Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Roger Scruton's Conservatism

Conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton, about whom I have written here several times, died last year. His old friend Robert George wrote a piece for the Times to explain what Scruton's "conservatism" consisted of. Scruton was a staunch anti-communist, but he differed in many ways from other anti-communists:
First, he believed that the free-market enthusiasm of Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman made economic policy too central, relying on it too much to solve social problems and shape society. In this respect, he thought, it shared an error with its great foe, Marxism.

Second, though Roger believed in market mechanisms and fervently opposed central planning and what he saw as a dependency-inducing welfare state, he denied that the outcomes of free exchanges are automatically just. Liberty, while important, was for him only one important value among others like community and solidarity, order and decency, honor and faith.

And so he thought a variety of regulations may be needed, and therefore justified, to protect persons and valuable institutions of civil society. . . . Here, Roger joined the iconic American neoconservative Irving Kristol in giving capitalism only “two cheers” — perhaps no more than one and three-quarters. . . .

Central to Roger’s disagreement with his more libertarian allies was his belief in unchosen (and in that sense “natural”) obligations — duties we have simply by virtue of being human and born into a certain family, community, or nation. We do not come into the world as bare individuals who can develop an identity entirely from scratch.

Indeed, Roger was the leading philosophical defender of love of home and one’s own, what he called “oikophilia.” . . .

Roger’s oikophilia, and his rejection of “multiculturalism” (which he considered anti-cultural in that it melted the different cultures into a monoculture of contemporary upscale progressive ideology), provoked ignorant and excitable people to accuse him of xenophobia and racism. In fact, Roger respected other cultures a great deal more than most progressives of my acquaintance do. He learned Arabic in order to read the Quran, and he admired the tradition-transcending contributions of the great medieval Islamic philosophers. He made careful, in-depth studies of Hindu and other Eastern traditions of faith precisely in search of the wisdom he regarded them as possessing.
Scruton was also an environmentalist in the same way as Prince Charles or Wendell Barry, with a revulsion against chemical poisons used in the name of greater efficiency, or pouring concrete onto ancient woodlands.

My readers know that I am attracted to this strand of conservative thought but can't embrace it. For one thing it has an impracticality about it that troubles me. I actually agree that economics is not the most important thing, and that people need friends, families, communities, and spiritual succor more than they need extra stuff. But there is something off about rich men tut-tutting when other people worry too much about money. Easy for Roger Scruton to oppose paving over farms or forest for new housing, since he already lived in a lovely old farmhouse on an estate worth a million pounds. Any real vision for human thriving has to balance the desire to preserve against the need to provide decent homes and decent livings for the millions who lack them, and I never got the sense that these conservatives had thought of a way to do so. Indeed they sometimes come across as anti-human, sharing with radical Greens a revulsion against the human mass, and a wish that a few billion people would conveniently disappear.

Scruton's “oikophilia.” also has an appealing side. He really loved traditional rural England, but he also loved other traditions and other places – Morocco, Italy, India. In practice, though, this made him a strong opponent of immigration. He did not want to see those traditions he admired mixed up together; we should all stick to our own and celebrate what we inherited. Like the men of the French Nouvelle Droit (see here and here) he abhorred the corporate sameness of the modern world. I sometimes agree, but when these ideas form policies the victims always seem to be poor immigrants rather than rich capitalists. Although Scruton himself does not seem to have had any feelings against Jews, you can see how easily these attitudes can be shaped into a hatred of those wandering people who insist on their separateness and refuse to join wonderful local communities.

I believe in democracy in a deep sense: that our vision for the world has to be based on giving people what they want. I understand the philosophical, moral, and ecological dangers of such a view, and I have never thought that most humans can really be trusted to choose rightly. The alternatives, though, all come down to some sort of elitism, and I don't think elites can be trusted, either. All people matter. Simply waving ones hand at the billions who are not your sort or your neighbors, wishing they would just go away, will not do.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I believe in democracy in a deep sense: that our vision for the world has to be based on giving people what they want.

In fairness, Democracy and giving people what they want aren't exactly the same thing.

In pure Democracy, only the majority gets what they want. In order for the minority to ever get what they want, there has to be something beyond simple Democracy in play, working to ensure that the majority provide for the minority even when they don't want to.

There has to be an influence which pushes for things which the majority of people do not want, because otherwise the minority is subjected to the tyranny of the masses. Such an influence is inherently non-Democratic.

There has to be Justice For All, and Democracy alone does not produce that.