November 30, 2005

The Joy of Conservatism: An Interview with Roger Scruton (Max Goss, November 30, 2005, Right Reason)

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. 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.

An essay by the inestimable Mr. Scruton is included in our