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The Reactionary Utopian

 Michael Oakeshott and New Orleans 

September 6, 2005 
Everyone seems to agree that the Federal Government must Do Something about New Orleans and should have Done Something about it a long time ago, and presumably should also be Doing Something to prevent future natural disasters from occurring anywhere, ever. Today's column is "Michael Oakeshott and New Orleans" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.President Bush seems to agree, even though he is being bitterly blamed for not Doing Enough. Congressman Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, is taking heat because, when asked if the Federal Government should pay for the rebuilding of the city below sea level, he said it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him.

Don’t these guys get it? The Government should Do Something, and if it doesn’t make sense, that makes no difference.

At times like this my mind wanders back to Michael Oakeshott, the greatest British political philosopher of the twentieth century. He was born over a century ago now, and lived until about the age of 90. An old friend of mine is writing his biography.

Oakeshott was a skeptical conservative, not a partisan. He usually voted for the Tories on the simple grounds that “they are likely to do less harm” than the Labor Party; but I can well imagine him voting, at times, for the Democrats here, if the Republicans posed a more immediate menace.

Oakeshott didn’t have a political program and never trusted those who did. His bête noire was what he called “rationalism in politics” (the phrase became the title of a book of his elegant essays) — the desire to use government for ends it could never achieve, at least not without sacrificing the good it might achieve. He described this as “making politics as the crow flies.”

[Breaker quote for Michael Oakeshott and New Orleans: Must the government always Do Something?]Government, for Oakeshott, should be an umpire, not a player. If the umpire makes rulings that will ensure the outcome he thinks preferable — the victory of the poorer team, say — then he won’t rule impartially, and the game itself will be corrupted. “The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny,” he summed up the problem in a fine epigram. Dreams had no place in politics.

Oakeshott drew a basic distinction between “enterprise association” and “civil association.” Enterprise association occurs whenever people unite in the pursuit of a specific shared purpose — making profits, curing a disease, saving souls. Civil association is the sharing of certain rules among people pursuing different, even clashing purposes; you and I may sell rival products, but we may also agree on the laws of the market — at least negative rules against stealing, cheating, and the like. Government, for Oakeshott, means the maintenance of those laws by a neutral party, aloof from the purposes of all the competitors.

Oakeshott also made a distinction between rules and commands. A rule is impersonal, general, usually negative — a “Thou shalt not.” A command expresses someone’s personal will and usually requires a positive action — “Do this for me.” Good laws have the character of rules, not commands. They are limitations on action that benefit everyone (no theft, no murder, no speeding). Laws for the special benefit of certain parties at the expense of others, however “compassionate” their alleged purposes, are bad laws.

Governing, said Oakeshott, is “a specific and limited activity.” A government that undertakes vast projects, like eliminating poverty or needlessly waging war, is probably exceeding its proper role. Oakeshott called himself a conservative, but he recognized that many people who now claim that designation are just as “rationalist” as any socialist when they try to use the state to pursue their pet purposes. In a famous passage, eloquent but, alas, too long to quote fully here, he observes the modern tendency to view government as “a vast reservoir of power” that may be turned into an instrument of the desires and passions it should properly be a check upon.

I often recommend Oakeshott to my liberal friends. Frequently they are delighted to find a reflective, pacific (though not pacifist) conservative who is so utterly different from the belligerent fascists who have usurped the label. Oakeshott doesn’t tell you how to vote; without pretending to have the last word on politics, or insisting that you agree with him, he simply invites you to think.

He’s a subtle corrective to the impulse to demand, on all occasions, that government Do Something.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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