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Michael Oakeshott’s problem with “Rational” politics

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

“(T)he failure to follow the letter of the Constitution … is something that began almost as soon as the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and is not (primarily) a symptom of bad faith but, rather, an inevitable consequence of the fact that no such rationalist design can ever dictate subsequent practice in the way that it is meant to do.” – Gene Callahan, “Oakeshott On Rome and America”

I’d never heard of English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott until I came across a review of Gene Callahan’s book about his work.  Now I’m intrigued.

Oakeshott (to the extent I can be familiar with his work after reading a friendly review – a qualification that has to apply to this entire post) has put his fingers on one of the things that most troubles me about our approach to constitutional democracy:  the assumption that the rules for office holders are more important than the people in office.  

For Oakeshott, the failure to follow the letter of the Constitution wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – it was an inevitable thing.  He labeled the belief that a system can fully dictate the behavior of the people in it “rationalist politics”, and declared it was a fantasy.  A system has influence on the people using it, surely, but only so much – and it can never really account for every contingency … or even a majority of them as they are actually lived.  Thus it wasn’t inherently bad that the framers of the constitution didn’t follow the letter of the very document they established:  it was inevitable.  Political government is how we live through a series of ever changing real-life scenarios, not what a theory says it should be.

Here’s how reviewer Kenneth McIntyre describes “rationalism” in the pejorative, Oakeshott, sense:  “it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods—and thus it is also a claim that ‘knowing how’ to do something is nothing more than ‘knowing that’ the rules are such and such.”

Once you realize this isn’t the case, politics becomes as much about the scruples of the people in office than it is about the controlling authority over their behavior.  The opposite of “rationalism” or “rationalistic politics”, in this case, isn’t “irrationalism” but circumstantial reasonableness.

The much maligned David Brooks is the only contemporary American thinker I know of who advocates this position in a non-theistic way.  (It’s easy for the Christian right to say politics is about morality – they think everything is.)  It just doesn’t seem to take hold in our culture.

That, Oakeshott suggests, is the nature of rationalistic politics and something all Americans hold dear.  On the political right, Americans believe that the Constitution was a peerless document that laid out exactly how government should work for all time, and that only by following the instructions can we get it right.  On the political left, there is a pervasive technological utopianism which believes that all we have to do is craft the right algorithms and set up the right best practices and problems will solve themselves.  (Hello Google …)

In neither case is there a recognition that problems are often as messy as they are complicated, requiring finesse, compromise, and a light human touch.  Put the right people in a bad system and it can work quite well;  put the wrong people in a good system and it can slide downhill rapidly.

People who don’t already see that because they have great faith in rationalistic politics aren’t likely to see it after the problem has become apparent.  To quote Oakeshott:

“The rationalist, when he fails, is like an American trying to speak to a foreigner who knows no English; the American thus continues by merely repeating himself in a much louder voice. If the rationalist’s project doesn’t work at first, his answer is to repeat it in a more expensive and expansive fashion.”

This is familiar territory for anyone who watches contemporary politics – or culture more generally.  It’s good to see it diagnosed so expertly.  I would just add that I think there is a pervasive discomfort among modern Americans (again, non-fundamentalists) to talking about morality and personal standards at all.  In much the same way that we are taught to believe our constitution is damn near flawless, we have come to believe that freedom means not having to worry about your life in moral terms.  “Don’t judge me!” is often used synonymously with “I can make my own choices” – an illustration of the problem right there.  We are a people who demand a get-out-of-jail-free card on morality who live in a political system that depends upon moral people being voted in to office.

It’s going to cause a problem that we don’t want to see.

I think I’m going to have to read a little Oakeshott.