December 27, 2003


Arguing With Oakeshott (DAVID BROOKS, December 27, 2003, NY Times)

We can't know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, 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 and impose something you call democracy that the results will be in any way predictable. Do not try to administer a country from behind a security bunker.

I try to reply to these warnings. I concede that government should be limited, prudent and conservative, but only when there is something decent to conserve. Saddam sent Iraqi society spinning off so violently, prudence became imprudent. The Middle East could not continue down its former course.

I remind Oakeshott that he was ambivalent about the American Revolution, and dubious about a people who had made a sharp break with the past in the name of inalienable rights and other abstractions. But ours is the one revolution that worked, and it did precisely because our founders were epistemologically modest too, and didn't pretend to know what is the good life, only that people should be free to figure it out for themselves.

It comes as no surprise that Oakeshott gets the better of Mr. Brooks--the Revolution was a mistake, even if a noble one. Had America remained a part of the empire the Civil War and WWI would both have been avoided in all likelihood; reason enough to regret we parted ways.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2003 8:00 AM

If not for the revolution,we would merely be Canada on a slightly larger scale.

Posted by: M. at December 27, 2003 10:25 AM

The comment about the Founders not pretending to know the good life is a curious one.

Replacing the notion of parliamentary sovereignty with popular sovereignty seems to have been a positive result of the break with the Crown, however much the Federalists later confused the topic with the publication of the nearly incoherent Federalist #39.

Posted by: kevin whited at December 27, 2003 10:27 AM

"The comment about the Founders not pretending to know the good life is a curious one."

Indeed. The Premable to the Philadelphia Constitution might suggest some things: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Posted by: Paul Cella at December 27, 2003 11:06 AM

The Revolution was conservative, so by definition good, no?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 27, 2003 2:22 PM


No, it was a radical break with the monarchy, so bad.

Posted by: oj at December 27, 2003 10:32 PM

"No, it was a radical break with the monarchy, so bad"

It was also a radical break with feudal politics,the caste system and aristocratic privalige.

Posted by: M. at December 28, 2003 9:07 AM

so bad--those things should have been reformed in an America independent from parliament but under the King.

Posted by: oj at December 28, 2003 9:23 AM


Even Canada got rid of those pretty early.

Posted by: Peter B at December 28, 2003 11:00 AM

The Revolutionists themselves thought they were preserving their ancient rights, to local assemblies, for example.

They concluded, correctly, that the monarchy was an enemy of local rights.

As it played out, the new constitution was both consevative and radically innovative, but the constitution was postrevolutionary.

You would be surprised, I'm sure, to learn that the antimonarchical revolution in France also may have been mostly conservative. Certainly William Doyle makes a good case in "Origins of the French Revolution."

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 28, 2003 3:21 PM

To call Bill Doyle's case positive for the Revolution in France being characterized as "conservative" sounds very intetresting. I doubt it, personally, unless one considers drowning 300 on a barge or decapitating thousands on the guillotine conservastive since they killed fewer than the construction of the Black Sea Canal or the gas chamber. Consevative in what way? the Goddess to reason?

Posted by: at December 29, 2003 10:02 PM

" " I think you mean White Sea Canal.

Doyle contends that the collapse of the monarchy happened in 1788. The cahiers, indeed the whole demand to return to the meeting of the ancient estates, were conservative. The demands on the government came from (according to Doyle) the propertied interests and were conservative.

He denies (and I would like Orrin to tangle with this one) that Enlightenment ideas had much to do with the initial stages of the Revolution.

Once France was in play, of course, things took a different turn. The peasants, who had no stake in the property rights being defended at the Estates-General and had not been consulted, started what amounted to a nationwide jacquerie.

The forces of order proved unable to cope.

The core of the argument is that the monarchy collapsed in 1788, not 1789. Whatever you think of Doyle's overall argument, he nails that part.

I am not on "Bill" terms with him, though.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 30, 2003 4:30 PM