Practice, baby

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.

3 Comments on "Practice, baby"

  1. Is there a distinction to be made behind the manner in which the practical is pursued?

    To wit; it has long seemed to me that certain circles in the UK value seemingly effortlessly gained practical prowess, but actually working hard at something is all dreadfully middle class and not quite the thing a gentleman would do. Even popular language and literature reflects this (think of all novels set in universities or public schools featuring scholarship boys who study all the time – and are usually bespectacled and described with words like ‘swot’), Similarly any of the scientific minds that are both celebrated and recognised in their day had that kind of bumbling nature about them.

    Which explains a lot more than just the current composition of the Brexit Taliban, but it does seem that a key characteristic of them.


  2. To add to my comment, I was struck by this passage from the following article in the LRB:

    “No doubt this clique contained some planet-sized egos too, but one thing that can be said for the New Labour generation is that they saw politics as a serious business, requiring hard, serious work. Among Tory Brexiteers, by contrast, ignorance and a lack of effort is taken almost as a mark of distinction – how else to explain David Davis? Having spent so long witnessing the Blairite policy machine churn out evidence and evaluations, year after year, with impeccable economic logic, it’s as if they have abandoned such dull, humourless pursuits altogether. Hence their disdain for the Treasury and for the man, ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond, who runs it.”


    1. Chris E: the bit that struck me was
      “As long as there is an NHS, a welfare state and a public sector that is more European than American in scale, we will never truly discover what the British people are made of, because they will never be forced to find out. ”

      Or to put it another way:

      “Live with a man for forty years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”


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