Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 17 Mar 2018, 01:00 PM


On Tory dilettantism

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"The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it." Nick Cohens's piece on the "bullshit right" and "its dilettantish, know-nothing contempt for detail" reminds me of that line from P.J. O'Rourke.

This highlights a longstanding divide about attitudes to politics between the right on the one side and centrists and leftists on the other.

What I mean is that left and centrists have, mostly, had a rationalist attitude to politics. They theorize, problematize, philosophize and seek technocratic solutions to political issues. In this sense, people as different as (say) Andrew Adonis and Paul Mason have something in common.

By contrast, there is a tradition on the right of rejecting this. Michael Oakeshott perhaps expressed this best. In his essay "Rationalism in politics" he contrasted the rationalist approach to politics as a technocratic solving of problems to a conception of politics as embodying a tacit "practical knowledge" which relied upon habit and the accumulated wisdom of ages.

This latter view is dilettantish, in the sense that it is sceptical about the feasibility of expertise. For years it defended know-nothings' pursuit of power as a means of stopping rationalists taking over: for much of the mid-20th century, conservatives saw their function as simply to govern rather than to have a plan. Having a "contempt for detail" fits this tradition of opposing rationalist plans generally.

And here's the thing. There's something to be said for such dilettantism. Let me give just two examples from monetary policy.

One was the UK's membership of the ERM. This was debated rationally for years before the UK formally joined the system in 1990. But the policy was a lousy idea that ended in ignominy. By contrast, inflation targeting was adopted in a panic with little prior public or academic debate and yet has proven more successful.

A second example is QE. Ben Bernanke famously quipped that "the problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn't work in theory." That might not be precisely right. But it captures an important point - that QE was the product of practical judgement rather than rationalist theory. As Richard Bookstaber points out in The End of Theory, formal models collapse in crises and what we need is experience and judgment (drawn from science and literature as well as economics) rather than rationalist models. As Mike Tyson put is: "everyone has a plan til they are punched in the mouth."

There is, therefore, something to be said for relying upon judgment and muddling through rather than upon rationalism.

This, though, is not at all to defend Tories. The problem is that they have not been consistent Oakeshottians. Quite the opposite. As Jerry Muller reminds us in The Tyranny of Metrics, it was Thatcher who introduced new public management into government, which is an attempt to supplant the practical judgment of professions with the rationalist scientism of bosses. And Brexit itself is in a sense profoundly anti-Oakeshottian. It is motivated by a historical myth of Britain as a nation standing alone and a rejection of attempts to muddle through with imperfect actually-existing institutions.

Conservatives, then, are not consistently and coherently dilettantish. Instead, they are merely a party seeking to promote the power of a few (in the case of managerialism) and prejudice. It's as if they actually want to prove Corey Robin right.

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