Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oakeshott and Liberal Fascism

When I first read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism I was struck by how it fleshed out many of the concepts addressed in the works of Michael Oakeshott.  Goldberg provided concrete, historical examples for Oakeshott’s spare, philosophical treatment.

But in subsequent reading I’ve come across items in Oakeshott’s essays that would’ve fit neatly into Liberal Fascism.  For example in his review of Walter Lippman’s Public Philosophy we find this:

“The large manner in which liberal democrats have talked about freedom of speech has got them into trouble: this is the door through which Jacobin tyranny has entered.  But, says Mr. Lippman, freedom of speech properly understood would offer no entrance for Jacobinism.  And properly understood it belongs to the corpus of liberal-democratic rights as ‘a method of attaining moral and political truth’.  Its counterpart is the obligation to be a bona fide participant in a debate whose object is to elicit ‘truth’.  To absolve oneself from this obligation is to surrender the right of freedom of speech [my emphasis].

This seems to me a great error.  And so far from hindering the appearance of the heresy of Jacobinism, it is itself a Jacobin theory.  For wherever, in modern times, free speech has been suppressed, it has always been because ‘truth’ is believed to have been attained, and what is suppressed is recognized as mere error….”

After some further explication, Oakeshott states:

“But why in fact do we cherish the right to speak freely?  Because we have become a people with a variety of opinions about all sorts of matters and we do not see why we should not utter them.  We know that that there are limits to this right, but we know also that these limits have nothing whatever to do with ‘truth’ and ‘error’, but only with peace and tranquility.  The proper rationale of free speech, and the limits commonly imposed upon it by liberal-democratic governments, is not the belief that every utterance is a bona fide participation in a search for some one ‘truth’, but the belief that politics are not concerned with this sort of ‘truth’ at all.  They are concerned with the cultivation of what from time to time are accepted as the peaceable decencies of conduct of men who do not suffer from the Puritan-Jacobin illusion that in practical affairs there is an attainable condition of things called ‘truth’ or ‘perfection’.  Jacobinism is politics in which ‘truth’ as opposed to ‘error’is sought and consequently in which speech  is recognized as argument and is permitted, but only until ‘truth’ appears.”

Michael Oakeshott, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, The Customer is Never Wrong, pages (115 – 116)

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