Oakeshott in Baghdad

Michael Oakeshott was among the most profound and original political philosophers of the last century. His thought picked up elements in Burke, Hayek, and Lao-tse. Oakeshott’s theme was that the consequences of governmental action are never perfectly forseeable, and the more radical the intended goal, the less forseeable the side-effects of the attempt to achieve it.

Therefore, says Oakeshott, governments should take the minimum actions necessary to solve concrete problems, and not enforce huge current sacrifices in the service of cloudy future goals. Since the ends of action are always uncertain, but the means are immediate and known, government should be judged more by its means than by its ends: more by process than by intended result.

Oakeshott was more or less a Tory in politics: his thought was in large part a reaction to Stalinism abroad in Fabianism in Britain. But he was a MacMillian sort of Tory, not a Thatcher sort: any talk of “revolution” was anathema to him, even, or perhaps especially, revolution from the right.

I’m not saying that Oakeshott was “right” about any of this in the sense that I would take his thought as a guide to action in every concrete case. He was a philosopher, not a pamphleteer. What he saw was there, and he saw it when most thinkers and politicians were blind to it. But what he saw was not everything — the world, though not perfectly predictable, is not perfectly unpredictable either, and inaction is not always safer than action — and in any given circumstance it might turn out that what Oakeshott did not see is the crucial element.

(Oakeshott’s distinction between “technical” and “practical” knowledge is a valid one, but Oakeshott sometimes writes as if there were no genuine technical knowledge of social problems or policies for dealing with them. That claim in its strong form simply can’t be maintained without doing violence to the phenomena. No matter how much bad social science there is in the world, or how many bad policies have been adopted in its name, it isn’t really possible to make a sharp distinction between the material world, where engineering is manifestly possible and useful, and the social world in which “social engineering” is said to always reflect intolerable hubris.)

Oakeshott reminds me of Hobbes; one is richer for grasping his thought, but there’s no need to feel bound to his particular political prejudices or judgments.

David Brooks, an admirer of Oakeshott’s work, asks himself how a disciple of Oakeshott could justify supporting the war in Iraq if challenged by the Master. That’s one of the uses great thinkers have. But Brooks’s answer to the question is so unspeakably implausible as to make one question either his judgment or his sincerity.

Brooks is right to characterize Oakeshott’s stance as based on epistemological modesty, and to think that invading Iraq would not have passed the Oakeshott test of the least intervention needed to solve a concrete problem. And he might be right in thinking that Iraq was the sort of situation in which the apparently riskier, and certainly more radical, option was in fact the safer, or at least the more beneficial in the long run. I certainly thought so at the time.

But Brooks, driven by the need he feels to defend not merely the idea of invading Iraq but its execution by the Bush Administration, then tries an intellectual triple Axel and falls flat on his face: He claims that the now-transparent failures in planning for the postwar situation reflected Oakeshottian modesty, and that the current process of “muddling through” is by its nature better than “any ‘plan’ hatched by technocrats in Washington.”

Now, really! This simply won’t do.

First, it’s not the case that the Bush Administration didn’t have a plan. It did. The plan was that the Iraqis were going to strew rose petals in the path of our liberating forces, welcome the exiles, elect Ahmed Chalabi president, pump oil like crazy to pay for it all, and become a major American trading partner (leaving the French and the Germans sucking wind) and a powerful outpost of liberal democracy in the Middle East (leaving the Islamic fundamentalists sucking wind).

Well, I suppose it might have happened. It didn’t seem likely to me. It didn’t seem likely to the people at the State Department who actually knew something about Iraq. But it wasn’t literally inconceivable, so no doubt there’s some parallel universe where things happened more or less that way.

However, it didn’t happen in this univese. And there was no Plan B.

That the actuality didn’t match the plan is just what Oakeshott would have predicted. As he loved to point out, ideologues with big visions — a characterization that certainly covers the neocons — tend to shape their understanding of the world in accord with their policy, rather than framing their policy based on an impartial understanding of the world. That means that they do even less well at prediction than the mediocrity which is the best possible given the complexity of human affairs and the limitations of human understanding.

But even a well-conceived plan, when it deals with a completely unprecedented situation, isn’t likely to survive contact with reality. So if it’s necessary to act radically, it’s especially necessary to have not a single plan, but a set of options to be called into play according to what is actually encountered.

And that’s exactly what the Administration failed to do. It acted as if it could force the reality on the ground in Iraq to conform to the dream that the Iraqi National Council and the Project for a New American Century had dreamed about it. And American and British troops on the ground (to say nothing of millions of Iraqis) are paying for that hubristic, anti-Oakeshottian failure.

(The same is true of the intelligence process, especially with respect to weapons of mass destruction. Instead of Oakeshottian tentativeness, we had ignorant certainty. Vague possibilities were recited as proven facts, and doubters within the government were punished for expressing doubt, while doubters outside the government were accused of carrying water for the enemy. As a result, we went to war based on a set of propositions now known to have been exaggerated at best, and perhaps entirely inaccurate.)

No, if you want to see epistemological modesty in action, recent American policy toward Iraq is not the place to find it. Instead, read Brad DeLong’s reflections on Robert Rubin’s tenure in Washington, or the Rubin and Weisberg book — with the very Oakeshottian title In an Uncertain World — to which DeLong refers.

Here’s the key paragraph:

Rubin himself credits as most important his habit of “probabilistic thinking”: always asking questions like “What else might happen?”, and “What if we’re wrong?”; looking at the full range of possible outcomes rather than the most likely or the most comfortable; and recognizing that just because things came out well doesn’t necesssarily mean that you made a good decision, and that just because things turned out badly does not necessarily mean that you made a bad one.

Now this comes from the tradition of statistical decision theory rather than from Lao-tse or Oakeshott — which is one of the reasons I think Oakeshott’s practical/technical distinction somewhat over-sharp — but Oakeshott would have applauded it.

Of course, it’s not just Iraq. Everything about the Bush II regime reeks of ignorant certainty shaped by sweeping ideological visions. Nothing about it has any room for doubt. It is perhaps the least Oakeshottian administration — the least humble, the least concerned with tradition or process, the least inclined to value, or even acknowledge, facts on the ground as against what is imagined — since Andrew Jackson’s.

If Brooks thinks that we need a President with the Leninist virtues, he’s free to say so. But doing so in the name of Michael Oakeshott is just obscene.

Kevin Drum and Brad DeLong may well be right (though Kevin has evidently missed a treat if he dismisses Oakeshott as “an obscure dead philosopher”): the bi-weekly column simply isn’t Brooks’s best medium.

Update: Jacob Levy, who does this stuff for a living, agrees that Brooks’s column gets Oakeshott badly wrong.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Oakeshott in Baghdad”

  1. More Oakeshott

    Mark Kleiman says David Brooks was badly misconstruing Michael Oakshott's thought in yesterday's column, which sounds plausible to me, since folks tell me Oakshott was a smart guy. This distinction between technical and practical forms of knowledge, ho…

  2. A Brief Word from One of the Smart Conse

    David Brooks is supposed to be a smart conservative. The man publishes regularly in The Atlantic Monthly. He has a regular column in the New York Times. He's so smart that he's decided to address the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, reportedly…

  3. Feeling a bit dizzy now

    This is pretty cool. Nevertheless, it doesn’t move. In future, when I come across some piece of irritating rhetoric from the likes of Glenn Reynolds or David Brooks, rather than attempt to rebut it I will simply link to this…

Comments are closed.