Oakeshott On Conservatism, Cont’d

Recently Bill Vallicella excerpted, and I commented briefly upon, some passages from philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s essay On Being Conservative. Wishing to refresh my memory of a few points, I opened it up again today — and was impressed once more by what a fine piece of writing it is, and by how well it limns the conservative disposition.

Here’s another meaty and nourishing morsel:

The idea of innovation … is improvement. Nevertheless, a man of this temperament will not himself be an ardent innovator. In the first place, he is not inclined to think that nothing is happening unless great changes are afoot and therefore he is not worried by the absence of innovation: the use and enjoyment of things as they are occupies most of his attention. Further, he is aware that not all innovation is, in fact, improvement; and he will think that to innovate without improving is either designed or inadvertent folly. Moreover, even when an innovation commends itself as a convincing improvement, he will look twice at its claims before accepting them. From his point of view, because every improvement involves change, the disruption entailed has always to be set against the benefit anticipated. But when he has satisfied himself about this, there will be other considerations to be taken into the account. Innovating is always an equivocal enterprise, in which gain and loss (even excluding the loss of familiarity) are so closely interwoven that it is exceedingly difficult to forecast the final up-shot: there is no such thing as an unqualified improvement. For innovating is an activity which generates not only the ‘improvement’ sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed; and the whole of what is entailed can neither be foreseen nor circumscribed. Thus, whenever there is innovation there is the certainty that the change will be greater than was intended, that there will be loss as well as gain and that the loss and the gain will not be equally distributed among the people affected; there is the chance that the benefits derived will be greater than those which were designed; and there is the risk that they will be off-set by changes for the worse.

The passage in boldface above gets right to the heart of the matter, the essence of conservatism, the very crux of the biscuit.

Oakeshott continues:

From all this the man of conservative temperament draws some appropriate conclusions. First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that an innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favours a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

Michael Oakeshott was born in 1901; he wrote this essay in 1956, the year I was born. He died in 1990. Imagine the changes he saw in his lifetime, and reflect on how the world has changed even since his death. Yet here we are still, voting for “change”, as if we weren’t getting it fast enough already.

I guess some things never change.

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  1. howsurprising says

    The first quoted passage seems to summarize Malcolm’s underlying conservative concerns quite well, I think. And such conservatism deserves respect for being wise.

    Except when it is not wise, and people resist change that is just. Ending slavery. Voting rights for women. Civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans. Conservatism has *always* been on the wrong end of those fights.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    If by “conservatism” you mean those who dogmatically resist change even when after careful consideration a proposed change can be clearly seen to be just and appropriate, then of course you are right.

    Obviously that isn’t the sort of conservative I would suggest that one ought to be.

    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  3. howsurprising says


    Posted November 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink