President Oakeshott

Joe Ptak believes that, with Barack Obama’s reelection, “we have [a president] who may fit the mold of a [Peter] Viereck or a[ Michael] Oakeshott.”

I have been gleefully waiting for someone here to write something like this. It sheds a lot of light on the debate we’ve been having on this blog on traditionalism versus rationalism. In the beginning of that debate, I tried to make fun of traditionalist conservatives by linking them to Paul Krugman. But for a conservative to link himself to Barack Obama of all people–that’s the jackpot!

Of course, I don’t disagree with Joe’s factual assessment. To the contrary, I think that Obama clearly does fit the mold of Michael Oakeshott.  (I don’t know anything about Viereck, so I can’t comment on that.) In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott defined conservatism as essentially just a preference for whatever happens to exist at the present moment. And if there is anything that the Obamaphiles love, it is what happens to exist at this present moment.

But I also agree with Ben when he called this conception of conservatism “deeply flawed.” Indeed, if this is our definition of conservatism, then I’m with the Old-Right journalist Frank Chodorov, who reportedly proclaimed: “Anyone who calls me a conservative gets a punch in the nose.”

Just look at the list of Obama’s “conservative” accomplishments that Joe provides, courtesy of that other eternal defender of the status quo, Paul Krugman. Joe tells us:

  1. Obama’s stimulus bill was half the size that his Keynesian advisors advised. (Gee, thanks!)
  2. He continued Bush’s wars. (Nothing more conservative than demolishing one society and building a new one!)
  3. He put forward a healthcare plan, which all those Burkean Republicans like Newt Gingrich used to support, and which wasn’t even the socialist plan that he originally threatened–err–offered us.
  4. He supports tax cuts and deficit reductions.  That is, he has supported them “in the past few weeks,” after spending 95% of his political career denouncing them.
  5. The New Deal and the Great Society are here, presumably, until the end of time. No use fighting them–a conservative would just lay back and take them.

It is true that these “accomplishments” all fit into the twentieth-century American tradition. But that is also a tradition that gave us the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Patriot Act, the TSA and body-scanning, indefinite detention of American citizens and non-citizens at the president’s say-so, permanent war and overstretched empire, mass incarceration (much of which stems from the criminalization of victimless conduct), and ever-increasing federal regulation of every aspect of personal and economic life, all accompanied by a decline in the importance of local centers of authority, an increase in single-parenthood and welfare-dependence, a permanent sense of economic instability, high unemployment, and little hope of any improvement in cultural or economic life in the foreseeable future.

One could look at all of that and reply simply, “Yeah, that’s our tradition. Therefore, I support it.” But if conservatism is to be something meaningful, it has to offer something more. It has to be able to engage in a critique of existing social and political structures. (In that sense, whatever my other disagreements with Ben’s traditionalism, it is at least better than Joe’s.) If conservatism cannot engage in that critique, then traditionalists will just end up playing second-fiddle to the Democrats. They will only serve to ratify each new expansion of federal power, with appeals to Oakeshott and continuity.

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2 thoughts on “President Oakeshott

  1. It wasn’t the New Deal or Great Society that were the problems, it was the stuff that came after it.

    Half of your list is traditions from the 21st, NOT the 20th century. None of those were a given to happen or based in 20th century doctrine. It was based on the security over liberty doctrine following the September 11th attacks. One could argue that the New Deal and Great Society were security over liberty, however it is the difference between economic and physical. A baseline version of economic security is important to protect the poorest from exploitation. When that protection is taken too far the government can become the exploiter though. The question isn’t tiny government versus enormous government, that is a fallacy that just has no sound justification. The question is striking the proper balance. We need to ask ourselves the modernized version of the question that was asked in the Federalist Papers: How much government is too much versus too little?

    It’s not the 18th century anymore, ideas of how large the government should be from then would fail today.

  2. Kelse Moen

    You’re right, a lot of those happened in the 21st century. But I don’t believe that one tradition begins and another one ends at the end of each century. The 20th century was the one that gave us the tradition of big government, for good or bad, and I think it is fair to associate them together. If it weren’t for that tradition, there wouldn’t even be the infrastructure for putting in place things like the TSA.

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