What conservatives must learn from socialists
The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton offers an elegant rebuttal to the falsifying simplifications of our politics
Remember when President Obama said, "If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." And then a few weeks later the speakers at the 2012 Republican convention rebutted this line in a parade of jokes and applause lines so long, rote, and benumbing it gave the freakish impression Belgians must have felt after days of watching identical German columns march through their towns at the start of World War I? Well, I do.
As always in American politics, the leader of one party expressed a commonplace truth badly. In this case, the truth was that men are not self-made. The other party then exaggerated this statement into an abhorrent, arrogant worldview and responded by expressing another commonplace truth — that individuals deserve the rewards and honor produced by their own efforts — in a repellent, self-regarding way.
It was this double-orchestra of mental-excreta that came to mind as I read the lucid new book How to Be a Conservative by Roger Scruton. A philosopher, who writes on architecture, sex, music, and fox hunting, Scruton is perhaps the only conservative thinker from our era that will be read 50 or 100 years hence. He may be the only conservative thinker worth reading now.
What distinguishes Scruton from the approach of most political conservatives is his confidence and generosity in granting the truths his intellectual opponents offer. How to be a Conservative is structured around successive chapters with titles like "The Truth in Socialism," "The Truth in Environmentalism," and "The Truth in Capitalism." For Scruton, each of these "isms" eventually turns into falsifying simplifications of our politics or life. But in each, he excavates some moral impulse or truth that must be honored for the health of society.
And so, instead of meeting Obozo-socialism with right-wing crudity, he takes a dialectical approach. While taking a quick tour of socialist thought in Europe and Britain, Scruton affirms the socialist truth found in a society where "[t]he way in which our activities are woven together, binding the destiny of each of us to that of strangers whom we shall never know, is so complex that we could never unravel it." He writes:
Hobbes may have been wrong to think that he could reduce the obligation of society to a contract; but he was surely right to think that outside society life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." And the more we take from this arrangement, the more we must give in return. This is not a contractual obligation. It is an obligation of gratitude. But it exists for all that, and must be built into the conservative vision as a cornerstone of social policy.
That, in my view, is the truth in socialism, the truth of our mutual dependence, and of the need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them. [How to Be a Conservative]
This is his model throughout.
Critical for Scruton is his posture as a "reluctant" capitalist and a conservative environmentalist. One of the truths he elicits is that a free market implies the freedom of the actors within that market, and their consequent responsibility. But the mechanisms of modern capitalism allow not just multi-national corporations and extractive industries to externalize the costs of their activities onto the environment, but individual consumers as well. The costs of all our actions are projected onto society as a whole, and ultimately to our children and grandchildren. A "free market" that destroys resources, that evades the true cost of its activity, and binds the future to pollution and debt is a contradiction in terms. On a personal or familial level, these are the activities that ruin free people and place them into bondage. How can the effect be any different on a national or civilizational level?
The gulf between Scruton's thought and the level of our politics can be depressing. In a political form that is rapidly degenerating into a mass democracy, decent citizens who embark on a political project often unwittingly adopt the political anthropology of dictators. To motivate the masses, they exaggerate threats, corrupt their research, and demonize their critics. They invent odious and insular vocabularies, and ever-changing codes of manners to make the ideas of their critics "not just obsolete but also, in some way, inexpressible." All for the greater good, of course.
Just as Scruton identified the missing element of socialism as one of gratitude, so it is the missing element in much that trades under the label of conservatism. It is gratitude that helps us view property not only as an asset to be mined but as a trusteeship, with duties to the dead and the unborn attached. Scruton spends much of his work offering little hints on how the existing passions and sentiments found in common people can be harnessed toward sound environmental policies and projects that will ameliorate the effects of capitalism, hasten integration of diverse people into liberal societies, and arrest the breakdown of family life.
"You didn't build that," turns out to be one of the primary truths of conservatism. It is the necessary ground on which the conservative launches his critiques. You did not build that, the conservative should say, and so you could more easily destroy it than rebuild it. You did not build that, so do not think it can be easily manipulated by the push and pull of administration. You didn't build that, so be a grateful and wise steward.