light a touch as possible. Religion was for bishops, not presidents. Utopias were for liberals; progress was not inevitable; history did not lead in one obvious direction; we are all limited by epistemological failure and cultural bias….Now it’s Levin-land: either total freedom or complete slavery and a rhetorical war based entirely on that binary ideological spectrum. In other words, ideological performance art: brain-dead, unaware of history, uninterested in policy detail, bored by empiricism, motivated primarily by sophistry, Manicheanism, and factional hatred.” (http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/06/conservatism-is-true.html)

      I don’t think the ideas of limited knowledge, the necessity of empiricism, and the willingness to be open to change over time can be stressed enough in all walks of life, not just political conversation.Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke in reply to Anderson says:

        The beginning of the Sullivan essay was solid, the rest partisan cant, spin and bent drifting into incoherence. This is the tragedy of Excitable Andy.

        [Actually his triumph, since he has found a profitable niche in the punditsphere, the putative conservative telling lefties what they want to hear, while feeding their conceit that they listen to both sides of the national argument.]

        Should anyone want to defend his indefensible conclusion or anything after the ellipsis above, that Obama is the conservative here, I’ll be happy to stand as foil. There is some currency to the argument, but not only is BHO no Bill Clinton, he’s not even a David Cameron.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

          Well, that’s easy. First, at a moral level, Obama has said many times he’s not for gay marriage. Domestic policy: Obama’s knuckled under to the private insurance industry. Foreign policy: he’s continuing the wars he said he’d stop: even now, we’re still not out of Iraq and probably never will be. Afghanistan drags on and on.

          More importantly, at a rhetorical level, he sounds an awful lot more like Reagan than any other president. Don’t confuse this guy with a Progressive, we thought Reagan was gonna be a Progressive, too. He was gonna get America back to basics, all that can’t we all get along bullshit and the kumbaya crowd just ate that right up, just like all those starry-eyed Reagan kids. For Reagan had been a Democrat back in the day, oh yeah. Maybe you don’t remember how telegenic Reagan was and how absurd his competition looked back in the day. Reagan had a certain pastiche to him, there was an effortless grace to the man, a real charmer until you took off the beer goggles and started watching him in action. Obama’s still up to dirty tricks, running yet another horrid Gitmo, this time in Mogadishu. And let’s not forget he said he’d close Gitmo itself. Fourth Amendment? Executive privilege? Obama makes even Bush look like a piker. Obama likes all that power the GOP gave Bush43 and has zero intention of giving a penny’s worth of it back to Congress.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Funny how conservatives think Obama’s more liberal than jane Fonda and liberals think he’s a center right moderate.

            And he is. A center right moderate.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater says:

              Some of this Conservative babbling, and I am sorry to say I see a good deal of it around here, will come to a screeching frishing halt about the time Fox News is dragged into this News Corp scandal. Like so many parrots trained to repeat sutras, a whole lot of otherwise quite decent people have been led down the primrose path. Human nature’s like that: advertising is measured in imprints. Keep repeating the slogan. If keeps people from actually thinking about what they’re actually doing.

              Part of the problem is that there aren’t any real Liberals left in the USA. Boy would American Liberals be surprised to hear actual Liberals talk: by comparison, American Liberals would translate to Christian Democrats in Germany.Report

            • If BHO’s a center-right moderate, Scott Brown’s election then the Tea Party triumph of 2010 has made him one.

              But if I were to try your riff, Mr. Stillwater, I’d have been less rhetorically extravagant: Bill Clinton was a center-left moderate, and BHO ain’t no WJC.

              Jeez, dude, by American standards, David Cameron’s a center-left moderate, and BHO don’t even meet that.

              [On foreign policy, BHO fits in well with the American “water’s edge” center-right consensus since like forever, Harry Truman. Even Jimmy Carter, who was the one who initiated “Reagan’s” defense buildup and supplied the contras in Afghanistan vs. the Soviets.

              BHO be sending drones everywhichway on those Islamis [Pakistan, Yemen, even Somalia] and bombing the shit out of Qaddafi like a good li’l neo-con.]

              [Hell, the neo-cons prob would have let Qaddafi slide, since he got pretty chill after we whacked Saddam and all.]Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I said this on the other thread, so apologies for the double commenting.

    Jason, you’re disputing a claim made by Tim, and I think you’re both wrong. And both right. Conservatives are not reluctant at all to advocate and embrace change from ‘existing policies’, as evidence by the recent demand that New Deal programs be effectively dismantled. That’s a radical change, not-merely-not a conservative one. If the premise held, conservatives wouldn’t want to change from the ‘existing policy’ of Medicare and Social Security.

    But on a deeper level, and harder to articulate, you’re correct that conservatism is bound inextricably (on my view) with a reluctance to change. And the way it shows up is that conservatives oppose any deviation away from some vague conception of the ‘good life’ or ‘good governance’. This opposition reveals itself almost universally as a rejection of liberal – or any non-conservative – legislation, or any and (it seems like all) liberal institutions.

    So the upshot of Oakeshott is that conservatives aren’t opposed to change at all, even radical change, just so long as it keeps conservative ideals in place.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Stillwater says:

      To the extent that U.S. conservatives would dismantle the New Deal, perhaps they aren’t conservatives in Oakeshott’s sense, no. It’s a fairly technical sense, perhaps, but I think still a relevant one.

      A lot seems to hinge here on the amount of time that has passed, and the degree to which we deem that the ivy really has grown over the walls.

      Consider: No one here would call “conservative” the folks who would deny women the right to vote or hold office, yet that was a change that began less than twenty years before the New Deal itself. Are the 1920s the magical moment for conservatives? How odd. I personally don’t have a perfect moment, unless it’s somewhere in the future.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        I have a theory about how this all came about. With the rise of Fascism in Europe, plenty of people right here in the good ol’ US of A were all for it. And a great many more people who weren’t gung ho for it weren’t exactly opposed to it and quite a few more were silently pleased to see the rise of the fascists at the expense of the Jews, though they wouldn’t actually say so.

        Well, 7 December 41 changed all that, at least. Hitler went from hero to clown to devil over the course of a few years, but there was no big effort to prevent his atrocities, and we did turn plenty of Jews away. As a nation, we’re not really keen on telling that part of the story. NYTimes did report on a few of the worst atrocities, and never on the front page, and certainly not above the fold.

        But even with Hitler, Tojo and WW2, the lure of fascism had brought in captains of industry and low-life racists alike. The problem was what to call it, for the word Fascism was now lost to history, buried with Hitler and like Hitler, buried in a very shallow grave.

        The old line Conservatives were elitists and like the old Tories, they tottered around muttering about women in the workplace and declaring the Niggers incapable of meeting the challenges of the modern world. They found a voice in William F. Buckley and in those days he was quite the Young Fogey, full of wit and aphorism. But fundamentally, when you subtracted the bons mots, you were left with a proto-fascism, dank with Buckley’s Irish Catholicism and his hatred for Communism, a sort of educated Francisco Franco.

        The world following WW2 had left Franco’s regime intact. Wernher von Braun came out of those snowy woods with his arm in a cast, grinning like a shit eating weasel: he knew the score, and so did Francisco Franco. America left the castigation of the Nazis to the Germans themselves. But of fascism itself, the Americans remained curiously silent, for American Conservatives had long played with that grenade. Even Old Man Kennedy and Brown Brothers had been playing financial footsie with the Third Reich. Nobody did a damn thing about them, either. The Americans put a big USAF installations at Moron, Torrejon and Zaragosa and a Navy installation into Rota in Franco’s Spain. It was all about the Communists. Fascism could be overlooked, as it had been overlooked in the wake of the Spanish Civil War.

        I date the Conservative Arcadia to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Americans fought in that war, in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They had fought against Franco and fascism, and for democracy. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the last time ordinary Americans ever really took up the sword in defense of an actual democracy, and they lost. They returned home to a deeply suspicious government and treated like shit. Forbidden to serve as officers, Hoover’s FBI kept them under surveillance for their entire lives.

        Really, when you get right down to it, American Conservatism isn’t conservative at all. It’s a kindler, gentler fascism.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Hey, that olde swordsman, Errol Flynn was wounded fighting with the Lincoln Brigade, a gaggle of Leninists, for sure.
          I love your histories and the rose colored glasses through which you preceive it. Please do the “commie rise in America” history. And, feel free to use any Kremlin documents you’d care to use.
          You do get points for being an honest statist, however.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Are the 1920s the magical moment for conservatives? How odd. I personally don’t have a perfect moment, unless it’s somewhere in the future

        I think the ‘magical moment’ is mythical, but nonetheless real for conservatives. That’s one reason conservatism cannot fail: being mythical, there is no established path or historical process to achieve it. No one’s ever been there.

        That the recent outcomes of conservative governance have been so jarringly non-utopian is why conservatives continue to insist that their high ideal can only be failed. It has to be better than this, right?Report

    • WT, I read Oakeschott as saying here that if times are bearable, the conservative knows most other times sucked; that man has far more shitty ideas than good ones, and so new ideas should be taken with great caution just on the odds; that per Edmund Burke, the present set of ideas has got us out of the primordial ooze and have passed some real a posteriori test of their compatibility with human nature.

      And the “conservative” is not greedy: he is thankful and appreciative for what he has, and thinks not much of “more.” Bird in the hand.

      None of this applies if things are shit. I agree with the structural criticism of “conservatism” that whatever the conservative finds himself defending, it was once radical. [Hence, “conservatism” in its own right is no ideology atall!]

      “What is esteemed is the present,” writes Oakeschott, perhaps his best argument in this. It’s often argued that the conservative seeks a return to some “imagined perfect past.” I do not think this is so. I think the conservative is no mere revanchist [although some are, based on self-interest], nor guilty of imagining past times as better than they were.

      This here conservative at least, and the whole “return to the Founding principles” movement, is merely a desire to hit the Undo button on modernity and progressive statism. Nothing wrong with hitting the Undo button, reverting to the last Save. As a writer, and even more as a music producer, I can testify that sometimes you just went down a dead end, and the best thing you can do is retrace your steps to the last time you were on your way to somewhere.

      In the current crisis, if you’ve dug yourself a hole, first thing to do is stop digging. This is conservatism first and foremost.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to tom van dyke says:

        To what extent is evidence involved in those desires to ‘undo’ present statism? The US could balance budgets, pay down debt, preserve social programs with only a few tweaks: raising taxes on the wealthy and getting medical provider costs under control. It isn’t like we need to dismantle entire institutions to achieve fiscal soundness.

        Let me ask you, is there a level of taxation which conservatives would think acceptable for the wealthy, or is any tax too high so long as poor people receive the benefits of their ‘productivity’?Report

        • Yes and no, Mr. Stillwater. Pls rephrase more cleanly.

          No, there is not enough $$$ to be gleaned from the “rich.” The math sez so, even if we confiscated every penny of their wealth, let alone their income. Otherwise, it would be Golden Goose for dinner tonight, I reckon.Report

        • Avatar Larry in reply to Stillwater says:

          Or, the US could balance budgets, pay down debt, keep taxes low with only a few tweaks: keeping social program spending to levels manageable with revenues and … well that’s it.

          So let me ask you, is there a level of taxation which liberals would think too high for the “wealthy”, or is any tax too low so long as there’s anyone who still wants their money? (Follow-up: how do liberals objectively define the “wealthy” — or do they just pull some number(s) out of, let’s say, thin air?)Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Larry says:

            Is there a level of taxation too high? I think the 90% from days gone by is excessive. But I don’t think 50% for all income over say, 2 million is unreasonable. I adhere to the proposition that people ought pay taxes in proportion to the benefits received.Report

            • Avatar Larry in reply to Stillwater says:

              Well, good to see an upper limit at least, but 50% on income over 2 million is “not unreasonable”? Why not 70% on all income over 1 million? Or 80% on all income over 500K? Or, for that matter, 40% on all over 5 million? Anyone get a sense that, like the definition of “wealthy”, these are numbers manufactured out of the air? And notice one other thing? Whatever the taxes we currently have, for liberals they’re never high enough, never mind too high, especially on the airily defined “wealthy”.

              But then there’s this odd conclusion: “I adhere to the proposition that people ought pay taxes in proportion to the benefits received.” Which sounds vaguely like a flat tax proposal of some kind, and would make either the current level of taxes on the wealthy too high (!!), or the current level on the middle class and poor too low (!?).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Larry says:

                I think you’re just trolling, but I’ll bite.

                Of course those numbers are manufactued, but not out of thin air. Government requires revenue, yes? One hypothesis is that we determine a best guess of government costs, then find the total number of adult citizens, divide one number into the other, and tax everyone equally. Not very feasible, is it?

                Another strategy is to say that taxes ought to go up progressively wrt income level. How is the calculus determined here? Take the one number, divide another number into it, etc. Seems more workable, yes? What determines the upper and lower limits of taxation? On the low end, and ability to pay, determined by what constitutes minimal cost of living subtracted from the empirically determined lowest wage earnings.

                What determines the brackets and rates on the way up? Pragmatics!

                But look, there are principled, ideological reasons for taxing the wealthy, but I reject those. My reason, stated above, is that the wealthy make almost the entirety of their income directly from state-sponsored institutions: corporations being the most obvious example. Since that income wouldn’t be possible without a dispensation from the state, that money gets taxed higher. The upper limits are determined by market forces to the extent that increasing/decreasing taxes increases/decreases revenue, and certainly with an eye towards eliminating tax breaks and loopholes, and government waste (all of which are championed by the GOP).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Larry says:

                That last sentence is ambiguous: the loopholes, tax breaks and government waste are championed by the GOP, not eliminated by them.Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to Stillwater says:

                I think you think I’m “trolling” simply because the percentages and numbers you put out are so obviously arbitrary. Taxing everyone equally at least has the appearance of fairness and rationality, even if impractical. Taxing everyone an equal proportion has the virtue of being fair, rational, and feasible, and in particular is without the questionable morality of penalizing success. The idea, on the other hand, that the state should seize every penny it can right up to the point at which people will stop producing any more wealth altogether (“The upper limits are determined by market forces….”) is not just questionable morality — it’s the morality of the extortionist.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Larry says:

                is not just questionable morality — it’s the morality of the extortionist.

                And yet, there is no other solution, is there?Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to Stillwater says:

                Sure there is. As opposed to the notion of first deciding how much we’d like to spend, and then trying to figure out how to take as much money as possible from the people producing it, we can first decide what a fair level and manner of taxation is and then try to figure out how to live within the means that provides.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                Larry, remember when (it was last year) the Teaparty/GOP said they were gonna come up with a budget that cut 100 billion from government spending? Then they revised that and said they were gonna get 50 billion cut? Then the revised that and settled for 38 billion?

                There’s a reason for that: the targeted programs were, from the GOP’s POV, either governmentally necessary or politically necessary. All they could get to was 38 billion . And these are the ‘hawks’ who right now want to pass a balance budget amendment in a two week time frame.

                They’re incoherent.Report

            • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Stillwater says:

              There is a theoretical point where the ultimate marginal rate is such that an incremental increase induces a decline in revenues due to the depressive effect it has on people’s participation in economic life. I am not sure anyone has quite figured out where that theoretical maximum is. (Arthur Laffer has made a career as a policy entrepreneur claiming it was a good deal lower than other economists assumed).

              Try three principles:

              1. Taxes should not be used to allocate capital or sluice benefits to well connected economic sectors (e.g. real estate and oil).

              2. Income taxes should incorporate a general exemption or general credit to extinguish the liabilities of people whose income does not exceed a certain baseline (in a society with an income distribution like ours, that would be about the least affluent 25% or 30%).

              3. Taxes should not induce disagreeable and obtrusive externalities. Note that property taxes induce a bias toward deforestation (in rural areas) and toward property abandonment (in urban slums).

              Otherwise, your tax rate should be implicit in your expenditure program.

              Let’s posit that B.O. gets the expenditure program he says he will settle for (sans details for the Congressional Budget Office, natch). Federal expenditure amounts to 23% of gross domestic product; tariffs, miscellaneous excises, assessments on gifts and estates, tolls, and registration fees amount to about 1% of gross domestic product; payroll taxes assessed on employers amount to 1.6% of gdp. Social Security contributions and personal income taxes would have to amount to about 20.4% of gdp, or 24.5% of personal income. Social Security taxes are assessed on employees and then everyone’s income tax liability is thus:

              [(Personal income – general exemption of $x per family member) x general marginal rate] – Social Security contributions.

              If your general exemption manages to exclude the least affluent quarter, I do not think your general marginal rate has to exceed 35%. Too much? Too little?Report

  3. Avatar Tim Kowal says:

    At any rate, I don’t find that it adds much depth to one’s policy preferences, and certainly not much that is particularly conservative, to say that one’s preferences “comport with human nature, with right behavior, and with a proper ordering of society.” Everyone thinks this about the policies they prefer. We differ precisely on our views of human nature, right behavior, and the proper ordering of society, and by saying so we’ve just extended the battlefield as we were bound to do in any case, from policy preferences to the reasons we have for holding them.

    Does everyone think this about their own policies? I stated very broad objectives, yes, but even so, I think many reject them. I hear guffaws around here when the topic of natural rights or human nature are referenced even in passing. And as I mentioned in my response post, as well as in my recent review of Krugman’s book, there is no discernible principle of New Deal liberalism concerning the “proper ordering of society.”

    Yes, we differ “on our views of human nature, right behavior, and the proper ordering of society.” But that difference seems to be “whether,” not “what.”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tim Kowal says:

      I dunno. The New Deal was very much couched in terms of rights and the proper ordering of society. The very name invokes a re-ordering of society so that it will be proper. If it’s not a new social deal, then what is it, anyway?

      Although New Deal rights were positive rather than negative rights, they were very definitely asserted as the birthrights of all Americans.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    I hear guffaws around here when the topic of natural rights or human nature are referenced even in passing.

    I think the guffaws come when these principles magically lead to precisely their invoker’s policy preferences. It’s the secular version of “God is on my side”.Report

  5. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    This might be unhelpful (as usual), but I read Oakeshott while I was in Paris doing research in the Bibliothèque nationale (God knows what he had to do with my research). Anyway, I remember thinking he comported well with what the French call the patrimoine culturelle, which, as I understand it, government officials have a duty to maintain that is probably more important than they are- and which seemingly applies to all of them, be they of the left or right. The patrimoine culturelle is not an especially right-wing concern in France.Report

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