Being Right: Philosophy in Politics



Brian Reid

I’d like to take a slightly different approach to this week’s edition and eschew the normal topical article for something just as fascinating: philosophy. Those of you still reading are in for quite a treat. Since this is a commentary article, I’d like to take this time to tell you what I think “conservatism” really means, especially as it applies to government. Luckily for you, my understanding of conservatism has been largely influenced by people much smarter than myself – in this case Michael Oakeshott.

Oakeshott (1901-1990) was one of the most prominent conservative thinkers of the 20th century, and I believe that even those who throw around the label “conservative” like it’s a dirty word (you know who you are) stand to benefit from some of his insight. While a comprehensive brief on his many and often very technical writings would be impossible given the limits of a newspaper article, I’d like to impress upon you some of the broader and more comprehensible aspects of the conservative philosophy according to Oakeshott, as interpreted by yours truly. 

First and foremost is the idea of government as an institution comprised of order without enterprise. What I mean by this is a focus on government as a neutral arbiter of laws that refrains, as much as it can, from actively influencing the people it governs. 

The office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or 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 that occur; the office of government is merely to rule.

The reason for this idealized passivity of government is based on a healthy respect for the individual and the reality of the human condition. Oakeshott takes as “the current condition of human circumstances” that people often have very different ideas as to how life should be lived, and subsequently endeavor to turn privately held beliefs in public realities. This is the use of government as enterprise – the use of government to actively shape the public into a perceived better way of living – and it is anathema to conservatism.

The conservative government can be seen as “the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game.” The rules, as represented by the laws the government enforces, are inherently subject to the people, and should be reflective of how they currently live their lives. Conservatism is naturally wary of a “vision of another, different, and better world.” It recognizes the danger in hypothetical scenarios, and doubts that such an infinitely better way of living could be conceived that it warrants imposition on individuals with varying beliefs. 

People pursue different paths in their lives with differing levels of passion, and will often make their own choices as to what makes them happy. The conservative government would recognize that “this condition of the human circumstance is, in fact, current, and that we have learned to enjoy it and how to manage it.” The role of change and the more loaded term “progress” in a conservative government is to better represent the people governed. Conservatism believes in slow, purposeful, and organic change within society, insisting that a “modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them.” Far from stubbornly opposing all change, a conservative government would recognize that “innovation, then, is called for if the rules are to remain appropriate to the activities they govern.”

This conception of the nature of change within society being dependent on organic growth is why conservatism is skeptical of a government that “commands for truth.” To use the government as tool to artificially change people’s lives is to invite a dangerous precedent, and fits well with Abraham Maslov’s saying, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The proper function of the government is to arbitrate conflicts between people when their individual lives come into conflict, and to as much as it can avoid promoting certain individual views above each other. It should be stressed that the purpose of the conservative government is not to do nothing, but to approach change rationally and cautiously, mindful of the dangers of radical societal impetuses. In my favorite metaphor of the whole bunch, Oakeshott likens conservatism to the governor of an engine, “which, by controlling the speed at which its parts move, keeps the engine from racketing itself to pieces.”