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Sobran on Oakeshott

[Michael] Oakeshott didn’t have a political program and never trusted those who did. His bête noire was what he called “rationalism in politics” (the phrase became the title of a book of his elegant essays) — the desire to use government for ends it could never achieve, at least not without sacrificing the good it might achieve. He described this as “making politics as the crow flies.”

Government, for Oakeshott, should be an umpire, not a player. If the umpire makes rulings that will ensure the outcome he thinks preferable — the victory of the poorer team, say — then he won’t rule impartially, and the game itself will be corrupted. “The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny,” he summed up the problem in a fine epigram. Dreams had no place in politics. ~Joseph Sobran

Mr. Sobran offers a very thoughtful corrective to the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the federal government’s “failure” in New Orleans by posing the simple question whether government should even be taking part in most of the things in which it is involved. Recalling the insights of Michael Oakeshott, Mr. Sobran’s article reminds me of another of Oakeshott’s distinctions between nomocracy and teleocracy (these are implied in Mr. Sobran’s own descriptions) that Mr. Sobran himself first brought to my attention.

Nomocracy, the rule by law, was the desirable and limited sort of government that establishes rules, whereas teleocracy, rule according to a goal or purpose, was bound to lead to a government that commanded and became tyrannical. When Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, lectures us about what America is “for,” that is its reason for being, he is demonstrating the attitude of a teleocrat. Everything in creation has a purpose, but each created thing is also an end and good in itself. If created things exist “for” anything, we exist “for” God, our beginning and end, and not to accomplish some goal here below.

The wailers over federal “failure” in New Orleans and the idealists who wish to democratise the world have made abstract goals of absolute security and absolute, global freedom goals to which all sane and limited, and therefore realisable, priorities must be subordinated. Idealists’ goals, like any dream or fantasy, are intangible and unobtainable, but in the process of pursuing them the requirements made by the state upon the people will be as unlimited as the goal is out of reach. Dreamers in possession of political power are always the creators of nightmarish realities.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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