Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Whither classical conservatism? Part III: Modern adherents to the philosophy

In Part II of the series, I did a July 4th post on Burke and revolutions.  Today, we move on to talk about how classical conservatism translated to the more modern era.  After all, Burke was defending a monarchical system in France, and well, fuck them.

The famous line I have referenced from William F. Buckley is the description of the conservative as the one who "stands athwart history and yells, stop!"  But as I've also mentioned, Buckley was a racist piece of shit, and frankly, not nearly as smart as he pretended to be.  The accent was kind of an affectation.  Nevertheless, that was kind of the modern application.

If you want the real stuff, though, turn to Michael Oakeshott.  Oakeshott was actually hesitant to describe conservatism as an ideology, though.  He thought of it more as a disposition.  Rather than holding any attachment to specific policies, Oakeshott was averse to change.  Above all, Oakeshott was cautious, and thought that any attempt to bring about big change would backfire.

So, let's put some terminology on this.  "The law of unintended consequences."  Enact some policy change, and things will happen that you cannot predict.  Often, bad things.  Example:  get rid of Louis XVI, wind up with the Reign of Terror.  Or, have the government print a bunch of money to pay off its bills and wind up with a shit-load of inflation.  Or, for something more recent, require everyone to buy insurance on a set of exchanges without a plan for what happens when every insurer pulls out of the exchanges within a county...  Oops...

The central motivating principle for Michael Oakeshott was the law of unintended consequences.  Whatever you think you are going to accomplish, you will fuck something up.  Associated with this, you will frequently see the following phrase associated with conservatism:  a "distrust of rationalism."  Not a "distrust of rationality," which works as a phrase to associate with dipshits like Donald Trump, but a distrust of rationalism.  To distrust rationalism is to distrust the idea that we can solve our problems through rational analysis.

The answer, to Oakeshott, is not irrational analysis.  The answer is caution.  The answer, to Oakeshott, is to stick with what is working because otherwise, you will fuck something up.  This principle is most frequently applied with respect to the economy.  The economy is too complex for anything like central planning.  That's why we won the Cold War, and why the Soviets lost.  You try to run an economy centrally and you will screw it up.  Let the economy run on its own.  Don't fuck it up.  You may think you know what you are doing, but you don't, and the unintended consequences will come back to bite you.  A tax here, a regulation there, and you may think you are helping, but the knock-on effects are things you can't predict, and they may very well make things much worse, so stick with what works, imperfect though it may be.

Here's an analogy to explain how an Oakeshott conservative thinks.  Suppose you are on a road trip in the middle of nowhere.  You hear a weird noise from your car engine, but it is still running.  You know a tiny bit about the concept of internal combustion, and you can put together Ikea furniture, but that's about the limit of your mechanical aptitude.  Do you a) keep driving, and hope your car makes it to a mechanic, b) pull over, get out your EDC gear and start trying to deduce what's wrong and fix it on the side of the road with your Leatherman, or c) pull over, get out your EDC gear and start randomly banging on shit hoping that the car improves because when Fonzie hits that jukebox, it always plays the right song, and tv never lies?

Answer "a" is the Oakeshott answer.  An Oakeshott conservative would say that answer "b" is the modern day liberal answer, and an Oakeshott conservative would say that answer "c" is the modern day conservative answer.

The analogy demonstrates why the Oakeshott impulse has at least some value in at least some contexts.  Rationalism, to be distinguished from rationality, can lead to an overconfident belief in government's ability to solve any problem, and that is where we get trapped in the law of unintended consequences.  That's the problem with answer "b" and modern day liberalism.  A government program for every problem.  What could possibly go wrong?  Modern conservatism-- let's be blunt here-- has simply abandoned science and rational thought.  Acknowledging that the planet is 4.5 billion years old, or the reality of evolution and climate change now makes one a pariah within the movement.

Of course, a knee-jerk rejection of rationalism has a pathology too.  It becomes, in its extreme form, anti-intellectualism.  Being cautious in response to policy is different from simply rejecting all change simply because it is change.  To do so is anti-intellectual.  It is a refusal to think.  Rejection of rationalism, in its extreme form, is a rejection of rationality, even though I have distinguished between the two.

The key for Oakeshott is to figure out when things are working, and when they aren't.  If shit ain't workin', change it.  But do so cautiously, and in full awareness of the law of unintended consequences.

Next up, I'll get into how this philosophy has mutated and disappeared over time, and why that's a problem, for liberals and conservatives alike.  Unless other stuff gets in the way...

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