How to Be a Conservative in the 21st Century
How to Be a Conservative in the 21st Century
"Being a conservative is not a political program, or a set of slogans - it is an understanding of our duties as individuals in an eternal order." An overview of Roger Scruton's "How to be a Conservative."
At a time when there's much debate over what conservatism means, especially what it means apart from party politics, Roger Scruton's How to Be a Conservative plots a course back to center, and there may be no better modern guide for this journey than Scruton, one of conservatism's foremost intellects over the last 30 years. Herein Scruton offers not only a definition of conservatism, but also gives a conservative perspective on a number of issues of importance to modern readers and, in so doing, shows conservatism to contain more depth than it is generally credited with.
Scruton begins the book by offering a summary of conservatism's basic principles. Conservatism, he says, is fundamentally a perspective on how healthy societies develop and survive. The most important aspect of the conservative view is the bottom-up nature of society, in which it grows from the "little platoons" of family and community upward into a shared culture and history. Scruton believes that it was this organic development, represented by examples such as the Magna Carta and the English common law, that provided the stability and harmony required for the development of Western Civilization. Conservatism, therefore, "tells us that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep."
This striving to keep is central to conservatism, but it is not the end of the story. Preserving the good, rather, is one essential component in what Scruton describes as our duty to take what has been given us by our ancestors and to pass it on to our posterity. Readers familiar with Edmund Burke will recognize here his concept of the eternal contract, in which society is not simply an agreement between living individuals, as some social contract theorists would have it, but is rather a contract between the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. Preservation, then, is a duty to the past, and the act of passing on is a duty to the future. Scruton writes, "we are the collective inheritors of things both excellent and rare, and political life, for us, ought to have one overriding goal, which is to hold fast to those things, in order to pass them on to our children." This idea is one that Scruton, unsurprisingly given its importance, returns to throughout the book.
Having examined the foundation of conservatism, Scruton then explores various issues and ideologies through a conservative lens, beginning the title of each chapter with "The Truth in." This leads to some initially jarring chapter titles (who would look to a conservative book to find "The Truth in Socialism"?). But what Scruton means is not that these ideologies are correct in all their diagnoses, much less in their conclusions, but that they recognize some fundamental truths. However, on all these issues, "fundamental truth has been captured by people with an agenda, and so turned into a falsehood." Scruton's goal is to understand the fundamental truth in the context of the eternal contract and explain how conservatives should view the issue.
First up is "The Truth in Nationalism," undeniably a controversial topic in the age of Trump and Brexit. Nationalism today is said to be xenophobic at best and racist at worst, and is often understood by its opponents to be necessarily ethnic. But this is not Scruton's view. He begins by surveying the idea of nationalism, noting its origins in the French Revolution and the apex of its corruption in Nazi Germany. While admitting the deep anti-conservatism in nationalism's roots, he nevertheless sees the idea of the nation as an outgrowth of what he calls the "first person plural," the implicit social agreements between individuals (the first person singular) that by definition exist before agreements can be made explicit in political and contractual terms. Nationalism in this view is more an expression of a people's shared heritage, history, and geography than it is a laudatory view of the centralized state.
Here the reader can detect a difference between British and American conservatism, as American conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty to states beside or even above loyalty to the nation, a reality that Scruton downplays somewhat. This difference is likely due to the different histories of the two countries, the U.S. being formed out of 13 independent political units and cultures that, despite their common heritage, all had different emphases and points of distinction, which contrasts with the more cohesive political history of the English people, despite their history of internecine conflicts. This it not to say that there are no regional loyalties in Great Britain, or national ones in America, but Scruton's view of nationalism as connected to a collective history that binds people together is a more prominent feature England than the United States.
Scruton also states his belief that, for the nation to survive, it must be founded on a secular law which operates above religion for the purpose uniting people. Here again one can sense the influence of European and British history, which has been considerably more racked by religious conflict than America has. Still, there is a sense in which Scruton's point resonates even with an American audience, with its tradition of religious tolerance. Certainly national identity and loyalty can, in some specific ways, supersede religious affiliation, though I am personally cautious to say this too categorically. As a Christian, my political duties might be to the nation (or some lower-level political entity), but my ultimate responsibility is to God, and this responsibility takes precedence over the political authority. Scruton doesn't seem to be disagreeing with this necessarily - rather, he seems to be commenting on the proper basis for political and social stability - but it's an interesting point of potential clarification, this distinction between our political and religious loyalties.
Having espoused the truth in nationalism, Scruton next tackles "The Truth in Socialism," though by acknowledging this truth all he is really saying is that there should be a spirit of voluntary charity and an understanding that just as not all inequalities are unjust, neither are they all just. In Scruton's view, the truth in socialism is that justice is desirable, but socialism mangles this truth both by making every inequality a question of justice (the zero-sum fallacy), and by intentionally cultivating grievances between groups of people. He believes that social harmony relies on controlling the resentment which inequality often brings, though he strongly disagrees with the leftist tendency to foster, rather than mitigate, resentment (see also his Fools, Frauds and Firebrands).
Detailing how socialism fosters resentment writ large, Scruton writes,
“If you injure me, I have a grievance against you: I want justice, revenge, or at least an apology and an attempt to make amends. This kind of grievance is between you and me, and it might be the occasion of our coming closer together should the right moves be made. The zero-sum way of thinking is not like that. It does not begin from injury, but from disappointment. It looks around for some contrasting success, on which to pin its resentment. And only then does it work on proving to itself that the other's success was the cause of my failure. Those who have invested their hopes in some future state which will be one of blessedness will very often end up with transferable grievances of this kind, which they carry around, ready to attach to every observed contentment, and to hold the successful to account for their own otherwise inexplicable failure."
To be sure, the wealthy and powerful have a role to play in lessening inequality, but Scruton notes that socialism mistakes this duty of charity for a question of justice. This has the effect of both reducing the social incentive for the wealthy to perform their duty while increasing the resentment felt by the poor, who thus see inequality not as the failure to perform a duty, but as the perpetration of an injustice, all of which harms social order and harmony.
Scruton next turns to the truth in what is commonly understood to be socialism's opposite, capitalism. He notes that conservatives view capitalism as both the only economic order consistent with the nature and proper ends of man, and one that poses a threat to that nature and those ends through its disordering drives for consumption and profit. Because of this, Scruton writes that conservatives agree with socialists that capitalism requires restraints, writing that "[t]hose who believe that social order should place constraints on the market are therefore right." However, referencing the thought of F. A. Hayek, he writes that "in a true spontaneous order the constraints are already there, in the form of customs, laws and morals. If those good things decay, then there is no way...that legislation can replace them. For they arise spontaneously or not at all, and the imposition of legislative edicts for the 'good society' may threaten what remains of the accumulated wisdom that makes such a society possible."
Scruton adds that true conservative opinions on capitalism are not as simplistic as they are commonly represented as being. While conservatives staunchly defend private property, they have historically meant hard property like land, not the "soft" kind of property created by finance capitalism, where people exchange things (like mortgages and corporate shares) that they are not ultimately responsible for. Scruton upholds the hard property ideal, but nevertheless believes that soft property, despite its openness to curruption, is a natural modern extension of the free market. In this way, Scruton updates somewhat the concerns over soft property that were expressed by conservatives of past generations, including Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk.
But Scruton also preserves some of these former critiques of capitalism. “Conservatives believe in private property," he writes, "because they respect the autonomy of the individual, but the market is the benign mechanism that Hayek and others describe only when it is contained by an impartial rule of law, and only when all participants bear the costs of their actions as well as reaping the benefits.” Because of this, not everything labeled capitalism is something that conservatives should defend. Examples of parts of the economy that he believes reap rewards without bearing costs are large corporations, particularly manufacturers and supermarkets (a topic he returns to in a few chapters). The answer to this problem, he thinks, is not state control of the economy, but a return to the cultural tenets that hem in the market’s potential corruption. "We cannot now escape from the 'commodification' of life that prosperity has naturally brought to us," he writes. "But we can strive to discipline it through good taste, the love of beauty and the sense of decorum. Those good things don't come to us from politics: certainly not through politics of a liberal or socialist kind. It is futile to look for a political remedy to evils that we can address only if we can take advantage of the social cohesion that depends in its turn upon markets."
Scruton next explores "The Truth in Liberalism," by which he means classical liberalism, with its focus on the rights and sovereignty of the individual. He contrasts this classical view with the modern left's expansion of "rights" to include desires which would both intrude on other people's rights and place unjust duties upon them. On these points Scruton comes across almost as a libertarian. But, unlike libertarians, Scruton knows that some topics require reticence. While discussing whether or not people have the right to do immoral things, he admits the difficulty of the topic, noting that John Stuart Mill's harm principle isn't fully satisfying while also stating that rights should give people the ability to live their lives without interference. It's obvious, however, that Scruton believes that there are limits to this liberty, though he's reluctant to say exactly what those limits are. Ultimately, he comes down firmly in favor individual liberty, though he's not dogmatic about the lengths to which liberty goes, which seems like a bit of a lost opportunity for Scruton to better clarify the differences, if any, between his view of rights and a libertarian or classical liberal's.
Next, Scruton gives a conservative perspective on immigration and assimilation in a chapter titled, "The Truth in Multiculturalism." Here he begins with the effect of Enlightenment view of individuals as endowed with inherent worth regardless of accidents of birth. “The Enlightenment," he writes, "proposed a universal human nature, governed by a universal moral law, from which the state emerges through the consent of the governed." Since the sense of humanity was universal, it applied to all human beings, regardless of whether they were inside or outside a given political order. As a result, the idea of accepting people into a political society that was not native to them acquired a new credibility.
While those figures who would later be classified as conservatives agreed with the Enlightenment conception of a universal human nature, they cautioned against losing the context of particularity. "For [conservatives], the Enlightenment was not to be regarded as a complete break with the past. It made sense only against the background of a long-standing cultural inheritance. Liberal individualism offered a new and in many ways inspiring vision of the human condition; but it depended upon traditions and institutions that bound people together in ways that no merely individualistic worldview could engender. [The Enlightenment vision] was all beautiful and logical and inspiring. But it made no sense without the cultural inheritance of the nation state, and the forms of social life that had taken root in it."
Scruton notes that, as the ideas of individualism and a common humanity proliferated, culture “proved permeable” to them, and “civic culture” sprung up, in which people were accepted based on a common acceptance of shared beliefs (the assumption being that newcomers would adhere to the standards of their new culture). Scruton here is not denying the importance, even the primacy, of culture, but is pointing out that there developed in the West the idea of accepting people from outside a culture if they were willing to adapt to it. He writes, “[t]he long-term effect of this has been to open Western societies to immigration, and to impart an ideal of citizenship that, it is hoped, will enable people of disparate origins and backgrounds to live together, recognizing that the real source of their obligation lies not in that which divides them - race and religion in particular - but in that which unites them - territory, good government, the day-to-day routines of neighborliness, the institutions of civil society, and the workings of the law."
In this view, immigration places an onus on both the immigrant and the culture to which he is immigrating. The former acquires the duty to respect and even adopt his new home's culture, and the latter acquires the duty to accept those who are willing to do so. If immigration is to work, Scruton writes, "it will be thanks to the effort on both sides to integrate the new arrivals into the surrounding way of life, so that the common culture of citizenship adapts to include them." That modern, intelligentsia-designed immigration does not operate on these principles is as obvious as the baneful effects of ignoring them, so prominently now on display, was predictable, and Scruton has no patience for those elites who say that accepting immigrants requires the repudiation of one's own culture. In fact, he believes that this would undermine the only foundation on which it can succeed.
Next, Scruton addresses "The Truth in Environmentalism." Here he writes that a conservationist concern is the proper conservative attitude towards the environment, one based in the eternal contract. The natural resources we have are not simply ours to wantonly use up in our modern consumptive fury. They, like all good things, have been handed down to us, and it is our duty to hand them on to our children. Scruton criticizes the modern economy's tendency to externalize its costs to future generations by creating waste and pollution that they will have to live with. "The truth in environmentalism," he writes, "points to the reasonableness of conservatism, and to the need to incorporate the aim of stewardship into conservative policies."
However, he adds, the leftist approach to environmental issues, with its appeals for regulation to national governments and international bodies, is not only ineffective at its goal, it has provoked a conservative response that diverts conservatives' attention from the problem and its true solutions, and focuses it instead on combating the far-left environmentalist agenda. He writes that once this agenda, which is often just warmed-over socialism, is presented "with all the ideological embellishments with which we are familiar, the left-wing position calls into being by its very logic a right-wing position, which defends individual freedom and markets against the bogeyman of state control and top-down dictatorship. And as the ideological conflict heats up, all kinds of thing are put in question that ought not to be put in question, facts are fabricated and research politicized, and the legitimate use of the state and the legitimate sphere of private enterprise are both lost sight of in the flurry of accusations."
But conservatives should not allow the radical proposals of their political opponents to distract them from their own duty to articulate an environmental policy that is consonant with the conservative view of society. Conservatives "should learn from the conflicts over the environment that political solutions emerge from below and are shaped by the motives of real people. They are not imposed from above by those who regard their fellow humans with suspicion, and who long to replace them with something better."
After touching on "The Truth in Internationalism" - which primarily concerns how the nations of Europe can cooperate without surrendering their sovereignties to the European Union - Scruton finally turns to the truth in conservatism, with incorporates all the other truths he has discussed, while emphasizing the eternal contract and the bottom-up structure of society. He writes, “Conservatism is not in the business of correcting human nature or shaping it according to some conception of the ideal rational chooser. It attempts to understand how societies work, and to make the space required for them to work successfully." The conservative view of a successful society is one "of human beings as accountable to each other, bound in associations of mutual responsibility and finding fulfillment in the family and the life of civil society. Our existence as citizens, freely participating in the polis, is made possible by our enduring attachments to the things we hold dear. Our condition is not that of Homo oeconimicus, searching in everything to satisfy his private desires. We are home-building creatures, cooperating in the search for intrinsic values, and what matters to us are the ends, not the means, of our existence."
From this comes the conservative regard for voluntary associations. Scruton writes, “[f]rom the raw material of human affection, we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies and hierarchies that endow our activities with intrinsic worth. Schools, churches, libraries; choirs, orchestra, bands, theatre groups; cricket clubs, football teams, chess tournaments; the historical society, the women's institute, the museum, the hunt, the angler's club - in a thousand ways people combine not just in circles of friendship but in formal associations, willingly adopting and submitting to rules and procedures that regiment their conduct and make them accountable for doing things correctly. Such associations are a source not only of enjoyment but also of pride; they create hierarchies, offices and rules to which people willingly submit because they can see the point in them. They are also viewed with suspicion by those who believe that civil society should be directed by those who know best."
But not every voluntary association is worthy of equal regard. "Conservatives are right to emphasize free associations as the root of civil society," Scruton writes. "But when free association becomes a shibboleth, when all forms of community are regarded as equally worthwhile, provided only that the participants consent to them, then we lose sight of the distinction between associations in which people make no demands of each other, and association in which moral discipline grows between the participants and informs and transforms their lives. The truth in conservatism depends on our recognition that free association is to be valued only if it is also a source of value - in other words, only if it is ordered towards fulfillment, rather than mere utility or recreation. In the libertarian free-for-all what is worst in human nature enjoys an equal chance with what is best, and discipline is repudiated as a meddlesome intrusion. Conservatism is the attempt to affirm that discipline, and to build, in the space of free association, a lasting realm of value."
Scruton then considers several of these realms of value in detail, examining the role of government, religion, the family, and leisure in society. On religion, he states his belief that, for the last two centuries, the West has been living off the Christian social capital accumulated by past generations, and details the attempts of some some thinkers to preserve Christian culture in the face of the growing secularization of the modern era. That some of these thinkers were secularists themselves, and sought to preserve the effects of faith without actually adhering to it, raises an interesting parallel to Scruton's own work, since he often seems to have more of a social faith than a theological one. This comes through in his discussion of the importance of the Anglican church, which he praises for having preserved the appearance of faith while its substance has been lost. The obvious question, of course, is how long can the unsubstantiated appearance of something be preserved - and since Scruton admits that religious faith is the cornerstone of the West, the rediscovery of true faith, and not just its appearance, would seem paramount.
In discussing the role of the family in the conservative vision, Scruton tackles the question of gay marriage. His comments here are essentially an effort to frame marriage as a social institution which revolves around the creating and preparing of new generations of that society, which therefore has an interest in the institutions that perpetuate itself. He notes that all societies in human history have, irrespective of religious belief, understood marriage to be between man and woman, and that altering the norms of an institution, particularly by the power of the state, risks undermining not only the institution, but society itself. This being so, "conservatives will recognize that the ordinary conscience will not find itself entirely at ease with a change that overthrows social norms on which people have depended throughout recorded history," even though expressing such doubts carries with it the risk of being shouted down as a bigot. "In this, as in so many things," he adds, "people of a conservative temperament look around for the person who will speak for them, and find only an embarrassed silence. Strident minorities, acting on the growing disposition to censor their opponents, ensure that the deeper question, the more likely it is to be settled by shallow arguments."
Nevertheless, Scruton recognizes that marriage has been severely damaged by a multiplicity of factors in modern society and does not believe that this is a battle to be fought at the political level, but that instead the accurate portrayal of marriage should be modeled by conservatives through the example of their personal conduct. The law's stance toward marriage "must move in response to social change, but should not be the engine of change. In this area as in every other, the state exists to protect civil society, not to shape it according to some purpose that is not already implicit in the social fabric. ...We don't know now what form the family will take in any future time. But we do know that, when it grows from the existential commitment of parents to each other and to their offspring, then it will grow as an intrinsic good, an association all of whose members can find their fulfillment and support in their mutual dealings. If the state has a role here, it is in clearing and protecting the space in which that kind of union can occur."
Scruton closes the book with "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, but Admitting Loss," in which he encourages conservatives to respond to the social deterioration around them with a newfound commitment to the eternal contract - preserving what they can of what has been given them, and dutifully passing it on to their children. In a beautiful and haunting passage, Scruton writes,
We do not merely study the past: we inherit it, and inheritance brings with it not only the rights of ownership, but the duties of trusteeship. Things fought for and died for should not be idly squandered. For they are the property of others, who are not yet born. Conservatism should be seen in that way, as part of a dynamic relation across generations. People grieve at the destruction at what is dear to them, because it damages the pattern of trusteeship, cutting them off from those who went before, and obscuring the obligation of those who come after.
The wastelands of exurbia - such as those which spread from Detroit for 50 miles in every direction - are places where past and future generations have been disregarded, places where the voices of the dead and the unborn are no longer heard. They are places of vociferous impermanence, where present generations live without belonging - where there is no belonging, since belonging is a relationship in history, a relationship that binds both present and absent generations, and which depends upon the perception of a place as home.
This, ultimately, is the challenge for conservatives, and the core of Scruton's lesson on how to be one: preserve the good in the face of the statism, activism, and materialism of our time; put down roots, raise your children, love your neighbor, and let your life be an example to those who are caught in the centrifugal forces of our disordered societies. Conservatives must understand the immense work, humility, and self-restraint that will be required if they are to measure up to this challenge. Being a conservative is not a political program, or a set of slogans - it is an understanding of our duties as individuals in an eternal order. How to Be a Conservative is a call to take those responsibilities seriously.
About the author
Ben is a writer living in Ohio with his family. His reading interests are focused primarily on history and traditionalist conservatism and their relation to libertarianism. He is a contributing editor for Austro Libertarian.