When a history of conservative thought (as opposed to the conservative “movement,” which perhaps already has its authoritative treatment in George Nash’s history, and many other studies) in the 20th century is written, it is likely to describe three broad areas. The first will be that of William F. Buckley Jr., who brought modern American conservatism into being and connected it with larger themes and thinkers in America and beyond. The second is the narrative traditionalism of Russell Kirk, who developed a sophisticated response to the challenges of liberal rationalism. And the third is very likely to be the defense of conservative thinking proffered by British philosopher Roger Scruton.
His most recent effort, How to Be a Conservative, is only the latest of a series of books Scruton has been writing that extend and defend a conservative outlook, from the very personal (England: An Elegy and Gentle Regrets) to the more explicitly philosophical (including the recent Soul of the World). Scruton is, unlike Buckley or Kirk, a trained philosopher and he has been confronting the basic objections liberalism has been making to conservatism and has developed a sophisticated affirmative case for conservatism in areas from economics to the environment. Rather than Burke or Eliot, Scruton finds his conservative philosophy in other thinkers, Hegel perhaps above all. Hegel taught Scruton that the search for freedom is the core of human activity, but that this freedom is only most fully realized through our actions with others, and in “the recognition of mutual rights and duties.” This mutuality, also recognized by Kirk, is the core of a conservative temperament and the basis for a stable social order.
Scruton starts with the empirical defense of conservatism, addressed to audiences within what has been called the Anglosphere. Conservatism, Scruton writes, is a natural human impulse, perhaps the first impulse: to preserve the good things of one’s society. Conservatism starts from the “sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.” But that universal urge to preserve the good things of human society is refracted through particular circumstances and traditional of specific societies. “Good things” is not a free-floating category; to become preservable, they must be particularized, desired, and defended by specific people.
Scruton has written this book for those societies that are heirs to the British tradition of ordered liberty. Americans, like the British, have inherited a specific set of good things that are worth defending and that are under attack, such as “the ability to live our lives as we will; the security of impartial law, through which our grievances are answered and our hurts restored; the protection of our environment as a shared asset, which cannot be seized or destroyed at the whim of powerful interests; the open and enquiring culture that has shaped our schools and universities,” as well as more specific products such as democratic elections and writs of habeas corpus.
These shared goods are not, as liberals like to think, universals that one can invent or modify at will. Indeed, the lack of willfulness is part of the point: No one power or authority developed them, and no one power or authority has, or should have, the ability to destroy them.
Scruton uses the organic growth of institutions as the starting point for his conservatism. Freedom and institutions go together, indeed they can hardly exist apart: “The process whereby human beings acquire their freedom also builds their attachments, and the institutions of law, education, and politics are part of this — not things that we freely choose from a position of detachment, but things through which we acquire our freedom, and without which we could not exist as fully self-conscious agents.” Liberal theory, therefore, which asserts autonomous individuals, is wrong both as a matter of theory and practice. The intrusion by government into every aspect of life hinders this process of acquiring freedom — even though (contrary to libertarian theorists) government is necessary — because while we are institution-builders, some of those institutions can be detrimental to the common good. Institutions can hinder that process of mutuality and common recognition of our being joined in a society. This is the positive insight of socialism, in a chapter Scruton titles “The Truth in Socialism,” which recognizes that all of us live in a community; other chapters treat multiculturalism, nationalism, and environmentalism similarly. The main flaw in socialism, Scruton finds, is that socialism must by necessity pit one part of the community against another. It can live only by envy.
Associations can generate inequality; thus, the great liberal drive for equality, which had beneficial effects in the civil-rights movement, has more recently sought to impose a drab secular uniformity, with, for instance, the contraceptive mandate. Inequality results from our natural search for freedom, and the only real counter to this lies in opportunity, which has been brought to us in the modern age through capitalism. But here, too, liberal government missteps: In using the power of the sate to interfere in our natural association-making, government reduces opportunity rather than expands it. Laws become means of acquiring power, rather than liberating citizens.
Like all of Scruton’s books, How to Be a Conservative is elegantly written and scrupulously fair to opposing arguments — the fairness in itself is a lesson in how to be a conservative. But his deeper meaning is that being a conservative means being joined to earlier generations through institutions and the environment, in our founding documents and public buildings, and in our clubs and all those things that together compose, across space and time, what Scruton calls our “dwelling.” Modern liberal society, in part because of the disappearance of religious faith, instead imposes a “contagious hardness of heart,” Scruton writes. “There is neither love nor happiness — only fun.” Modern liberalism rejects the traditional Western response — rooted in its Christian heritage but which Scruton finds throughout great Western art that still speaks even to the nonbeliever — which is to “bear each loss as a loss” and thereby redeem that loss. That response helps us resist the void of despair that liberalism would force us to gaze into, forever, and to recover both respect for the past and a true hope for the future.
— Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman, at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.