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Saturday, November 2, 2019

Oakeshott’s Critique of Libertarian Politics

Michael Oakeshott is seen as the most thoughtful conservative of the 20th century; the rationalists that he is targeting in his 1947 essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” are primarily the liberals and the leftists. The word “libertarianism” is not there in the essay—he has, however, made a comment on F. A. Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, noting that “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” In my opinion, Oakeshott's essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” can also be read as a critique of libertarian politics.

According to Oakeshott, modern rationalism emerged as a method of acquiring knowledge in the seventeenth century and within a short period of time it acquired a chokehold on politics. The political rationalists attempt to deduce abstract, universal principles through unaided reason. They are convinced that since an individual’s reason is independent, the knowledge derived through it must lead to social progress. Modern rationalism enables armchair political theorists to originate principles, which they think are most suitable for society, and impose them on the nation.

This idea that politics is the domain of technical knowledge and not practical experience is rejected by Oakeshott. He notes that politics is not something that can reduced to a set of abstract principles or a doctrine—it is something far more complicated, being dependent on the traditions and habits of the people. Therefore, politics has to be guided by practical knowledge.

The claims that the rationalists are making are mere abridgements of practical knowledge and that will not serve as a guide for a nation’s politics. To explain his point, Oakeshott offers the analogy of a recipe—he points out that the recipes that are contained in a cookery book can be useful to an expert cook as reminders. But the people who have no knowledge of cooking cannot cook like a chef if all they know is the recipe—a practical knowledge is required for being a chef. The same, Oakeshott insists, is true of politics. You can use abstract political principles as reminders, but if you have no practical knowledge, then your political ideas are of little value.

Oakeshott sees politics as the “practice” of attending to the arrangements of a given society. He rightly notes that Hayek’s plan is merely a plan or a theory—to make it work you need practical knowledge that Hayek (or any other armchair thinker) is incapable of providing. I think this is a right identification of the problem in libertarianism which relies too heavily on abstract theories and pays very little attention to the practical side of politics.

Related: The Importance of Culture

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