Would Oakeshott fear Obama?

A commitment to experiment is the opposite of Oakeshott’s “rationalism in politics.”

David Brooks quotes Edmund Burke, and Andrew Sullivan interprets him through the lens of Michael Oakeshott: Brooks fears that Barack Obama’s ambition is leading him into what Oakeshott called “rationalism in politics.”

But thinking of it that way just shows how hopelessly off-base Brooks’s criticism is. Obama isn’t working out the details of some grand vision; he is doing what Machiavelli called “temporizing with accidents.” He has specifically referred to FDR’s principle of experimentation: try it, see if it works, and if it doesn’t work then try something else.

When Oakeshott criticized rationalism, he wasn’t advocating irrationalism, but instead a kind of empiricism, what he called “feeling for the balance of the thing.” His “rationalists” – he was primarily thinking of Fabian socialists – imagine that they know a method of analysis that allows them to design major social changes in detail and impose them without much reference to facts on the ground or the opinions of others. Their “rationalism” is in fact dogmatism. That’s the hubris against which Oakeshott warns. Could anything possibly be further from the Obama approach?

Neocons are rationalists in politics. Libertarians and the anti-tax crowd are rationalists in politics. Radical social conservatives such as Sarah Palin and Pope Benedict are rationalists in politics. Drug warriors and “anti-prohibitionists” are rationalists in politics.

It’s possible, of course, to systematically underestimate the costs of change and the uncertainties associated with policy interventions, and I can see those mistakes being made by Obama and the folks around him. But when the ship is taking on water, it’s not “rationalism” to give first priority to manning the pumps and plugging the leaks. That’s just common sense.

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