August 19, 2005
MEANNESS JOINED WITH SUPERIORITY:
The Conservative Critique of Social Engineering (Daniel J. Mahoney, September/October 1998, American Enterprise)
Most conservatives now agree we should strive to improve man’s lot through technological innovation and economic growth. Yet they remain skeptical about thrusting centralized planning on irreducibly complex societies. Conservatives don’t reject reason outright but rather what the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called "rationalism in politics"—a style of politics that ignores the wisdom latent in tradition. Political rationalists don’t foresee the unintended consequences of uprooting long-established institutions and social practices that have well-served human needs. This sort of rationalism forgets, too, that societies can best reform their evils by pursuing possibilities for improvement that already inhere in their established ways of life.
Conservatives, by contrast, have tended to support traditional ways of life and localism for their own sake. They know that a world dominated by aggressive rationalism is one that will have little room for personal independence or for the local color that gives life so much of its charm. There is a risk, though, that the conservative critique of rationalism will go too far and become a full-fledged critique of reason. It is best to say that reason itself shows the limits of reason and hence the dangers of scientism and social engineering.
Aristotle provides the first, and perhaps unsurpassed, rational critique of the misapplication of the rationalist spirit to human affairs. He carries out his critique of scientism in the name of both true science and healthy politics. In his Ethics, he reminds the party of reason that science must respect the imprecision built into its subject matter. The study of politics, for example, can never be as precise as geometry. In his Politics, he gently mocks the first systematic city planner, the eccentric Hippodamus of Miletus, who formulated a detailed plan for a mathematically ordered "best regime."
Aristotle reserves his harshest criticism for Hippodamus’s advocacy of a law honoring those who discovered something new for the city—especially new laws. Aristotle does not deny that some political reform is good, precisely because old laws are sometimes foolish. But he also insists that law-abidingness depends upon habits that arise from deeply rooted customs; habits that the reckless pursuit of political change will surely undermine. Hippodamus characteristically divided everything—the population, laws, and land—into threes because he wrongly thought that human nature was amenable to mathematical manipulation. A true science of man, Aristotle counters, takes its bearing from that mix of reason and passion, wisdom and custom, that is characteristic of human life.
In the spirit of Aristotle, conservatives are rightly skeptical of utopian politics. They deny that progress, however desirable, can ultimately transform human nature. They know that the most important initiatives for change and conservation come from below, from a vigorous, independent civil society. And above all, they fear the "experts" who think they know better than ordinary folks how to run their lives. More than liberals, they are aware of what C. S. Lewis famously observed in The Abolition of Man: "What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." Conservatives instead defend the good sense of ordinary people who are in touch with the stuff of life.
A brilliant new book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, beautifully articulates the case against social engineering. Its author, James C. Scott, is no political conservative but his is, nonetheless, a deeply conservative critique of what he calls "high modernist" ideology. High modernism distrusts local and practical knowledge and seeks to exchange the prudence of ordinary people for an administrative ordering of nature and society by experts. When linked to totalitarian collectivism, high modernism can lead to immense social disasters, such as the experiments with collectivizing agriculture in the Soviet Union and Maoist China that together took the lives of 50 million people.
When state intervention ignores the utility of long-established institutions, when planners "map" society in a way that abstracts from the real concerns and activities of ordinary people, when the state adopts a belligerent attitude toward those it sets out to help, modernization becomes an instrument of totalitarian manipulation and control.
The essential conservatism of the American people is perhaps most visible in their loathing for intellectuals. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2005 9:10 AM