All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1992

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays

When British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott died in 1990, the world lost one of its greatest defenders of liberty. Not that Oakeshott ever stood near the Berlin Wall and asked for it to be tom down; nor had he published a systematic critique of the failures of socialism. Rather, Oakeshott’s contribution lay in carrying on a continuing conversation on the origins, opportunities, and future prospects of human freedom. In doing so, he offered some important insights that other writers missed or ignored.

Fortunately, a transcript of much of that conversation is now available from Liberty Fund. When Rationalism in Politics was first published in 1962, it was a major event, promoting Oakeshott to the forefront of contemporary political philosophers. This new edition adds six essays, five previously published, and the never-before published “Political Discourse,” each of which is consistent with the themes of the original book.

Along with Hobbes (Oakeshott was an expert on the author of Leviathan) Oakeshott agreed that life was short, but not necessarily nasty and brutish. What made life worth living were the possibilities offered by our ability to choose. But because life is short, it is impossible for any individual or group to usher in an ideally “free” society. Instead, much of life has to be spent in learning a culture’s existing patterns of behavior and traditions, then making wise decisions based on these traditions. Traditions that enhance individual liberty—trial by jury, voluntary associations, religious freedom, and so forth—should be encouraged, while those that inhibit the human spirit should be discarded.

Men and women are free to choose, but they will not always make the right decisions, Oakeshott says, and will consequently hold back the progress of human freedom. That there are those who fail is one of the mysteries of the human condition; there is no single formula for solving this defect.

According to Oakeshott, the best we can do—the only thing we can do—is follow those “intimations” that lead to a better world. Oakeshott frequently employs the word “intimation” because he wants to avoid the idea that there is a logical, rational direction in which we can go. Timothy Fuller, who wrote the foreword, says that “Oakeshott the man wouldn’t be so much concerned with where you planned to go as how you proposed to travel.” Karl Marx had a seemingly rational, detailed plan on how to order society. Over 100 years later, many Russian, East European, and Chinese citizens know by hard experience the consequences of such rationalism in politics.

But Oakeshott doesn’t stop at criticizing Marxism; he turns his critical mind to all rational plans to remake society in man’s image—the modern Towers of Babel. Whether it’s a Great Society or a New Deal, rationalism in politics always runs roughshod over the existing practices, associations, and political traditions that men have developed to make life easier: “The Rationalist has rejected in advance the only external inspiration capable of correcting his error; he does not merely neglect the kind of knowledge which would save him, he begins by destroying it. First he turns out the light and then complains that he cannot see, . . . In short, the Rationalist is essentially ineducable; and he could be educated out of his Rationalism only by an inspiration which he regards as the great enemy of mankind. All the Rationalist can do when left to himself is to replace one rationalist project in which he has failed by another in which he hopes to succeed. Indeed, this is what contemporary politics are fast degenerating into: the political habit and tradition, which, not long ago, was the common possession of even extreme opponents in English politics, has been replaced by merely a common rationalist disposition of mind.”

To the practical American way of thinking, Oakeshott’s armchair philosophy may seem too simplistic. We want a plan of action, a set of marching orders. We want to do something, even if it’s wrong. But as Oakeshott points out, every time social engineers have tried to solve problems through “rational politics,” they have only created new ones that are worse. By contrast, most of the liberties we enjoy were developed during a long historical process, totally outside the offices of the world’s central governments. New freedoms that we experience as part of the computer and information age are coming not from rational political planning, but from private sector initiatives and voluntary associations.

Oakeshott’s laissez-faire philosophy may work in societies with long traditions of individual liberty, such as the United States and Great Britain. But what about societies with no recent memory of freedom? We are already seeing how difficult it is for the Eastern European countries to free up their economies and people. What Oakeshott might suggest is that freedom in these countries cannot develop overnight, but only through many years in which existing institutions—the “black market,” religious groups, the family, voluntary associations—are cultivated and allowed to take over spheres of life once dominated by government.

Years ago, Oakeshott predicted the breakup of the Soviet empire, as he felt the human spirit could only be suppressed for so long. (Unlike many economic historians, Oakeshott finds the origins of modern freedom in the works of the artists and artisans of the Renaissance.) But he was also concerned that the nations which cast off Communism might replace one form of rational politics for another, and that the West might unwittingly aid in such folly. This book can help us avoid that temptation. 

Robert A. Peterson is the headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

  • Mr. Peterson is headmaster of The Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including National Review and Human Events.