Am I a Tory, or is Jesse Norman a socialist? I'm prompted to ask because the other day he reminded me of his superb lecture (pdf) on Burke and Oakeshott.
What I mean is that, as Jesse says, both men, in their different ways, supported tradition against rationalism. This anti-rationalism, says Jesse, is "one of the central intellectual roots of conservatism through the ages."
That small c in "conservatism" is well chosen. Take three examples:
- You can read Harry Braverman's account of deskilling - which is as relevant today as ever - as being in this tradition. He's defending traditional craft skills against rationalist scientific management. Except that he's a Marxist.
- In the miners' strike, it was leftists who supported traditional communities against "sophisters, economists and calculators” who wanted to close the pits. (The fact that the sophisters' sums were wrong merely reminds us that rationalism and rationality are two different, and opposed, things.)
- Oakeshott's complaint in Rationalism in Politics (pdf) that rationalists elevate their "reason" over traditions and institutions can easily be read as supporting resistance to the managerialist assault upon universities. Such resistance is, I suspect, found more among leftists than Tories.
Rationalism can be seen in totalitarian societies, which seek to capture and organize the staggeringly diverse potential of human beings, and frame it on some Procrustean bed".
It certainly can. But for me, managerialist rationalism is also totalitarian, in the sense both that it wants to extend to places such as universities where it is unwarranted, and that it seeks to suppress diversity in favour of conformist careerism.
So, it seems that me, Jesse, Burke and Oakehott have much in common. And, indeed, Jesse is well aware (pdf) that crony capitalism and excessive CEO pay are inconsistent with conservative tradition he praises.
Where, then, do we differ? On at least two points.
First, I'm not so sure that Westminster politics can restrain crony capitalism whilst supporting free markets or what Jesse calls real capitalism. There are very powerful forces which mean that a free market economy tends to degenerate into cronyism.
Secondly, I don't regard rationalism merely as an intellectual defect. Instead, it serves an ideological function; it tries to justify the power of elites. As Alasdair MacIntyre wrote:
Do we now possess that set of lawlike generalizations governing social behaviour of which Diderot and Condorcet dreamed? Are our bureaucratic rulers thereby justified or not? It has not been sufficiently remarked that how we ought to answer the question of the moral and political legitimacy of the characteristically dominant institutions of modernity turns on how we decide an issue in the philosophy of the social sciences...
The realm of managerialist expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively-grounded claims function in fact as expressions of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference. (After Virtue, p87 & 107)
I don't, though, want to emphasise too much the differences between me and Jesse. I just want to note that antipathy towards managerialism is based upon a wide and powerful intellectual tradition.
Another thing: Jesse commends Burke's statement that “Circumstances ... give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect”:
The practical public reasoner — let’s call him or her the politician — must determine what the relevant circumstances are which make Avthe right policy to achieve it. A similar set might imply policy B, or a further set policy C. An obvious policy A may fail depending on circumstances, while an unobvious policy B succeeds".
But this is what I am getting at when I urge people to think about mechanisms rather than models - because mechanisms are local and partial and vary according to circumstance. And this is no mere theoretical point. The reason why I (and Simon I suspect) are hostile to Osborne's fiscal austerity is that whilst austerity might be justifiable in some circumstances - if interest rates are high - those circumstances are not here and now.