Chris Dillow is for some reason defending “Tory dilettantism” via an appeal to Michael Oakeshott’s “Rationalism and Politics”. Not surprisingly, I disagree. The problem is that Oakeshott’s notion of practical wisdom is meant to be grounded in just that: practice. One thing experts tend to do a lot of is practising their particular specialisation. That’s how they got that way. There’s a word for someone who has only theoretical knowledge – it’s “graduate”, not “expert”. Similarly, the practical men, yadda yadda, usually know a lot about their business because they’ve been practising. You might even say they were expert at it.
You can save the thesis by making it an opposition between “theory” and “practice”, but then you have to address the objection that this is a strawman argument with a heaping helping of anti-intellectual prejudice and projection chucked in. The 1945 government, which is what he was complaining about, was definitely not a group of vague theorists lacking real experience. In fact, its key members were absolutely steeped in practical experience having been in the War Cabinet for six years. Herbert Morrison had been mayor of London before being home secretary. Ernest Bevin had been the war economy’s personnel chief for six years after having been the head of the TGWU and also a docker. Oakeshott was a professor, hence the projection. Who’s practical now?
If we jib at just declaring that everyone we disagree with doesn’t know what they’re talking about because they are a bunch of ponces who won’t get their hands dirty, well, the point that experts get that way by practising and practical people get expert bites, the distinction collapses, and you’re left with not much.
This is not just a debating point. When you look at how expertise actually works in practice, with the work of people like Daniel Kahneman or Keith Stanovic, it turns out that expertise is essentially trained intuition. People who know what they are doing actually work from System One (or is it Two? I can never remember) and its synoptic coup d’oeil rather than by working everything out from first principles. Amateurs have the book open in front of them, professionals know what they’re doing.
But Chris isn’t completely wrong. I would say the Brexit gang are pretty much as close to Oakeshottian eggheads as you’ll find in real life. Very few have meaningful executive experience and what they have is usually decades old. Their formative experiences seem to be some combination of writing opinion columns, being backbenchers, and rolling in privilege. These are not experiences that build “practical wisdom” of any relevant kind. They do however have a nostrum based on pure abstract thought that will apparently solve all our problems.