How to Be a Conservative
by Roger Scruton.
London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Hardcover, ix + 195 pages, $20.50.

One of Roger Scruton’s mentors, T. S. Eliot, frequently observed that heresies are usually half-truths. As Eliot says in The Idea of a Christian Society, “Heresy is often defined as an insistence upon one half of the truth; it can also be an attempt to simplify the truth, by reducing it to the limits of our ordinary understanding, instead of enlarging our reason to the apprehension of truth.” This insight is the organizing principle of How to be a Conservative, each chapter of which acknowledges the truth of one major political idea but shows that it isn’t the whole truth. The book may be viewed as a relatively accessible and updated version of Scruton’s excellent work The Meaning of Conservatism, published in 1979 but updated in 2000. Scruton may be considered the British version of Russell Kirk: in spite of some differences in their approaches, they are similar in their emphasis on traditional conservatism and in their skepticism concerning libertarian conservatism.

This book opens with a brief memoir. Scruton’s father was a socialist, but one with a deeply conservative bent: he “believed in socialism, not as an economic doctrine, but as a restoration to the common people of the land that was theirs.” In other words, Jack Scruton’s politics were rooted in the Englishman’s traditional rights to property and freedom. His son came to care deeply about culture—philosophy, art, literature, and music—and his sense of cultural tradition was influenced by people such as Eliot, who made old ideas new. As Scruton puts it, “we must be modern in defence of the past and creative in defense of tradition.” Thus, he was a cultural conservative before he became a political conservative, which accounts for his frequent emphasis (similar to what we find in Edmund Burke, Christopher Dawson, Eliot, and Kirk) on the pre-political cultural development out of which political institutions grow from below.

His political conservatism dates from 1968, when he was teaching in France and observed up close the Marxist-inspired student protests of that time: “I read the attacks on ’bourgeois’ civilization with a growing sense that if there is anything half decent in the way of life so freely available in the world’s greatest city, the word ‘bourgeois’ is the proper name for it.” He was teaching at the University of London when Margaret Thatcher came to power, a leader who had the “effrontery” (in the eyes of his Marxist colleagues) “to declare her commitment to the market economy, private enterprise, the freedom of the individual, national sovereignty, and the rule of law—in short to all the things that Marx had dismissed as ‘bourgeois ideology.’” Scruton cites John O’Sullivan’s book The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, endorsing his view that Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like Kirk, Scruton eventually decided to leave the confines of the academy, where his ideas were unwelcome, and to “live by my wits.”

Scruton distinguishes between “metaphysical conservatism,” which depends on “the belief in sacred things,” and “empirical conservatism,” which knows from experience that “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.” He addresses the book to those who can appreciate this practical conservatism, regardless of religious belief or unbelief. It seems good to appeal to this empirical conservatism, but it is, I will suggest, problematic to separate it from belief in the divine.

Scruton distinguishes too between libertarian and traditional conservatism and finds the libertarian version inadequate. He points out that even Adam Smith did not believe that the market alone could solve our problems: “It is where sympathy, duty, and virtue achieve their proper place that self-interest leads, by an invisible hand, to a result that benefits everyone.” Like Russell Kirk, he looks first of all to Burke for conservative principles: “Burke saw society as an association of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract, but something more akin to love.” Traditional conservatism will always emphasize the passing on of cultural values from generation to generation as a necessary basis for the freedom of the individual in a market economy.

He notes the importance to the modern liberal position of the “social contract” theory put forward by Enlightenment thinkers, and he shows that this starting point is incoherent and fanciful. “The social contract,” he writes, “begins from a thought-experiment, in which a group of people gather together to decide on their common future.” But this is a complete fiction, for in reality human beings have never lived outside of society. Scruton calls attention to the Greek word oikos, which is the root of “economic.” This word means the home, the household, what is not only mine but ours. Both the classical liberal (or libertarian) and the modern liberal exaggerated the independence of individual human beings. “Conservatism,” on the other hand, “is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay.”

Scruton acknowledges that there is a fundamental truth in nationalism, though Nazi Germany pushed this truth to the point of heresy. Politics organizes and protects what is “ours.” “The only question then is ‘Who are we?’ And, in modern conditions, the nation is the answer to that question.… The essential thing about nations is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbours, and result in loyalties that are attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, or, as in Europe, to a self-perpetuating political class.” This growth from below is what he refers to as “pre-political loyalty,” emphasizing that cultural unity is presupposed in political unity. Scruton has been arguing strenuously for nationalism, most recently in an essay in the review section of the Wall Street Journal. He recognizes that he is swimming against the current in the academic world, which is dominated, as he puts it, by a “culture of repudiation.” Conservatism, in contrast, “is a culture of affirmation. It is about the things we value and the things we wish to defend.” Though his view is unpopular among the elites, it has carried the day among electorates in the U.S. and U.K.

Scruton gives a chapter to the truth of internationalism, which is “that sovereign states are legal persons, and should deal with each other through a system of rights, duties, liabilities, and responsibilities.” Thus there should be binding agreements among nations. However, he quickly adds, this common-sense idea “is not what internationalism now amounts to. Once again a fundamental truth has been captured by people with an agenda, and so turned to falsehood.” It is the European Union that has founded itself on this heresy, and he demonstrates it with one word: “subsidiarity.” Pius X (and subsequent popes) used the word to mean that what can be dealt with at more local or regional levels should be. However, “In the EU as it is today, the term ‘subsidiarity’ denotes not the means whereby powers are passed up from the bottom, but the means whereby powers are allocated from the top.” This direct reversal of a word’s meaning is a mark of a dishonest regime using the manipulative methods George Orwell described. This is being accomplished to a large extent by unelected bureaucrats, making the EU less and less democratic. “By replacing national accountability with distant bureaucracy, the machinery of the EU has left us disarmed and bewildered in the face of our current crisis.” Scruton wrote this before England voted to leave the EU, but he has welcomed that development.

The truth in socialism is “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.” The socialist is aware, as the conservative is, that we only live in society, never alone. No man is an island. This profound truth becomes a heresy in the hands of the socialists when they proclaim that it is the role of the state to redistribute wealth. Instead of our mutual dependence, they thereby create “a new class of dependents—people who have come to depend on welfare payments, perhaps over several generations, and who have lost all incentive to live in another way.” This dependent class becomes a voting block that can, if it becomes large enough, ensure election for the politicians who support that system, turning democracy into demagoguery. The other practical problem is that it is simply too costly, so that it is not the people of today taking care of each other but future generations being conscripted (without having a say in the matter) to pay the debt we leave for them.

The fundamental error in this thinking, Scruton points out, is that it sees the economy as a zero-sum game in which there is a certain amount of wealth that needs to be distributed equitably by the government. This assumes that wealth is just there, a given, but of course wealth must be created. It also assumes that there is only a given amount of wealth, but in reality the wealth of a nation can be increased. “The real perversion” in the socialist world view “is a peculiar fallacy that sees life in society as one in which every success is someone else’s failure.” He goes on to say that “this zero-sum fallacy underlies the widespread belief that equality and justice are the same idea.”

The truth in capitalism is that “private ownership and free exchange are necessary features of any large-scale economy—any economy in which people depend for their survival and prosperity on the activities of strangers.” This truth becomes a heresy when it becomes an ideology claiming that the free market will automatically produce good. Even Hayek acknowledges (in Scruton’s reading of him) that “The market is held in place by other forms of spontaneous order … some of which—moral and legal traditions, for example—create the kind of solidarity that markets, left to themselves, will erode.” Here is a good meeting point for cultural conservatives and libertarians, for a healthy society needs both cultural traditions and a free market. “No market economy can function properly without the support of legal and moral sanctions, designed to hold individual agents to their bargains, and to return the cost of misbehavior to the one who causes it.… Too many conservatives have failed to take seriously the many abuses to which property is subject.” Though the free market has created great wealth, it has also tempted us with dreams of materialistic happiness: “Material values, idolatry and sensory indulgence are steadily eroding our awareness that there really are goods that cannot be put on sale, since to do so is to destroy them—goods like love, sex, beauty and settlement.” Cultural traditions remind us of this reality and are all the more important as our collective wealth increases.

The truth Scruton finds in liberalism is the establishment of a secular ordering of the political realm: “Political order enables us to transcend the rule of the majority. And the great gift of political liberalism to Western civilization has been in working out the conditions under which protection is offered to the dissident, and religious unity replaced by rational discussion among opponents.” This secular order gives a voice to those in the minority and prevents the imposition of religious law on the whole nation. The Bill of Rights, in both England and the U.S., is the clearest establishment of this system. Liberalism’s emphasis on individual rights, however, “slides almost unnoticeably into falsehood. For the search for liberty has gone hand in hand with a countervailing search for ‘empowerment.’ The negative freedoms offered by traditional theories of natural right, such as Locke’s, do not compensate for the inequalities of power and opportunity in human societies. Hence egalitarians have begun to insert more positive rights into the list of negative freedoms.…” They are “in effect, claims against the state rather than freedoms from its encroachments.” This phenomenon of “rights inflation” has resulted in a shift “from freedoms to claims, and from equal treatment to equal outcomes.” This is indeed a radical change in the understanding of rights, and one that has produced many negative results by turning over our civic life to the government: “Rights, which for the liberal are the sine qua non of peaceful politics, become thereby a declaration of war on the majority culture.”

Not surprisingly, Scruton finds a deep truth in conservatism, which is essentially that a healthy culture grows from the multitude of free associations within it, not from government control: “The truth in conservatism is that civil society can be killed from above, but it grows from below. It grows through the associative impulse of human beings, who create civil associations that are not purpose-driven enterprises but places of freely sustained order.” This understanding, influenced by Burke’s “little platoons” and Aristotle’s identification of the bonds of society as a kind of friendship, is the pre-political realm that traditionalist conservatives hold dear—and for good reason. Still, this idea too can become a heresy, Scruton argues, if pushed too far or in the wrong way: “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 fulfilment, 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.” For him, it is the libertarian branch of conservatism that has the tendency to turn liberty into license, to the detriment of the culture.

Like the secular organization of political life, the concept of multiculturalism derives from the Enlightenment, as a result of which “communities can be absorbed and integrated into our way of life, even when they arrive bearing strange gods.” In Western nations, it has become possible for immigrants from anywhere to become active citizens. Again, however, if the idea is pushed too far it becomes a falsehood: “But this virtue of our civilization, so clearly manifest in America, has been used precisely to repudiate that civilization’s claim on us, to argue, in the name of multiculturalism, that we need to marginalize our inherited customs and beliefs, even to cast them off, in order to become an ‘inclusive’ society in which all our newcomers feel at home, regardless of any effort to adapt to their new surroundings.”

Indeed, those who promote the notion of multiculturalism usually denounce explicitly the aim of integration in favor of a fragmentation of culture that destroys any sense of common cultural inheritance. Scruton calls this “the culture of repudiation”: all other cultures must be fully embraced, without any judgment, yet paradoxically “those who advocate this multicultural approach are as a rule vehement in their dismissal of Western culture.” They sneer at the Enlightenment idea of universal values, and in the interest of overturning some supposed hegemony of Western values they impose their own doctrines on all. As a result, “the spirit of free enquiry is now disappearing from schools and universities in the West. Books are put on or struck off the curriculum on grounds of political correctness; speech codes and counselling services police the language and conduct of both students and teachers; many courses are designed to impart ideological conformity rather than free enquiry, and students are often penalized for having drawn some heretical conclusion about the leading issues of the day.”

As an example, twenty-five years ago a proposal was put forward at my university for a required course in multiculturalism. I wrote an essay for our in-house journal opposing the idea, arguing that the course would be inimical to the free inquiry that is essential to a liberal arts education. As I was preparing to write this book review a colleague of mine called my attention to a newly published piece that included a critique of my article from so many years ago. My argument was that liberal education should not attempt to inculcate moral and political values, while the proposed course in multiculturalism was explicitly designed to do just that. The critique of my argument comments tellingly that I seemed “unwilling to consider the possibility that the Western tradition can have inherent value at the same time that it can be enhanced through dialogue with other traditions. For him, cultural differences appear as impurities, and the Western culture must be preserved in pristine form to prevent decay.” I dug up that old piece of mine to see where I might have said anything that could reasonably be characterized this way—it simply isn’t there. In fact, I argue that the Western intellectual tradition is far from monolithic, containing radically different ideas from a wide range of people and places. The critic created a straw man to confront the Western jingoism he believes to be my true motive. The culture of repudiation is on display here.

Like Kirk and other thoughtful conservatives, Scruton freely embraces the connection between conservatism and conservation of natural resources: “the goal towards which serious environmentalism and serious conservatism both point” is “home, the place where we are and that we share, the place that defines us, that we hold in trust for our descendants, and that we don’t want to spoil.” Conservatives have not always signed on wholeheartedly to environmentalism because they often give too much allegiance to big business, which tends to “externalize” its costs, leaving it to others to clean up the mess left behind. But conservatives have also hesitated because of the “agitated propaganda of the environmentalists,” their tendency to see doomsday coming any minute, as well as by the assumption of most environmentalists that only big government can solve the problems—the same assumption liberals make about every problem. A deeper flaw in environmentalists is their tendency to elevate this issue into something sacred: “As with the other truths I have been discussing … the truth in environmentalism can be leaned on until it becomes a falsehood, and as with the other instances, this transition from truth to falsehood occurs when the religious impulse displaces the political.” Environmentalism, multiculturalism, social justice, wealth distribution—all the left-wing causes become an ersatz religion for devout secularists, so that instead of prudential decisions to be addressed reasonably they acquire an apocalyptic urgency.

For the cultural conservative, the role of government is to keep a large area free and secure in which the values passed on to us by previous generations can be nurtured and conveyed to our children. As Scruton says, “Value comes about because we humans create it, and we do so through the traditions, customs, and institutions that enshrine and promote our mutual accountability.” He goes on to say, “First among those traditions and institutions is religion, which shines a light from our social feelings far out into the unknowable cosmos.” Scruton argues eloquently for the preservation of religious values and sensibilities in relation to family, sexuality, labor, and leisure. At the same time, however, he repeatedly states that in modern society our loyalty must be primarily to the nation, not to a religion. Christianity, unlike Islam, teaches that we should “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and thus “The achievement of Christian civilization is to have endowed institutions with a religious authority without demanding a religious, as opposed to a secular, obedience to them.”

This seems quite true to me, but I am afraid that Scruton presses this truth a little too far, making it also into a heresy. His one reference to Kirk in this book is in a footnote to this sentence: “There are many American conservatives, including those influenced by the Roman Catholic tradition of natural law philosophy, who believe that, in the end, the conservative position rests on theological foundations.” Kirk does emphasize the inseparability of cult and culture, and does call for a Christian foundation to our political structures. Of the ten conservative principles he enunciates at the beginning of The Conservative Mind the first is “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” This does not imply a theocratic government, not at all, but it does call for a closer tie between politics and religion than Scruton allows.

In this Kirk is closer to Eliot than Scruton, for Eliot envisioned a Christian society; he said, for example, “However bigoted the announcement may sound, the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians.” Eliot certainly recognized that church and state could not be one, for that would lead either to an Erastian supremacy of the state or a theocratic supremacy of the church, but he insisted that the two institutions should relate to each other in a dynamic tension. Eliot does not seek to fix the sense in which the state should be Christian, yet he insists on some integration of the two, and I think he is right. In this, and in much else, Eliot agrees with Dawson that religion cannot be relegated to the private realm and banished from the public square if our culture is to thrive. Scruton, in his enthusiasm for the nation as opposed to internationalism, and in his proper worry about the aim of the Islamists to impose religious law on all, draws back from this position. In his final chapter he speaks of the “great Victorian doubters—Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them,” and it seems clear that he identifies with them. He notes that those thinkers still lived in a deeply Christian milieu: “They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made—the world of commitments, of marriages, obsequies, and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art.” This beautiful sentence describes, I suspect, the experience of Scruton himself. For him this “empirical” conservatism works, without the “metaphysical” belief in the transcendent. But I doubt it will work for our entire culture, and I feel certain it will not endure into the future without genuine belief. As Eliot puts it poetically, “There is no life that is not in community, / And no community not lived in praise of God.” Fortunately, the religious sense is innate to man, who repeatedly rediscovers the divine in mundane life and in sudden moments of illumination.  

Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of books on Edmund Spenser and T. S. Eliot, as well as articles on Eliot and on Renaissance literature. He also wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book Eliot and His Age and has served as president of the T. S. Eliot Society.