All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1963

The Secret of Political Wisdom


Professor of political science at the London School of Economics since 1951, Mr. Michael Oakeshott is a libertarian. The label in itself means nothing. His predecessor in the chair, Harold J. Laski, declared he stood for liberty, too. I remem­ber reading a piece of Laski’s in which he adapted to his own need Curran’s famous words, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Yet he was a Marxist, and Marxism—at least in practice—appears to be the negation of liberty. For that matter, the London School of Eco­nomics could formerly have passed for a hotbed of British socialism, for its foundation was attributed largely to the Fabian Society; and Laski’s own predecessor, the first holder of the chair of political sci­ence, was Graham Wallas, who was also first socialist member of the London County Council. Obviously, if Professor Oakeshott were no more of a libertarian than either of those earlier professors was, the fact would not require notice. Instead, the interesting thing is that when Oakeshott was called from Cambridge University to this socialist stronghold in London, he showed at once that he was the living contradiction of his prede­cessors. Indeed, on that account, his inaugural lecture produced something of a sensation. What he said then he now reiterates in a new book, a collection of essays entitled Rationalism in Politics (New York: Basic Books, $6.50). Far from pretending that the lib­erty of the individual can best be secured by nationalization of the means of production, he sets forth in this new volume what some may feel is an extreme view of the ex­tent to which the state should re­frain from interfering with indi­vidual activities. The view, how­ever, should not be too extreme for appreciative readers of THE FREE­MAN.

Nobody will dispute that Marx­ism is first of all an ideology. Oake­shott, in his inaugural lecture, pointed out that the recent adop­tion of ideologies wholesale by pol­iticians and the drawing up of elab­orate economic plans not only mark a complete break with European political tradition, but are in fact utterly inappropriate to the proper pursuit of politics. How strongly he feels that the wholesale so-called “planning” now fashionable must be condemned, he indicates upon an early page by saying of The Road to Serfdom, the best seller by Professor F. A. Hayek, who was once at the London School of Economics himself:

The main significance of the book is not the cogency of its doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. And only in a society already deeply in­fected with Rationalism will the con­version of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Ration­alism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources.

Everything Questioned

I shall not discuss how far Pro­fessor Hayek may be found guilty on this indictment. Here it will be more illuminating to show how Oakeshott defines the mental con­fusion of those whom he calls “ra­tionalists in politics.” A rational­ist, he says, always stands for in­dependence of mind, and for thought to be free from any au­thority save that of “reason.” Therationalist is the enemy of author­ity, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary, or habitual. He is at once skeptical and opti­mistic. No opinion, no habit, no be­lief, nothing however firmly root­ed or firmly held, does he hesitate to question. The politics of the ra­tionalist are the politics both of perfection and of uniformity. He treats politics as the constant solv­ing of definite problems, and he as­similates the political task in gen­eral to that of the engineer.

Professor Oakeshott himself pre­fers an older conception of the task—the conception of Aristotle. For him, politics can never be a science; it is an art. That is to say, a politician or statesman may have aptitude, but he can only learn his job by apprenticeship, by placing himself under one already accom­plished in the art, and learn as a painter or a sheep dog learns his job, or, in fact, as every one of us learns to live. At the end of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle points out, in prevision of the se­quel, his Politics, that no man will become a doctor simply by reading a book about medicine, and like­wise nobody can become a politi­cian or statesman by having a doc­trine inculcated upon him.

Professor Oakeshott resorts to a similar comparison, only he chooses a cookery book instead of a manual of medicine, and I think this assists the understanding of the point. He says that nobody can learn to cook by reading a book. Such a book on cookery is the dis­tillation of knowledge concerning the art of cookery, and no reader can derive benefit from reading it unless that reader knows in ad­vance what he is likely to get from it. In order to take advantage of a cookery book, in short, it is essen­tial to know first how to cook. In politics, it is, Oakeshott says, ex­actly the same. That is, in his view, the secret of political wisdom.

Based on Tradition

Let me return to his inaugural lecture. Having assured his audi­ence that all he wished to do was to reiterate the truth that politics cannot be conducted successfully by means of an ideology, he went on to say that to some it seemed that politics could be an empirical ac­tivity. But to try to rule according to the chances of successive in­spirations was in fact impossible. Empiricism could never be utilized alone; it had to be assisted by something else; for instance, by a hypothesis. The hypothesis would usually be taken out of an ideology, and the principles of which an ide­ology was the statement were ac­cepted with respect because they appeared to have been premedi­tated. But again, it is quite as im­possible to premeditate rules for actual politics, and no ideology en­tirely premeditated a priori had ever existed; if one had existed, it would be absurd. The truth was that principles were not reached by premeditation; they were reached by abstraction.

In another of the essays Oake­shott recalls that English liberties were the fruit of centuries during which certain statesmen had con­cerned themselves with the ar­rangements of their historical so­ciety. Such a concern is always ex­ercised within a tradition, and it is only thanks to the vigor and liveli­ness of a pre-existing tradition that any scheme of political ends to be pursued in any particular country can be evaluated.

It follows that the knowledge which it is essential to acquire for the practical conduct of politics is the knowledge, as profound as pos­sible, of the local tradition of polit­ical behavior. It is a matter of skill, of instinct and insight, of touch and sensibility, and that is why the correct behavior could only be learned at the side of an experienced politician, unless like the second Pitt—miscalled, Oake­shott says, “the Younger”—you are born old.

A Choking Residue

According to the essay which gives its title to the book, the harm done by rationalism in politics has now reached a point where it gravely threatens the future. It is, Oakeshott says, rationalists who have thrown away the liquid in which our moral ideal was sus­pended, and having let it pour away as valueless, they have left us with a dry, hard, and gritty residue, which chokes us as soon as we try to swallow it. For in­stance, they have done their best to abolish paternal authority, and then they have deplored the dis­appearance as a consequence of “good homes,” and finally they have produced so-called substi­tutes which complete the work of destruction.

Today we are, he says, in the midst of a universal confusion. In spite of the millions spent on edu­cation, ignorance only goes on growing as regards how to behave in daily existence and how to make something of one’s individual life. “There is,” he says, “a vast and deplorable ignorance of the liber­tarian tradition itself, a confusion of mind concerning the kind of hu­man society which we have inher­ited and what is its strength and what its weakness.” The genera­tion now in the saddle has its gaze fixed on distant horizons and its mind obscured by an alien rubbish; it is a sophisticated and impatient generation. It has broken the at­tachment to the past and is athirst for everything, save liberty.

Owing to the negligence of ear­lier generations, we are almost buried under an accumulated mass of bad arrangements and of con­centrations of power which we do not know how to remove. The con­temporary mess is due to the lack of understanding of those same earlier generations; they did not understand the nature of their so­ciety; they sought to correct the bad arrangements by expedients which, because they were not in­spired by love of liberty, threaten that liberty as much whether they succeed or fail.

Political Conservatism

The essay entitled “On Being Conservative” is of special inter­est. Here Professor Oakeshott con­trasts a variety of current apolo­gies for conservatism in politics with the only view of what it means to be a conservative politically that will tally with his understanding of the nature of politics. It is com­monly asserted today, he says, that to be a political conservative is to have certain beliefs about the world and about human beings, or certain religious beliefs, or a be­lief in the value of human person­ality, or a belief in original sin or in monarchy. He admits that many persons disposed to be conservative as regards political activity claim to hold one or more of those be­liefs. But he insists that “a disposition to be conservative in poli­tics” does not entail holding any of them. What political conservatism is tied to is “certain beliefs about the activity of governing.” It is manifested in the observation of “our current manner of living” combined with the belief that

Governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something that it is ap­propriate to be conservative about.

That is a view of conservatism which should interest not only “the new Conservatives” in America, but even more perhaps those very numerous Americans today who want the government to interfere in almost everything. It is a view which should make these latter Americans think.

Altogether Professor Oakeshott’s book is an excellent work, as though expressly designed to en­able readers to begin ridding them­selves of the stubborn illusions which so many of their fellow men elsewhere are reluctant to aban­don.


  • Montgomery Belgion is the well-known Brit­ish author of Victors’ Justice, Reading for Profit, and other books.