Review of Rationalism in Politics by Michael Oakeshott

This summer I read what is now one of my favorite books, Rationalism in Politics, by Michael Oakeshott.  One of the premier conservative thinkers of the 20th century, his work is criminally underrated.

Rationalism in Politics is a collection of essays.  The best are in the beginning.  He makes arguments similar to Hayek in Law Legislation and Liberty: Rules and Order, attacking rationalism, the belief in the use of reason to re-organize society.  Instead, we should be aware of the limits of our knowledge, and not be too presumptuous in our ability to use reason to re-shape society.

Perhaps the best analogy to understand Oakeshott’s thought is to compare it to the Austrian idea of the market process.  Austrians dislike the economic focus on equilibrium, instead arguing that the market is a process by which knowledge is learned and society is organized.  Oakeshott makes similar points with regards to politics.  Rather than decry the messy reality, he embraces it.  People acting on imperfect and wrong information is inevitable in the political process.  It is only through such interactions does politics come to resemble the order that it does.

I highly recommend Rationalism in Politics to anyone interested in politics or economics.


  1. I read it through and there was a lot after the first part that I didn’t really absorb. Since then I’ve repeatedly found that going back and rereading a specific essay on its own will clarify some idea I’m struggling with, or some debate I’ve been engaged in.

    I think folk like us take to Oakeshott easily because we can see the big overlap with the Austrian school, especially on knowledge and norms. But Oakeshott comes from a very different background, which is what made his treatment of Hobbes, for instance, kind of opaque to me the first time I read it through.

    If you’re feeling enthusiastic enough about Oakeshott I would recommend this companion:

    Liked by 1 person

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