Political Philosophy Part 2


Conservatism (pp19) Part(ii)


Conservatism in the twentieth century: Oakeshott and Nozick


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                                                                                                                                                Burke and Hegel (Conservatism part i)


                                                                                                                                                Thatcherism (part iii)


                                                                                                                                                Hayek, Liberal Conservatism, New Right Economics (part iv)


Oakeshott References



Nozick References


Ayn Rand



(a). Michael Oakeshott 1901 – 1990.


Oakeshott’s Key ideas:

The nature and purpose of philosophy – the problem with rationalism.

Conservatism – as a “disposition”.

The conversation(s) of mankind.


Oakeshott’s Books:

Experience and its Modes 1933

Rationalism in Politics 1956

On Human Conduct 1975


Professor of Political Science at LSE 1951 (succeeding Harold Laski, a socialist). External examiner at Durham University for 10 years.

His politics were individual, but may best be seen as conservative, or better: liberal conservative.  Vincent (1991 p 66) situates such liberal conservatism as part of the “new right”. One obituary (J.H. Ahn in National Review, vol. 43, 28/1/1991 – see Web references below) claims that he “proposed a theory of the state which came down to earth in the practice of Margaret Thatcher.”


1. Not widely known or studied – concerned with identifying and distinguishing between different areas (“modes”) of human experience, which sets him apart from other thinkers. Philosophy has the task of seeing with the character and limits of the modes of experience, and how they fit together. Note that philosophy is not superior (see on conversations below) to other modes of experience, and in this Oakeshott has been seen as “post-modern”.


The main modes of experience are: practice, science, history, poetry. These are different and separate from each other, but do also impinge on each other. No one is superior – there is no hierarchy – they are like different conversations going on at any one time. 


2. Conversations need to be conducted in a co-operative and peaceful manner, with no speaker trying to dominate all the time. Conversations are: non-hierarchical, non-directive, and non-assertive.


3. He saw politics as falling in the “practice mode” i.e. it is a practical activity, not a theoretical or scientific one. 


4. He distinguished (especially in “Rationalism and Politics”) between: “technical” knowledge, which can be learnt from books etc., but which (therefore?) distorts and simplifies social reality; and “practical” knowledge which can be possessed and passed on only through tradition and habits. Thus a politician learns by doing politics. (This is an argument that goes back to Burke). 


5. In relating to tradition, a politician may often rely on “intuition” or gut feeling, to attend sensitively to the “flow of sympathy” (Vincent 1992, p 71) rather than precise knowledge.  It is tradition which – rather than God – produces social order: Oakeshott’s is a secular conservatism (Vincent 1992, p 74). This view meant that he attacked “rationalists” – see Rationalism in Politics – and empiricists.  Rationalists try to decide how a political system “ought” to work – i.e. they have a rational plan, an ideology etc, and this creates the danger that they will impose their “rational” views on others (who will of course find it very hard to resist: the tyranny of the experts?). Rationalists hold abstract beliefs, e.g. “rights” which they then use to impose order on society. Likewise, although empiricists claim to be pragmatic, this means that they reject tradition (which is foolish) and their policies are “reactive”, and they adopt “crisis management” as an end in itself. (Hence they, too, are rationalist!).


6. Oakeshott argued for individual freedom – not as a “right”, but as a condition that has evolved over time. The need for freedom also follows from the existence of different “modes of experience”.  Finally, only if they have freedom can individuals work out practical solutions to problems that concern them. He sees individualism (individual “self-reliance”) as having a long history (right back to the medieval period) – as individuals began to take to trade, freed themselves from the communal ties of the countryside, etc. (see On Human Conduct).  It was opposed by the likes of Rousseau (for whom the authentic individual did what was best for the community), and by the craft guilds and their later socialist counterparts (compare/contrast Kropotkin here!).


7. This individualism (which he calls a “disposition” – see below) was also a necessary basis for “civil association”, i.e. society (not an organism, compare Hegel here?). The ‘civil association’ he saw as fundamental to modern, free democracies (and in opposition to the modern interventionist state): “a loose grouping of self-sufficient individuals enjoying self-government under a minimalist interpretation of law” (notes accompanying the extract from on Human Conduct On the “Upstream” web site). Note, again, that anarchists might talk of free associations, but their emphasis is less individualistic – more on the way that these associations build on co-operative work and decision-making – a more collectivist approach.


8. Oakeshott calls the kind of government that simply maintains order and the freedom of individuals (in the market): “second-order government”; interventionist government, whose origins he sees in people’s unwillingness to make decisions for themselves, he calls “first-order government”.


9. Oakeshott believed that the welfare state ran counter to British traditions of individual self-reliance and the reluctance to take something for nothing. Government, for Oakeshott, as for liberals and conservatives, had to be restrained by the rule of law, and by freedoms: of speech, association and private property. The rule of law is “The greatest single condition of our freedom, removing us from that fear which has overshadowed so many communities, the fear of the power of our own government.” (1962, p. 43)  In our democracies “no one … is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or class, no government, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union. The secret of [our] freedom is that it is composed of a multitude of organisations in the constitution of the best of which is reproduced that diffusion of power which is characteristic of the whole.” (1962, p 41). However, he does not advocate complete laissez-faire, (economic liberty) since government needs to regulate competition, prevent monopolies etc.


10. In “On Being a Conservative” he argues that conservatism is a “disposition” – it is part of human nature (these view is reminiscent of Burke) and not an abstract political idea or ideal (let alone an ideology – an ideology represents an “abridgement” of social reality for Oakeshott – see Vincent 1992, p 10). We prefer to have around us what is “familiar” – and we do not like drastic change or upheaval.


11. Another reason for his opposition to “idealism” and “rationalism” is that it tends to be “utopian”. Utopias, he argues, necessitate uniformity and conformity – there is no room for individuality and originality, and utopias do not recognise that we all have different ends that we desire. (cf. Nozick). The whole of society is too complex to be easily understood, and this may be why things go wrong when attempts are made to dramatically change things. Politics is only a part of human “practical” activity, and politicians go wrong when they try to make everything political. (cf. Popper’s argument about our “ignorance”, and for “piecemeal” change). Oakeshott says: “In political activity men sail a boundless and bottomless sea” (1962, cited by Heywood, 2003, p 10), and conservatives would want “to ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease” (Heywood, op cit p 76).


12. If we respect each other’s “conversation” and individuality, as described, we will treat others with “reverence” and we will encourage “free imagination”. Finally, Oakeshott believes in the importance of “play” and “adventure”. See his article on “Work and Play” (First Things, 54: June/July 1995, pp 29 – 33) – here he argues that we have for a long time believed that our purpose in life was to fulfil our wants, especially through work; but our wants are endless, and this means that work can never satisfy us. Play on the other hand is an end in itself, not – like work – a means to an unreachable end. We are “homo ludens, homo sapiens, homo faber & homo laborens”.  The kinds of activity that are involved in philosophy, science and history are in fact also a kind of play, since they are not pursued for the sake of some practical outcome.  Ideally, education should follow this “liberal” philosophy (“liberalia studia”: “liberal studies”): after all “school” comes from the Greek word skole, which means “leisure” or “free time”!   




Web:  (on conversation and in relation to the Web) (on work and play) (for National Review obituary)

http://www.mugu-com/cgi-bin/Upstream/oakeshott-conduct (extract from On Human Conduct).



Jon Elster: The Possibility of Rational Politics, in: ed. Held, D (1991): Political Theory Today, Polity.

Greenleaf, W.H. 1966: Oakeshott’s Philosophical Politics, Longmans.

Heywood, A. 2003: Political Ideologies (3rd edn), Macmillan.

Manning, D. (ed) 1980: The Form of Ideology, Allen and Unwin.

Oakeshott, M. (ed) 1953: The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, Cambridge Univ. Press.

Williams H. 1988: Concepts of Ideology, ch. 3, Sussex: Wheatsheaf.


Articles in History of Political Thought (*) (Oakeshott Archive):

XVIII (3) Autumn 1997: Tregenza, I.: Life of Hobbes in the Writings of M.Oakeshott.

XVII (4) Winter 1996: Smith, T.W.: Michael Oakeshott on History, Practice and Political Theory.

XVI (1) Spring 1995: Worthington, G.: Michael Oakeshott on Life…

XII (4) Winter 1991: Boucher, D.: Politics in a Different Mode.

XXI (1) Spring 2000: O’Sullivan, L.: Michael Oakeshott on European History.




(b) Robert Nozick 1938 - 2002:

Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974


Nozick presents arguments which became the basis for much of the new right’s position on the state, i.e. against state intervention.  He opposed both anarchism (no state) and social democracy (or any doctrine which gives the state more than a minimal role). He based much of his argument on the view that each individual has ‘entitlements’ to property etc.


1. Rights.

1.1 Starts with the position that each of us has natural rights, especially the rights to life, liberty and property. (Ramsay 1997, p 131). It is wrong for others to interfere in these rights, that we possess by virtue of being human. In other words, individual rights are essential to survival: if we did not recognise each other’s basic rights, we could have no society and would not survive (cf. Hobbes). Nozick argues that we can conceive of rights without presupposing a conception of the human good.  Rights come first, and what is “right” cannot be defended in terms of what produces good.


1.2 These individual rights are fundamental and inviolable. They cannot be sacrificed for “social justice” or for the good of others. In other words, they are not subject to utilitarian calculation: one person’s freedom, for example, cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of another. These rights create or entail/imply entitlements (see 2. below).


1.3 The argument for individual natural rights is based on notions of respect for persons – from Kant: each of us deserves to be treated as an end, and not used (without our consent) merely as a means to another’s end; the individual is inviolable


1.4 Utilitarianism suffers from the weakness that in order to promote maximum happiness for the maximum number of people, situations might be permitted in which some people lose their rights or suffer in some way.


1.5 The individual also exists separately from others – and the individual has to be the basis of values: there is no good for an individual other than what he/she believes to be good. “… there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifices for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people with their own individual lives” (Plant 1991, p 124).


1.6 These rights, according to Nozick, have evolved with society – there is a historical dimension (see 2. below). However, his position is Lockean: people can and should be left free to exercise their own rights and choices, with minimal interference from others, especially from the state.


2. Entitlements.


2.1 As against other theories (see 4. below) which use notions of: need, merit, moral desert or equality, etc. Nozick poses entitlement as the only criterion for allocating property, and deciding on a fair distribution of property. 


2.2 Someone’s property is justly theirs – they have a right to it – if it has been justly acquired. This means the past can and should be taken into account (unlike with other theories, Nozick argues). “Whether a distribution is just depends on how it came about” Nozick 1974, p 153). Moreover, this may justify unequal distribution: “historical principles of justice hold that past circumstances or actions of people can create differential deserts to things.” (Plant 1991, p 126, see also Ramsay 1997, p 134). Note that what we have a right to own may not be what we “deserve” – but this cannot be described as unfair (in moral terms) but is simply our “misfortune.” On the other hand, he is not saying that everything that everyone owns is what they are entitled to – he is not arguing for inequality for its own sake or on principle –  simply saying that people may (will?) have different entitlements. Along with acquisition, Nozick argues that we need to take into account: transfer (if property has been fairly transferred then the right to it has also been transferred); and sometimes: rectification of injustice in holdings (it’s not clear how this would be carried out, given his views of the state, see 3. below).


Further Note:

Nozick bases his view of entitlements on the following:

(i) inviolability of the individual means self-ownership: the body and its natural assets and abilities belong to its owner. (ii) also belonging to the individual is whatever he/she has put work into (Locke’s argument), with the provisos: “in mixing my labour with something (un-owned) ... it becomes mine, so long as in doing so I do not worsen the situation of others”. These steps are an attempt to provide a justification for, and strengthening of Locke’s position (which he failed to do himself).


- Nozick develops his view of property to make the following points:

2.3 (i) freedom to acquire and own property (the market) means that property is most likely to fall into the hands of those who can use it most efficiently

(ii) it encourages experimentation (you are free to do what you wish with your property, e.g. to create wealth, without restrictions and interference from anyone else, such as government bureaucrats, or overseers)

(iii) leads to expertise in risk

(iv) some resources will be held back for future market opportunities, which helps future generations

(v) with many sources of employment (extended privatisation, rather than large-scale public sector) the poor/unskilled are better off – their rights would not be infringed provided their condition has jot been worsened, whereas in a state-controlled labour market their rights would have gone (see below on the state)

(vi) since we are free to dispose of our (justly-acquired) property as we think best, there has to be freedom of exchange, and money is the best means to maximise choice and exchange (Ramsay 1997, p 136), (Nozick 1974, p 182)


3. The state.

There is a historical dimension to this position as well:


Society originates in the formation of individuals into groups; these have two characteristics;

(i) rules are drawn up for order, justice etc

(ii) a division of labour arises from the different abilities (specialisations)  and preferences of individuals.

3.1 Nozick suggests that one of the most important “specialisations” is protection of others, and that early in the evolution of society some would be given the responsibility to protect the others. This would arise voluntarily, of course…


3.2 The state then emerged, according to Nozick, as the most effective way of protecting people and their rights (life, freedom, property).  It is right for the state, therefore, to have a monopoly over force, in order to protect its citizens.  But this is all it is legitimate for the state to do: this is the minimal, “night-watchman” state.  If a state attempts to impose “social justice” this would be incompatible with individual rights. Once individual’s “entitlements” have been identified (and any corrections made for unjust holding of property), all the state needs to do is to ensure security.  In reply to the question: if people are free individuals, why do they have to belong to the state (perhaps an anarchist position) Nozick would say: there is no freedom not to belong to a state, but the individual gets a quid pro quo i.e. protection of rights and security.


3.3 The poor do not have (automatic, natural) ‘rights’ to ‘welfare’ or to any particular set of resources (i.e. since property is based on labour… without working for what they gain?). The most controversial implication of all this is Nozick’s view that the state has the right to raise money only for “protection”, (defence, security, law and order – and presumably whatever is needed to ensure contracts are held to) and not for re-distribution or any other social goal such as welfare...  Taxation for any other purpose is tantamount to theft, for Nozick. The state removes initiative as well as freedom if it provides welfare.


3.4 communities will arise spontaneously, voluntarily, which will provide genuine welfare (people helping each other because they want to, not because they are compelled to, which is how he sees the state/welfare). Moreover, recipients of welfare will not benefit as much if it is given as a result of ‘compulsion’, rather than from generosity. People can freely join different communities, and if some want common ownership, they could set up communes – there is no one ideal pattern of social organisation.


Further Notes:

4. Nozick’s criticisms of other theories.

(a) He rejects any “end-state” or “patterned” political theories. That is, it is wrong to force people to follow some pre-determined pattern or end-state, e.g. to take property and re-distribute it in order to promote equality, or to give people what they “deserve”, what they “merit”, or even to satisfy some abstract notion of “needs”, or rights beyond the basic ones Nozick identifies.


“End-state” theories, he says, ignore both the past (if someone legitimately became rich, why should they have their property taken away and given to others?), and the future: he illustrates how it is inevitable that inequality will arise (in a free market); for example a great rugby-player or concert pianist will (justly) earn more money than an indifferent one, simply because more people will be prepared to pay to see them.  Even if we were to start again from a position of equality, this could not last. (Ramsay 1997, p 136 – 7). Socialism is therefore in Nozick’s view, simply unjust.


(b) This is part of Nozick’s rejection of “utopia”: all “patterned” or “end-state” theories are utopian i.e. impossible to implement in practice. He uses what seems like a powerful illustration of this impossibility: imagine a country where an ideal distribution of resources has been achieved (an ideal pattern – whatever you believe this to be); a sportsman is very popular, and gets agreement to take a portion of the ticket sales from his matches. Spectators clearly have the choice to buy a ticket or not, and the agreement is ‘above board’ – but the consequence will be that he receives millions extra income... thus upsetting the ‘pattern’ that was pre-established.


My retort to this is that this takes us back to the question of the function of money in capitalist society – and the role of ‘property’... However, this reveals my ‘ideal’ or utopia – and Nozick also argues that each of us probably has a different view of our ideal society. For Nozick the best solution is a society which allows maximum choice, not one which imposes one preference.


Finally, if we do not respect individuals’ autonomy, not only will some have excessive power to deprive individuals of their rights, but it would be the same as allowing others to have “part-ownership” of the individual (Nozick, 1974, p 172)


(c) Nozick on Rawls (Wolff 1991):

Rawls’s approach

(i) leads to interference with the right to property (the criterion for justified inequality being if others benefit – and the criterion for taking from an individual to give to others being whether others “need” or “deserve”, not whether they are entitled..),

(ii) sacrifices individuals to groups or to the many, and violates the separateness of persons (has too broad a picture of the individual person):

Nozick believes that individuals should not be obliged to provide for others, but concerned with their own self-development; those helped by others being obliged to do so will not benefit anyway. Note that he does not say we should not help others, but that we should not be obliged to: charity is acceptable, and presumably in Nozick’s ideal society there would be a lot of voluntary work to replace the state-organised welfare etc we have now

(iii) he criticises Rawls for not only not saying how people can be rewarded for their natural abilities, but suggesting they should be punished for them!


5. Criticisms of Nozick:

- although the basis of his theory is our possession of inalienable rights to life, liberty and ownership, he does not actually mount a thorough defence of this assertion

- rights such as these may seem appealing, but don’t other values such as responding to need and desert? (see Wolff 1991, p 141)

- Nozick’s picture of a society of individuals pursuing their own property rights may not be viable (Wolff 1991, loc cit)

- why does he not accept anarchism? Why should there be a state, even to defend its citizens?

- is his historical account adequate, or feasible? How do we go about deciding which existing property rights are “entitlements”?  Are any current holdings legitimate?!

- if I buy, or acquire legitimately, something from someone whose ownership was not legitimate, what then? 

- Nozick’s response: to correct unjust acquisitions we could use the “maximin” rule, as a “one-off”. (Nozick 1974, p231). But if it’s OK as a one-off, why not re-use it? (Ramsay 1997, p 134)

- Nozick opposes “private/individual ownership” of rights and property to “no ownership” (if state intervenes, we lose ownership rights) – but these are not the only alternatives: if shared ownership, agreed by a group, is possible and legitimate, why does he give individual ownership such emphasis?

- what does he mean by saying an individual “owns” their natural assets? Isn’t their a confusion between “having” and “being”? (see existentialism?).



Plant, R.: Modern Political Thought, Blackwell 1991.

Ramsay, M.: What’s Wrong with Liberalism? 1997

Wolff, J.: Robert Nozick, Polity 1991


Update:  Ayn Rand – ‘the right’s version of Marx’ according to George Monbiot, Guardian Tues 6th March 2012:


The 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged pictures the US as a country where the excessive activities of government in supporting people leads to collapse, because, while the millionaires are willing to support the economy it survives, but they go on strike... The millionaires are Atlas holding the economy together. One heroic plutocrat, John Galt, by sheer selfish heroism manages to rescue the situation. In the novel the poor die like flies – and anyone who tries to help them is gassed... at one point Rand seems to justify this.


Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal reserve, was a great admirer, and co-edited a book with her: Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. He writes: “the ‘greed’ of the businessman, or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking... is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.” So, of course, banks should not be regulated. Unregulated capitalism is a “superlatively moral system.”


The Tea Party refers to her, e.g. with slogans ‘where is John Galt?’ She is promoted by broadcasters such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli.


Monbiot says that despite her hostility to welfare etc Rand towards the end of her life signed on for Medicare and social security...