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Responding to McArdle [1], Andrew Stuttaford [2] says:

As for the notion that there’s merit to be found in stepping out of the arena to think great thoughts, I don’t get it. The most useful ideas emerge from engagement with the world, not withdrawal from it.

It is tempting to say, “Of course you don’t get it–you think the criterion for measuring the worth of ideas is their utility,” but that would not be sufficient.  As Stuttaford presumably knows, it was during their time in “the wilderness” that the Tories did some of their best policy thinking and laid the groundwork for what followed in the 1980s, and the same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, about conservatives here during the same period.  There is also something very strange in thinking that going into the political wilderness has something to do with living the life of an anchorite, as if the entirety of “the world” was the government and the political process.  Is it unimaginable that one could “engage” the world without being bogged down in the minutiae of party politics for a few years? 

P.S.  This line of criticism is very similar to the sort of thing you hear from people who belittle liberal arts students: “What are you going to do with that?”  Oh, I don’t know, perhaps understand something of lasting value?

Update: Stuttaford [3] has responded, and from his second post I see that I read too much into his original comment about “engagement with the world”:

Unfortunately he seems to overlook the fact (or I didn’t make it sufficiently clear) that what I was writing about was politics, nothing more, nothing less.

Fair enough.  I also take his point that the policy work that prepared the way for Thatcher’s government had been going on before the Tories had been in the political wilderness.  It seems to me that he and McArdle [1] are basically in agreement, and when McArdle talks about “going into the wilderness for a little while, where they can get their heads together without having to worry about the intellectual compromises of actual politics,” this is not an abandonment of “the business of shaping policy and winning elections.”  I would say that it is instead a necessary precondition to that business, and that a period of time in opposition may make your arguments sharper and better attuned to changing circumstances.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Anachoresis"

#1 Comment By Adam01 On May 22, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

Stuttaford’s inability to conceive of a truly human life not nailed to the mast of GOP politics reminded me of this:


#2 Comment By Josiwe On May 22, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

There’s an idea in American politics that the only way to REALLY get anything done is to win the White House, a supermajority of Senators and Congressmen, and to put enough bodies in the SCOTUS to lock down the trifecta.

Consistent with the “talking == appeasement” rhetoric is the idea that acting strongly from a position of weakness is useless and damaging. John Adams became embassador to Britain shortly after the war of Independence, where Americans were viewed (rightly!) as traitors. According to today’s GOP, this was the height of folly.

When rhetoric becomes ideology, well, 2000-2008. QED.

#3 Comment By chrisgbr On May 22, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

I think he’s making the point (which Raymond Aron built a career on) that political opinions that do not engage with the trade-offs inherent in circumstances, are fit only for imaginary worlds, and dangerously ill-fitted for this imperfect one.

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On May 22, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

If that is what he meant, he stated it pretty badly. Any political idea that can be put into practice has to take account of trade-offs and political realities. The sort of short-term, “what ideas do we have to keep from losing more House seats this year?” thinking exemplified by Gingrich’s to-do list is being driven by events and is entirely reactive. If you are interested in having your side drive the debate on major policy questions, you need to take the initiative and be willing to look beyond the next midterm or general election to imagine a compelling vision and agenda. Always looking to the next election, staying firmly inside “the arena” at all times, is the path to intellectual and political exhaustion.

#5 Comment By chrisgbr On May 22, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

At the core of conservatism is an embrace of trial and error — a desire for knowledge from experience to temper abstract rationalist speculation. If your ideas (and theorized political strategies, with their inherent trade-offs in priorities) are formed in exile for ages without being tested in practice and having to adjust them in response to circumstances, they’re likely to become far more kooky.

Think of it this way — are conservatives more likely to try to think that privatizing social security is a top priority now that they’ve tried, or are they now more likely to turn themselves to more fruitful thoughts and more valued policy priorities?

Stuttaford’s regularly said silly things that I’ve disagreed with. This isn’t one of them.

#6 Comment By Daniel Larison On May 22, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

I wouldn’t say that his comment was silly, but I find the attitude it betrays deeply misguided. Social Security reform is actually a perfect example of how too much “engagement” can blunt important and necessary developments in thinking about policy. Because it is deemed too politically risky in the near term, the idea withers on the vine for another decade instead of being cultivated and fleshed out in debate. Pretty clearly, the “next big things,” to borrow McArdle’s phrase, are plans for entitlement reform and the development of more responsive, decentralised government. The latter is the one place where the Cameroons are actually onto something that might be applicable over here. Until entitlements are in order or significantly reduced, all talk of health care reform is ludicrous because there will be no fiscally sane way to do it.

Also, the “kooky” ideological factor seems to increase the longer the GOP is in power. Being too close to power and lacking in accountability limit one’s awareness of policy failures and makes it less likely that one will adjust to changing circumstances. After eight years of “engaging” with the world, both the GOP and conservatives have very little in the way of “useful” ideas to talk about. Being lean and hungry in the opposition can make your arguments sharper and make you aware of things you missed during the comfy years in government.

One of the other things that has allowed intellectual torpor and laziness to set in is the lack of a credible opposition that seriously threatened control of policy; now that the Democrats are sort of getting their act together, and seem likely to stomp a mudhole in the House GOP, this will provide more incentive to engage in *more* thinking that addresses the world as it exists rather than recycling talking points. People need competition in order to excel and do their best, and for many years the right lacked vigorous competition. Far from being a disengagement, what McArdle is talking about is the equivalent of rebuilding a franchise after a particularly horrible season. It is McArdle who is responding to changing circumstances here, while Stuttaford appears to be encouraging complacency.

#7 Comment By Benny One Six On May 22, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

Isn’t conservative the wrong word here?

Aren’t you all talking about the progressive Right as opposed to conservatives (who can be either Right or Left)?

Isn’t engaging in politics (especially democratic politics) an admission that one is not conservative…

Rightist progressives can engage in politics and might be invigorated by a period of exile from power, but don’t conservatives live in the wilderness?

#8 Comment By Adam01 On May 23, 2008 @ 5:31 am

“Isn’t engaging in politics (especially democratic politics) an admission that one is not conservative…”

I’m not sure how accurate that statement is, or if it is accurate, it is used in too sweeping a manner. Burke, certainly, engaged in the trenches of the national politics of his day. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe the conservative view of politics as important, but far from the most important of human activities, and to regard even “conservative” politics with a healthy skepticism.

#9 Comment By Benny One Six On May 23, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

Well, this isn’t going to surprise you, but I think Burke is problematic and didn’t lead a quintessentially conservative life…

I’m not saying one should live a purely conservative life, or that one should be conservative even, but Burke’s engagement with the political issues of his day seems an admission that he wasn’t a thoroughgoing conservative…

#10 Comment By Magnus On May 23, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

Benny One Six, You seem to have a pretty idiosyncratic view of what conservatism is. What is a ‘conservative’ if Burke wasn’t one?

#11 Comment By Benny One Six On May 23, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

The point I was trying to make, is that politics is an unconservative activity. Politics is about the near term and the use of government to effect change. Thus, it seems to me that to the extent a person values politics he is not a conservative. Conversely, to the extent a person values the things extra-governmental and rejects politics, the more conservative he is…

Of course, the above could just be my anti-pathy to government talking…