August 19, 2005


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

Mr. Judd;

Thanks for posting "Why I am a libertarian".

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 19, 2005 9:51 AM


You aren't.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 10:07 AM

Americans are skeptics regarding intellectuals, elitists, experts in the social sciences, bureaucrats and unaccountabilty in general. Americanism at it's best .

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford, Ct. at August 19, 2005 12:20 PM

Playing devil's advocate here but couldn't Friedman, Hayek, Simon, Buckley and a whole bunch of thinkers be classed as intellectuals?

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at August 19, 2005 1:07 PM


Friedman and Hayek certainly are--that's why they got so much wrong. Buckley's Catholicism usually kept him tethered to reality.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 1:13 PM

Here is a mystery. Those who imagine themselves aggrieved, or who actually may be aggrieved, by civil society are tempted to become its enemies.

In this way the outsider, the alienated, desires to see power concentrated in the state so that this power may be wielded to strike out at the folk, the people whom whom the outsider is alienated.

The danger here is that normal, healthy, conservative instincts of civil society are blunted and masked by pity and sympathy. There are times when we must simply say "no."

Posted by: Lou GOts at August 19, 2005 1:37 PM

Catholicism as a tether to reality? That's a good one. These are the same people who would theorize on the number of angels on the head of a pin, and argued against the existence of mountains on the Moon.

Some of your looniest intellectuals are working in the field of theology.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 19, 2005 3:35 PM

Touche, Robert.

A generalized loathing for intellectuals reminds me of the Mormons' disdain of stimulants.

It's kind of hard to draw a bright line between unnecessary stimulants and necessary food.

Anyhow, I'll cheefully concede the field of stupidity to Orrin. No contest.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 19, 2005 4:26 PM


Bingo! It all just comes down to the Stupids vs. the Intellectuals and America is notoriously anti-Intellectual.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 4:33 PM

Not really that hard, Harry. You yourself had no trouble drawing that line when, to hear you tell the tale, you were ordered to love and be loyal to Jesus instead of your parents; and good for you for that. In like wise your countrymen have little trouble drawing the line when you order them to love and be loyal to your latest scheme for perfecting and purifying their country. They're loyal instead to the country they know. Not hard at all when you think about it.

Posted by: joe shropshire at August 19, 2005 5:01 PM

To Robert: As to how many angels may dance on the head of a pin, it has always been know that all of them may do so. As created spirits without bodies, angels do not occupy space.

The existence of mountains on the moon is an empirical matter, not a theological one, upon which anyone may err on account of false testimony.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 20, 2005 2:21 AM

So Lou, you agree with me that theology has no basis in reality.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 20, 2005 11:39 AM

what does?

Posted by: oj at August 20, 2005 11:47 AM

Buckley's Catholicism usually kept him tethered to reality.

what does (have a basis in reality)?

So OJ, how many personalities do you have? Do you get whiplash when they flip in/out so quickly?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 20, 2005 3:44 PM

Robert: You are misusing the term, "reality."

It appears that you are saying "reality" when what you mean is "material reality." It may well be that you do not accept evidence of spiritual reality, or that you hold such evidence as you may accept to be insufficient to support intellectual assent to spiritual reality.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 20, 2005 4:38 PM

Robert: You are misusing the term, "reality."

It appears that you are saying "reality" when what you mean is "material reality." It may well be that you do not accept evidence of spiritual reality, or that you hold such evidence as you may accept to be insufficient to support intellectual assent to spiritual reality.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 20, 2005 4:41 PM


Reality is a faith.

Posted by: oj at August 20, 2005 5:01 PM

Lou, I confess. That is exactly what I mean.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 20, 2005 6:00 PM

Even Lou Reed could figure out that you need a busload of faith to get by.

Posted by: ted welter at August 21, 2005 1:34 AM

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 22, 2005 1:42 AM

And the wisdom of those who came before you.

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2005 9:12 AM