Book Challenges Concepts of Liberalism and Conservatism

Cover of Oakeshott book

Story posted September 27, 2004

One can get into trouble quickly these days bandying about the word “traditional.” Particularly in political circles, where its utterance can separate Democrats and Republicans faster than grease in a rain puddle.

But what Bowdoin College Professor of Government Paul Franco means by “traditional” might surprise many modern-day conservatives. He recently published a book on the great 20th century British conservative political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, who rose to fame in the late 1940s when he published a series of essays eloquently defending conservative traditionalism against the growing tide of rationalist social planning in postwar Britain. He died in 1990 at the age of 89.

“Oakeshott is a skeptic about the power of human reason to organize and resolve all conflict,” says Franco, “and he takes more seriously—as does the conservative tradition in general--the limits of politics, the fallibility of human reason and the diversity of human interests."

“His was an idea of politics that did not pursue a grand enterprise or overarching purpose. He said that any changes in society have to be made very incrementally, slowly, and always on the basis of the tradition that is there.”

"Oakeshott's conservatism has very little to do with the ideological, crusading mentality of American neo-conservatives."

If that sounds a little, well, middle-of-the-road by today’s conservative parlance, don’t be alarmed. That is precisely Franco’s point. "Oakeshott's conservatism," he says, "has very little to do with the ideological, crusading mentality of American neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney that we see today.

“What attracted me about Oakeshott is that he allows for non-partisan appropriation. My argument is that he is not only a great conservative thinker, but a great liberal thinker in the broadest sense. These terms are not necessarily incompatible with one another. We’re often forced to use them, but sometimes these labels, if not adequately spelled out, can be highly misleading. It’s a lesson that’s not unhelpful in today’s world.”

Franco’s recently published book, Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction, (Yale University Press, October 2004), is already being recognized by the British press as being a “masterly introduction” to a man who, if not a household name, is widely considered among the most important conservative thinkers of his century.

In America, Oakeshott is less widely known outside academic circles, though recently he was summoned from the dead by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who carried on an imaginary conversation with him on the war on Iraq:

“We can't know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, ” wrote Brooks in a December 2003 editorial, “ but it is impossible not to see the warnings entailed in his writings. Be aware of what you do not know. Do not go charging off to remake a society when you don't understand its moral traditions, when you do not even understand yourself. Do not imagine that if you conquer a nation the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.”

Among the most influential of Oakeshott’s political ideas was his concept of civil association, in which he described the ideal social organization as being an association of individuals pursing their own idea of what life’s about, with minimal rules to regulate their collisions -- and a stripped-down expectation of what government is and can do.

Oakeshott was a political philosopher who chose to stay out of the spotlight and refused to be co-opted by the political Establishment, which he wryly mocked (he was offered a knighthood by Maggie Thatcher, which he quietly turned down). Oakeshott nonetheless assumed a great deal of influence when he accepted the chair of political science at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1950. From there, he taught, wrote books and essays and created a platform for wide discussion of politics, philosophy, history, culture and education.

“The left was appalled,” says Franco, “Here comes a conservative taking over the LSE, then the bastion of liberal socialism. But it was not for a long time that he had much impact on the actual governors or leaders in Britain.”

He did, however, have an impact on Franco, who pursued his master’s studies at LSE in 1979 and studied directly with Oakeshott, then an emeritus professor in his late 70s.

“He was a man of tremendous charm, very twinkly. He would sit there puffing away at his cigarette, uttering only a few questions or comments that always went right to the nerve of the philosophical issue."

“He was a man of tremendous charm, very twinkly,” recalls Franco. “He was very humble and not at all with the aura of the great man, though he certainly was one. He would sit there puffing away at his cigarette, uttering only a few questions or comments that always went right to the nerve of the philosophical issue. He had a deep and profound influence on my thinking.”

One of the chief effects of studying Oakeshott seems to be a political depolarization of the student, and Franco appears to be no exception:

“Interestingly, I don’t consider myself a conservative,” says Franco. “I am very interested in the core traditions of liberal political philosophy, those that value individual liberty, limited government, and honor the rule of law. Those concepts are at the heart of Oakeshott’s philosophy. American conservatism, and especially neo-conservatism, has really gone in a different direction from the kind he advocated, which was much more modest. But there’s a weird way in which conservatism and liberalism, properly understood, are not opposites, but compatible.

“Oakeshott transcends the local and temporary battles of day-to-day politics and even of this century,” notes Franco. “I think he has something to contribute of quite a high level and permanent value.”

Franco's research was made possible, in part, by support from The Earheart Foundation, Bowdoin College, and the Fletcher Family Fund.

"Michael Oakeshott: An Introduction," is available online at www.amazon.com

Story posted September 2004.

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