More about Conservative Governance

In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights‘,” I quote at length from Michael Oakeshott’s essay “On Being Conservative (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition). The point served by the quotation is that it is unnecessary to erect a regime of liberty on a deep philosophical foundation of the kind proffered by “natural rights” theorists. Conservatism, properly understood, is an attitude toward life, in general, and the role of government, in particular; it is not a political ideology.

There is much more to be said, and Oakeshott says it exceedingly well:

To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire. In short, governing is understood to be just like any other activity — making and selling a brand of soap, exploiting the resources of a locality, or developing a housing estate — only the power here is (for the most part) already mobilized, and the enterprise is remarkable only because it aims at monopoly and because of its promise of success once the source of power has been captured….

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration. A government of this sort does not need to be regarded as the agent of a benign providence, as the custodian of a moral law, or as the emblem of a divine order. What it provides is something that its subjects (if they are such people as we are) can easily recognise to be valuable; indeed, it is something that, to some extent, they do for themselves in the ordinary course of business or pleasure…. Generally speaking, they are not averse from paying the modest cost of this service; and they recognize that the appropriate attitude to a government of this sort is loyalty … , respects and some suspicion, not love or devotion or affection. Thus, governing is understood to be a secondary activity; but it is recognised also to be a specific activity, not easily to be combined with any other…. The subjects of such a government require that it shall be strong, alert, resolute, economical and neither capricious nor over-active: they have no use for a referee who does not govern the game according to the rules, who takes sides, who plays a game of his own, or who is always blowing his whistle; after all, the game’s the thing, and in playing the game we neither need to be, nor at present are disposed to be, conservative.

But there is something more to be observed in this style of governing than merely the restraint imposed by familiar and appropriate rules. Of course, it will not countenance government by suggestion or cajolery or by any other means than by law…. But the spectacle of its indifference to the beliefs and substantives activities of its subjects may itself by expected to provoke a habit of restraint. Into the heat of our engagements, into the passionate clash of beliefs, into our enthusiasm for saving the souls of our neighbours or of all mankind, a government of this sort injects an ingredient, not of reason … , but of the irony that is prepared to counteract one vice by another, of the raillery that deflates extravagance without itself pretending to wisdom: indeed, it might be said that we keep a government of this sort to do for us the scepticism we have neither the time nor the inclination to do for ourselves. It is like the cool touch of the mountain that one feels in the plain even on the hottest summer day. Or, to leave metaphor behind, it is like the ‘governor’ which, by controlling the speed at which its marts move, keeps an engine from racketing itself to pieces.

It is not, then, mere stupid prejudice disposes a conservative to take this view of the activity of governing; nor are any highfalutin metaphysical beliefs necessary to provoke it or make it intelligible. It is connected merely with the observation that where activity is bent upon enterprise the indispensable counterpart is another order of activity, bent upon restraint, which is unavoidably corrupted (indeed, altogether abrogated) when the power assigned to it is used for advancing favourite projects. An ‘umpire’ what at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; ‘rules’ about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements to disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’. And one does not need to think that the belief in ‘progress’ is the most cruel and unprofitable of all beliefs, arousing cupidity without satisfying it, in order to think it inappropriate for a government to be conspicuously ‘progressive’. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without irecting enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight…. (Id., pp. 431-5)

Contrast the conservative attitude to the attitude of left-wing intellectuals, do-gooders, and politicians to whom government “appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it.” It may be true, as Oakeshott charitably asserts, that some of them “sincerely believe [that their favorite projects] are for the benefit of mankind.” But, in my observation, the left is largely animated by the will to power, for its own sake.

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