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The Joy of Conservatism: An Interview with Roger Scruton

Maxwell Goss

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Roger Scruton is a philosopher, essayist, foxhunter, farmer, publisher, composer, and man of letters, as well as a contributor to Right Reason, the weblog for philosophical conservativsm. He is also Britain's leading conservative intellectual and The Meaning of Conservatism, which he wrote in 1980, is arguably the most important statement of the traditionalist conservative outlook since Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953). One sign of the book's success is the hostility it provoked on the left; the journal Radical Philosophy, for instance, described it as 'clearly too ghastly to be taken seriously.' Roger's recent books include, among many others, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (2002), News from Somewhere: On Settling (2005), and the autobiographical Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (2005). Roger tells me he has 'a strong attachment, recently acquired, to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Hazel River.' He and his wife Sophie recently bought a house in Virginia, and divide their time between rural America and rural England.

Roger graciously agreed to an interview on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Meaning of Conservatism, now in its third edition. We discussed a range of subjects including the reaction to the book from left and right, the possibilities and limitations of free markets, the U.S. Constitution, the nature of philosophy, the social function of religion, the prospects for conservatism under Tony Blair and George W. Bush, and the joylessness of liberalism.

Max Goss: What prompted you to write The Meaning of Conservatism?

Roger Scruton: I wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in 1979, during the last year of a failing Labour Government, when the Conservatives were in the process of choosing a new leader (Margaret Thatcher), and also looking around for a new philosophy -- or rather any philosophy, having subsisted to that point without one. I was teaching in the University of London, and had begun to take an interest in political thought. I was surprised to discover that the politics department of my college library contained largely Marxist or sub-Marxist books, that major conservative thinkers like Burke, de Maistre and Hayek were hardly to be found there, and that the journals were all uniformly leftist. Academic political science was in the style of the New Left Review, with a strong leaning towards the idiocies of 1968, a sneering contempt for England and its heritage, and a witch-hunting tone towards the opposition, which it dismissed as middle brow, middle class, and racist.

At the same time I was troubled to discover that the Conservative Party had no principle with which to oppose this kind of 'resentment politics,' other than the Free Market. I wanted to remind people that there really is a tradition of conservative thinking in politics, that it is wiser and deeper than the left-liberal orthodoxies of the day, and that it is not reducible to free market principles, even if it contains them.

It should be added that I would not have written the book, had I not been commissioned by Ted Honderich, then politics editor at Penguin and also a University colleague, who was desperate to find someone, somewhere, however feeble, to defend the conservative position. Meaning of Conservatism, the intellectual left -- whose ideas, emotions and very existence depends upon a stance of opposition -- would have had nothing to oppose. Hence the book's appearance caused a huge sigh of relief among my colleagues, who were at last able to hate again.

MG: What about the reaction among conservatives? I'm thinking in particular of your criticism of certain capitalist arguments. While noting the conservative affinity for private property, you say these arguments 'present us with a vision of politics that is desultory indeed, as though the sole aim of social existence were the accumulation of wealth and the sole concern of politics the discovery of the most effective means to it.' Did your lack of enthusiasm for free markets win you a warm reception with members of the Conservative Party?

Scruton: So far as I know The Meaning of Conservatism elicited no response whatsoever from the Conservative Party or those connected with it. There was, at the time, a small circle of intellectual conservatives at the London School of Economics -- a legacy from the days when Oakeshott and Popper both taught there -- and another at Cambridge. Neither of them seemed to notice the book. The Conservative Party was very much in the grip of the free market ideology relayed by the Institute for Economic Affairs. The view of the IEA at the time was that I, and the Salisbury Review which I founded, should be avoided, as exhibiting dangerous tendencies towards extremism, fascism etc., or alternatively as being part of a sophisticated KGB operation to split the Conservative Party. Later, however, the IEA's Social Affairs Unit, under the leadership of Digby Anderson, developed in a direction that I felt closer to, and broke away from the IEA.

MG: What deleterious consequences result from the 'free market ideology' you mention? Are there particular economic arrangements that conservatives ought to prefer?

Scruton: The free market is a necessary part of any stable community, and the arguments for maintaining it as the core of economic life were unanswerably set out by Ludwig von Mises. [Friedrich] Hayek developed the arguments further, in order to offer a general defence of 'spontaneous order', as the means to produce and maintain socially necessary knowledge. As Hayek points out, there are many varieties of spontaneous order that exemplify the epistemic virtues that he values: the common law is one of them, so too is ordinary morality.

The problem for conservatism is to reconcile the many and often conflicting demands that these various forms of life impose on us. The free-market ideologues take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction. But many of our most important forms of life involve withdrawing what we value from the market: sexual morality is an obvious instance, city planning another. (America has failed abysmally in both those respects, of course.)

Looked at from the anthropological point of view religion can be seen as an elaborate (and spontaneous) way in which communities remove what is most precious to them (i.e. all that concerns the creation and reproduction of community) from the erosion of the market. A cultural conservative, such as I am, supports that enterprise. I would put the point in terms that echo Burke and Chesterton: the free market provides the optimal solution to the competition among the living for scarce resources; but when applied to the goods in which the dead and the unborn have an interest (sex, for instance) it wastes what must be saved.

MG: Shifting gears, an important theme in your book is that the notion of a social contract, 'a recent and now seemingly irrepressible political idea,' cannot ground political life as we experience it. Can you say a little about the contrasting idea of the 'transcendent bonds' that you say give rise to our social obligations?

Scruton: My point was simply to emphasize that the most important obligations governing our lives as social and political beings -- including those to family, country and state -- are non-contractual and precede the capacity for rational choice. By referring to them as 'transcendent' I meant to emphasize that they transcend any capacity to rationalise them in contractual or negotiable terms. They have an absolute and immovable character that we must acknowledge if we are to understand our social and political condition. The refusal of people on the left to make this acknowledgement stems from their inability to accept external authority in any form, and from their deep down belief that all power is usurpation, unless wielded by themselves.

MG: Does your emphasis on authority give any substance to the claim, so often found on the lips of liberals, that conservatism is repressive and dictatorial?

Scruton: To describe an obligation as transcendent in my sense is not to endow it with some kind of oppressive force. On the contrary, it is to recognize the spontaneous disposition of people to acknowledge obligations that they never contracted. There are other words that might be used in this context: gratitude, piety, obedience -- all of them virtues, and all of them naturally offered to the thing we love.

What I try to make clear in my writings is that, while the left-liberal view of politics is founded in antagonism towards existing things and resentment at power in the hands of others, conservatism is founded in the love of existing things, imperfections included, and a willing acceptance of authority, provided it is not blatantly illegitimate. Hence there is nothing oppressive in the conservative attitude to authority.

It is part of the blindness of the left-wing worldview that it cannot perceive authority but only power. People who think of conservatism as oppressive and dictatorial have some deviant example in mind, such as fascism, or Tsarist autocracy. I would offer in the place of such examples the ordinary life of European and American communities as described by 19th century novelists. In those communities all kinds of people had authority -- teachers, pastors, judges, heads of local societies, and so on. But only some of them had power, and almost none of them were either able or willing to oppress their fellows.

MG: The authority of the hunt master also comes to mind; an interesting study might be 'the foxhunt as mediating institution.' Are there freedoms or other goods that could not exist without the benign forms of local authority you identify?

Scruton: The example of the hunt master is a good one, since it shows both the spontaneity of authority and the willingness of people to accept it, when they see how intricately it is connected to their own well-being and to the well-being of their community. To put the point in the arid terms of game theory: authority is a spontaneous solution to problems of coordination, and may be the only solution available. In all matters when discussion, voting and bargaining would delay the decision beyond the point when it must be made, the artifact of authority is the rational solution to problems of collective choice. This is obviously so in the military, but the principle extends through all society.

And once authority is in place it becomes part of the culture: there grows around it that sense of security and of being at home in the world that we knew in childhood, and which now radiates from the people, offices and institutions to which we turn for answers. Without authority the mass of people have only questions, and it is not possible to live with a diet of unanswered questions.

MG: Is this why religion is important? Is a shared religion required for the forms of spontaneous authority you mention?

Scruton: Of course religion offers the certainties that people need -- if it didn't do that at least, it would have no congregation. But the social function of religion can be fulfilled whether its content is true or false, and whether it is compatible or not with modernity. Not every religion is tolerant of the unbeliever, and it is a remarkable fact about our own religious tradition that it allows not only apostasy but overt atheism -- emphasizing that we bear witness through forgiveness and not through usurping a right of punishment that belongs only to God. In short it is a religious tradition that presents certainty in the midst of doubt, and allows the two to compete freely for our affections.

MG: In your book you criticize 'the attempt to remake the nation through statute, and to substitute statute wherever possible for common law.' In the U.S., however, conservatives tend to be suspicious of what they term 'the rule of judges,' and pin their hopes largely on a judiciary that hews as closely as possible to the letter of the law. Is there a tension here?

Scruton: American conservatives have rightly complained against the power of judges under the American constitution. For the Supreme Court has been able to use its authority as constitutional arbiter to expropriate the law-making powers of the Legislature. The doctrine of the division of powers is like the doctrine of the Trinity: it enshrines a mystery, and nobody really knows how to keep the three powers separate but united. There is a constant danger that they will collapse into one, as they have done under the rule of liberal judges in the Supreme Court.

The British experience is related but different. In our case the collapse has gone the other way, with the legislature displacing and canceling the work of the courts. This is because we have a single chamber Parliament (the House of Lords now counting for nothing) and an unwritten constitution that places no real brakes on the abuse of legislative power (witness the recent Hunting Act). The conservative view, as I see it, is to advocate balance, which means respect offered by each organ of government to the others, and a refusal to arrogate powers when there is any doubt concerning the right to do so.

I would also point out that the common law -- a great gift of history that both our countries still possess -- is both intrinsically conservative, and better able to resolve social conflicts than the schemes of politicians.

MG: You are often described as a 'paleoconservative,' a term that Russell Kirk, who was described the same way, eschewed. Do you accept this designation?

Scruton: I am not hostile to American neo-conservatism, which seems to me to show a commendable desire to think things through and to develop an active alternative to liberalism in both national and international politics. But I suppose I am more of a paleo than a neo-conservative, since I believe that the conservative position is rooted in cultural rather than economic factors, and that the single-minded pursuit of competitive markets is just as much a threat to social order as the single-minded pursuit of equality.

MG: What do you make of the critique of industrial society presented by the Southern Agrarians, or by contemporary agrarians such as Wendell Berry?

Scruton: Things have moved on since the Southern Agrarians, who were able to enjoy the last twilight glow from a way of life which now barely glimmers in the ashes. Of course people like Wendelll Berry will awaken a strong feeling of loss, and a longing for homecoming, in many Americans. But the real conservative is the one who wishes to recuperate the lasting sense of life and its value, even in circumstances that seem unpropitious -- such as those that prevail in a modern city. Industrial society was rightly criticised from both the right and the left; but industrial society has all but disappeared. The future lies with the self-employed, and it is for them to form the new communities, on the model of the old.

MG: The sort of conservatism you espouse is not easily expressed in slogans, nor do the arguments for it seem as easily mastered as those advanced in behalf of more populist varieties. What hope, if any, does your vision of conservatism have for gaining ascendancy?

Scruton: Of course it is not easy to put my kind of conservatism into slogans. That is a defect in slogans, and not in my conservatism. You cannot put Hayek's theory of the common law, Kant's theory of republican government, or Hegel's theory of civil society into slogans. But they are true, for all that. A philosophy is nothing if it does not aim at truth. (That is why Jacques Derrida and Giles Deleuze are not philosophers.)

To aim also to persuade is commendable, and for this reason it is necessary for a political thinker to learn how to write. Marx solved this problem, unfortunately, but then so did Burke. Good writing affects the minds of the literary elite, and ideas in the minds of that elite will eventually filter down, to the point where some slick but ignorant journalist will find the slogans that correspond, at his level of mental life, to those distantly and vaguely perceivable notions. This is in part what Plato had in mind, when he advocated the noble lie. Not 'noble' but elegant; not a 'lie' but journalism.

MG: If you could persuade the governments of Prime Minister Blair or President Bush to take onboard one of the lessons of your book, what would it be?

Scruton: My advice to Mr. Blair would be to stop pretending to be President and recognize instead that he is just a minister of the Crown. The burden of my argument in The Meaning of Conservatism is that proven institutions are more precious than the people who occupy them, and that those who exercise authority ought also to obey it. Mr. Blair has shown no disposition to recognize that his authority has been conferred on him by institutions that he is duty-bound to respect. His frivolous attitude to constitution, procedure and the dignities of office has done something to undermine not just his own authority, but the authority of government as such.

My advice to President Bush would be to look at the ways in which the power of the state might be needed in order to support the autonomous associations and 'little platoons of American civil society. There are two evils in particular which need to be addressed: the litigation explosion, which has vastly increased the risk of small businesses, and also sown discord among neighbours; and the disaster of the inner cities, which have suffered from the worst effects of American zoning laws and laissez-faire aesthetics, with the result that the middle class has fled from the city centres, causing social decay at the heart, and an unsustainable growth in transportation and suburban infrastructure all around. I believe that federal policies could be initiated that would address both these evils, without increasing the role of the state in the conduct of litigation or in the planning of city streets.

MG: Thanks very much for making time for this interview, Dr. Scruton. Any parting thoughts for our readers?

Scruton: I think conservatives should study the ideas and arguments that prevail on the left. There is always something to learn from these arguments, if only which way the wind of resentment is now blowing. And lifting your eyes from this joyless stuff, you will thank God that you are a conservative.

"The Meaning of Conservatism" belongs on the shelf of every thoughtful conservative; click here to view it on Amazon. A complete listing of Roger Scruton's books and much else can be found on his website. Dozens of his articles are linked on the internet bibliography compiled by Christopher S. Morrissey.

Read the entire article on the New Pantagruel website (new window will open).

Posted: 04-Apr-06

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