Here are two things I’ve seen recently. First, there’s Simon on the junior doctors’ dispute:
The NHS works on relatively meagre resources because of the goodwill of those that work within it. Do we really think that facing down UK doctors is the way to get a better NHS?
The point here is that the NHS depends upon what Julian LeGrand calls “knightly motives” – a sense of vocation which inspires doctors and nurses to do more than their contracts require. Jeopardizing goodwill and these knightly motives could therefore do great harm.
Secondly, in a fine piece Mark Mills writes:
A lot of people affiliated with the Conservative Party or who call themselves ‘conservatives’ are advocating a massive and potentially destabilising policy change…Conservatism ought to abhor wrenching discontinuities like Brexit.
There’s a connection here. In both cases we see a conflict between managerialist rationalism on the one hand and Oakrshottian-Burkean scepticism on the other.
So, for example, Jeremy Hunt thinks that top-down managerialist “solution” can improve the NHS and under-rates the potential cost of change. Similarly, Brexiters (or at least some of them) attach less weight to the cost of change and more to some ideal-type pattern they think will follow. Both of these contrast with Oakeshottian conservatism (pdf):
To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments.
Oakeshottian conservatives prefer the devil they know; idealists, rationalists and managerialists think they can improve upon it.
What’s at issue here is: how much confidence do you have in your knowledge? Oakeshott and Burke thought we should have little. As Burke wrote:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
In this spirit, we should regard the NHS and the UK’s place in the world as complex phenomena which are hard to fully understand, predict or control and so be cautious about change. As Mark says:
when we draw up plans for a new improved version, we only be making the roughest of sketches. We therefore have little idea how the finished product will look. It is thus probable that we will like it less than we imagined.
This contrasts with Hunt’s position. In what passes for his mind, his single business success is, I suspect, stronger evidence of his managerial acumen than his string of failures. Emboldened by this egocentric bias, he is overconfident about his ability to improve the NHS. Similarly, some Brexiters seem to me and Mark overconfident about their ability to foresee the UK’s place outside the EU.
Of course, there’s nothing new in Conservatives opposing this strand of conservatism. When Thatcher destroyed mining communities – Burkean “little platoons” – in the belief that miners would find better work elsewhere she was taking the anti-Oakeshottian position of elevating an addle-brained (pdf) ideology over familiar if imperfect traditions*.
There is, however, a paradox here. Two of the big (and to me welcome) developments in thinking in recent years have been the increased awareness of complexity and the rise of research into cognitive biases. Both should have strengthened the Oakeshottian case.
But they haven’t, at least within the Tory party. It seems to me to be more dominated by managerialists, rationalists and dreamers than ever before. This makes me suspect that the Tories are not so much a party of principle as the party of privilege.
* You could, of course, see that as an exercise in naked class hatred – and you’d be right.