Sunday, 19 February 2012

The wisdom of Michael Oakeshott and the menace of activist ministers

Michael Oakeshott
Like most right-wingers – well, like most people, I suspect – I am often exasperated by how messy and disorganised human society is. (Probably because I’m often exasperated by how messy and disorganised I am.) What society needs is the smack of firm government, someone to tidy it all up, to make it work, to impose a vision, a plan. Dammit, I want order!

When I re-read Michael Oakeshott’s 1956 article, “On Being Conservative” recently - for the first time in 25 years - I felt slightly embarrassed by my own authoritarian tendencies: but then, I'm probably slightly more of a right-winger than a conservative. Nevertheless, I can see that this enormously wise and civilised essay holds the key to so much of what’s gone wrong with Western governments since it was written. Ministers, according to Oakeshott, should see themselves as umpires whose role is to prevent, as far as the possible, the rest of us from colliding with each other as a result of the tens of millions of small-scale social interactions that take place in these islands every day. Ministers are supposed to do this by making sure the rules by which we live minimise the severity and number of rows we have to get involved in just to get things done. When traditional rules prove inadequate to changing circumstances, ministers step in and tinker with the existing rules so that an approximation peace and harmony may reign once more.

But many modern politicians don’t much fancy being mere umpires: they want to be out there on the court, smashing down aces and winning tournaments. They want to be players. They don’t want to have to bother interpreting the desires of the people who voted for them, or to have to frame rules which take human nature into account. And they certainly don’t want to have to listen to experts who might not agree with them. They know what’s best for us, and they’re going to bloody well ram it down our throats and leave “a legacy” as a result of their all-important individual “journey”. As for human nature – it’s  their job to change it, not pander to it: it’s now our job to fit in with their utopian vision of the world. And the only experts they need to listen to are the ones who will provide them with the intellectual or evidential underpinnings that their vision needs, because they're usually far too busy to do that for themselves.

For most of us, life is an endless compromise: politicians no longer see why they should have to - they want to have their cake, eat it, and be applauded by the rest of us for doing so. Oakeshott sums up the problem beautifully, "...such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living".

The rise of the activist minister is the reason why ugly windfarms are marching across our countryside, murdering birds and destroying beauty that can never be recaptured. It’s why we’ll eventually run out of electricity - because activist ministers are obsessed by renewable energy. And why our fuel bills are so ludicrously, unnecessarily high. And it’s why, over the next decade, the standard of university education in this country will plummet even further than it already has. And why we haven’t told the EU to mind its own bloody business. And why our crowded little island has been jammed to the rafters with immigrants, whether the rest of wanted them or not. And why so many vicious criminals are walking our streets when they should be locked up or having electrodes attached to their testicles back in their own countries. And why our money is still being power-hosed at kleptocracies and tyrannies and countries that have stated that they don’t want it.

All because of puffed-up, self-important, single-issue fanatic ministers whose only interest is to impose their almost invariably deluded visions on the poor fools who voted them into power. When I hear of the appointment of a minister who is considered an expert in the area they’ll be overseeing, my heart sinks, because you can be pretty damn sure the results will be appalling for the rest of us.

As Oakeshott puts it, “We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them?”

“On Being Conservative” can be read here. In case you're not in the mood for the whole thing, here's a lengthy quotation: 
"Surveying the scene, some people are provoked by the absence of order and coherence which appears to them to be its dominant feature; its wastefulness, its frustration, its dissipation of human energy, its lack not merely of a premeditated destination but even of any discernable direction of movement. It provides an excitement similar to that of a stock-car race; but it has none of the satisfaction of a well-conducted business enterprise.

Such people are apt to exaggerate the current disorder; the absence of a plan is so conspicuous that the small adjustments, and even the more massive arrangements, which restrain the chaos seem to them nugatory; they have no feeling for the warmth of untidiness but only for its inconvenience. But what is significant is not the limitations of their powers of observation, but the turn of their thoughts. They feel that there ought to be something that ought to be done to convert this so-called chaos into order, for this is no way for rational human beings to be spending their lives. Like Apollo when he saw Daphne with her hair hung carelessly about her neck, they sigh and say to themselves: “What if it were properly arranged.”
 Moreover, they tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living. Of course, their dreams are not all exactly alike; but they have this in a common: each is a vision of a condition of human circumstance from which the occasion of conflict has been removed, a vision of human activity co-ordinated and set going in a single direction and of every resource being used to the full.
 And such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politics becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments.
 The spring of this other disposition in respect of governing and the instruments of government - a conservative disposition - is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.
 It is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom which discloses to them a better range of beliefs and activities which gives them authority to impose upon their subjects a quite different manner of life. In short, if the man of this disposition is asked: Why ought governments to accept the current diversity of opinion and activity in preference to imposing upon their subjects a dream of their own? it is enough
for him to reply: Why not? Their dreams are no different from those of anyone else; and if it is boring to have to listen to dreams of others being recounted, it is insufferable to be forced to re-enact them. We tolerate monomaniacs, it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them? Is it not (the man of conservative disposition asks) an intelligible task for a government to protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and their wealth in the service of some pet indignation, endeavoring to impose it upon
everybody, not by suppressing their activities in favor of others of a similar kind, but by setting a limit to the amount of noise anyone may emit?"
Andrew Sullivan wrote an excellent article about Oakeshott for the Spectator in December, 2010, which can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. I much enjoyed your post [and A. Sullivan article]. Thank you. I was thinking about some pithy comment, but I think I'll just leave it at that.