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March 04, 2018



Yet another rather contrast between styles, this time rationalism on the left and dilettantism on the right, when the differences that matter are political, not of style.

When M Oakeshott advocates «"practical knowledge" which relied upon habit and the accumulated wisdom of ages"» it is no coincidence that the “wisdom of the ages” was what a famous hymn described as «The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high and lowly / And ordered their estate».

The Enlightenment (rather than Socialism etc.) fought such “wisdom of the ages” with rationalism, because “habit“ put at the centre of political system the "habitual" lord in his manor rather than the "rational" business owners.


@Blissex: I don't think our blogger is talking about style. I think he's talking about traditions of thought (or lack thereof ) which produce the content – the politics. For my taste he isn't clear enough when saying our current crop of Conservatives are “merely a party seeking to promote the power of a few”. They are achieving their aims by positively embracing a lack of integrity, and being helped on their way by many a centrist appeaser lacking any and all faith.


«don't think our blogger is talking about style»

I think that he is, because he often talks about the influence of cognitive issues on decisions, and in the previous post he contrasted “letter of contracts” and “Mutual understanding”.

My impression is that he does his readers a great service in reminding them that cognitive biases have a great influence in thought, and so do culture and styles, but he seems sometimes to underestimate "politics" that is interests. Conflict does not arise as often as he seems to imply from different ways of thinking, from error, but more often from real political conflicts over power and money.

«traditions of thought (or lack thereof ) which produce the content – the politics.»

Perhaps it is too cynical to think that "the politics" produce or endorse the traditions of thoughts that are more congenial.

Consider also the contrast he makes between "dilettantism" and "New Public Management" by "Key Performance Indicators": that for tories (whether Conservative or New Labour) is not a rejections of "dilettantism" as such, because "New Public Management" is meant to be applied to the machinery of state, that is it is a tool of deeper control by "dilettantes" political masters of their servants.

«They are achieving their aims by positively embracing a lack of integrity»

Oh yes, as an example I found this article on how uncomfortable the political class is with the current a bit too zealous head of the Serious Fraud Office:



«Conservatives, then, are not consistently and coherently dilettantish»

Well, I found an interview with Dr. D Owen about his book on political mental illness; he used to be a neurologist at St. Tomas Hospital in London:

«Even when he was foreign secretary he carried on (rather pedantically) calling himself a medical practitioner in official documents, as if politics was a sideline. Political psychology took hold of him when he was a young medic helping to treat MPs for alcoholism and depression. He saw the pressures they were under and began to consider how illness affects the decision-making powers of leaders. And he noticed that some leaders who weren't actually ill in the conventional sense became so intoxicated with power that it warped their judgement. There were warning signs: unshakeable self-confidence, contempt for advice and inattention to detail. Gradually, they would lose their grip on reality.»

This reminds me of some "Leave" politicians, but for example not of M Gove or B Johnson, who seem to me to be totally lucid, just entirely cynical.


@ Blissex: I don't think we're really at odds here, other than I don't understand why you would say style. Conflicts of interest I take as a given: outside of war (the collapse of politics) a never ending story played out on a public stage.
I take style to mean, style of address, inclusive of sharp suits, behind which sits a content. Isn't it BS content that's of interest here and how professionals on all sides know full well this is all too easily conveyed as common sense – yet 2018 and they promote it.


Of course oh so rational socialism has such a wonder track record of governance..........


There is so much to say on this subject but what is the point? Anyway.

The problem with most left "analysis" is that it is just incredibly dumb. It grabs any old argument that fits the purpose, grabs a single fact, says this supports their point of view, and then moves on to the next issue. As if physicists could pick and choose when the laws of thermodynamics apply.

There is a massive over self-confidence about people's ability to predict the future. As if somehow having a degree in some humanities or social science is the equivalent of owning an infallible crystal ball.

Combined with this is the utter failure to understand how evolutionary development works. Eg with Brexit - but what industries? what products? again, just an incredibly ignorant question. It is like asking what music kids will be listening to in ten years time. The key is to have institutions and process that enable creativity and innovation to flourish and to trust people to deliver.

Finally there is the persecution complex, that politics is about identifying the bad guys so they can be punished.

A great example of why Tories win is Jacob Rees Mogg. i don't agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg on a lot of things, e.g. abortion, gay marriage, but I would happily live in a JRM world. The reason being that JRM (I believe) believes that disagreement and debate is an essential part of a healthy democracy, whereas the left are just waiting for disagreement so they can persecute the individual, send them to an education camp and seize their goods.

Tory dilettantism is the right approach. Get the structures and institutions right and the people will deliver the solutions. No need for cleaver technocrats to rule a dumb populace in great soul-crushing detail.

I've developed a parlour game on left-wing politics called "You're a racist!!" that a group can entertain themselves with on a cold night. There are a stack of cards with single word topics on. Players take it in turn to pick a card and deliver a manifesto pledge with reasons on the subject. Then the other players try and prove the player is racist. If the majority agree the speaker is racist then that person is eliminated and the next person tries. This continues until there is only one person left - the winner!


Seems to me rationalism in politics and economics can never go very far beyond its currently stated position, it needs a kick to move on. The theoretical framework is very weak and not backed up by experimental data. Left to themselves rationalists will pontificate like medieval priests until some dilettante says (or forces) 'try this' or try that'.

Even with no idea what they are doing the dilettante seems just as likely to succeed in this circumstance as the rationalist. Then once some success is found the rationalists can build up their theoretical structure until it once again runs out of grounding in reality. The cycle repeats. Lack of experiment and humility condemns economics and politics to such a cycle. We need dilettantes just as much as rationalists, a lousy way to proceed but we have no better.

I reckon Trump (and Brexit) is a reaction to the seeming failure of the rationalists. The masses have been sold 'there is a better way' when in reality that 'better way' is no better way at all. Either way the lower classes are going to get screwed. The process has been hijacked by those who can see a chance to re establish a new feudalism. Alternatively we might break into new political territory where bluebirds sing and crocks of gold lie under every other chocolate tree.


I was going to leave a comment but it's turned into a blog post.


A further thought. In the sciences and in business anyone can have a good idea and sooner or later that idea is likely to be tried out and its success demonstrated (or not).

But in politics although many may publish in journals very very few ideas are ever likely to get tried out. Either because the idea does not match the philosophy of the in-power party or because the political scene moves on such that the idea no longer fits. The happy circumstance where a workable idea and an applicable political party and political climate arrive at the same time seems very rare. Evolution does not seem to apply to politics.

Mike W

Very good this:

As Mike Tyson put is: "everyone has a plan til they are punched in the mouth."

As a matter of scholarship Tyson's translation of Molkte the Elder is very poor in my opinion. If you reduce the long winded German military theory down, you in fact get, 'No war plan ever suvives first engagement with the enemy'.

Just in case :)

But there is a serious point to be had here. As you invoke Alasdair Macintyre from time to time, so will I.His thesis about Machavelli is surely key. We start with our best set of theories and models, the 'world' of the gods or human action, shows they will not work in the special circumstances, so we adapt( ignore a once useful military maxim?)later, we go back to the old theory and model because there maybe still no better set of generalisations to fall back on for the next time the gods fuck us about.

So 'Conservatives, then, are not consistently and coherently dilettantish. Instead, they are merely a party seeking to promote the power of a few (in the case of managerialism) and prejudice.

Yes no one ever can be says Macintyre. But I do agree with you conclusions.


«But in politics although many may publish in journals very very few ideas are ever likely to get tried out.»

As to this our good Yorkshire Ranter has similar yet different take, the "skip of initiatives" concept:


My own application of that concept to your argument is that actually a lot of the idea published in journals do get taken out of the "skips of initiatives", as long as they are about small area, not big overarching idea.

«Evolution does not seem to apply to politics.»

However this can only come from a narrow-ish point of view, that only looks at one country and over the recent period, and it is a typical "american" point of view.
I try always, whether it is about business or political etc. ideas, to look at precedent across many countries and across centuries, and there is much, much wider variety of things that have been tried.
Classic example: the idea the mortgage bust in 2008 in the USA was due to the CRA letting "colored minorities" borrow recklessly, which apart from many other points, does not account why Ireland or Spain had the very same mortgage bust without the CRA or "colored minorities".

Evolution does apply to politics, but slowly and across the world, rather than quickly and within a country.

As to the latter though, your argument is quite right... I consider the vexed issue of "Leave" and I have looked at the debates when England was applying to enter the EEC in the 1960s and 1970s, and the arguments for and against are almost precisely the same as those of today.

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