Excellent, Positive, Constructive Comment on what Conservatism Is

Roger Scruton:

scrutonThere is a kind of conservatism that sees all political questions as reducible to economics, with the free market as the ruling principle and the expansion of consumer choice as the only coherent political program. This way of looking at things can be taken a lot farther than at first sight appears. There is an economic justification, after all, for the traditional two-parent family, which produces well-adjusted children who are able to fend for themselves and make a positive contribution to the economy, and who are unlikely to be lifelong dependents on the welfare state. But is that all, or even the most important thing, to be said in favor of the traditional family? Surely its nature as an arena of peace, well-being, and love is far more important, and if it were ever proved that single-parent families and child labor were economically more productive, this would not be a conclusive argument, or any argument at all, against the old arrangement. The traditional family has an intrinsic as well as an instrumental value, and that is the real reason so many conservatives defend it. They defend it because they have a vision of human fulfillment that goes well beyond the economic, to embrace all those values — moral, spiritual, and personal — that shape human beings as higher than the animals and especially worthy of our protection.

I would only add that the only real authority conservatives have to insist on this vision and seek to diminish—or even outlaw—others is not empirical either. Neither conservatives nor liberals can know the outcome of the sexual and marriage revolutions. There is no way to empirically verify that one vision of the good is better than the other until both are tried. Even then, which one counts as “better” will be determined by the value system of the one(s) doing the judging. So one thing a particularly Christian conservative will know is that only God can really know the outcome of a particular social change. God, therefore, ought to be permitted to speak about what is right and best for a society. (Of course, where he has not spoken, we have no right to dogmatize except on the basis of the same empirical access to the created order that non-Christians have.)

Here’s Scruton again, and don’t miss this:

The real reason people are conservatives has little or nothing to do with economics, even if they are aware that economic prosperity is a good thing, and necessary for the support of other things that they value. The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten their security and peace of mind.

In my writings I have made a point of emphasizing this. Conservatism, for me, is the philosophy and the politics of attachment. Its starting point is a loved way of life, and the institutions and settlements that have grown from it. Standing against conservatism has been another state of mind altogether, which sometimes masks itself as love, but always love for the ideal, the nonexistent, the “yet to be,” in the cause of which we are invited to pull down and destroy the things that are. Radical politics is merciless toward the actual, especially when the actual enshrines the old way of life, the old institutions, and the old hierarchies that have arisen from our attachments.

I find that liberals defending their utopian program are quick to appeal to supposedly universal principles, such as equality, while conservatives opposing that program are quick to appeal to more local principles such as the strength of the democratic process. But why should either appeal be preferred to the other? Each one begs the question: what is right? In what respect should people be equal, and why? On what issues should democratic processes be used, and when should substantive justice trump the will of the majority? There are times when democracy has manifestly failed to call equal what really is equal. And there are times when things have been done in the name of “equality” which have ended up benefiting only the powerful.

All this, again, is why I appeal to divine authority, even in the public square, because God is the only person occupying a position above human disagreements. Christians around the world will often be conservatives, especially in the West with its past Christendom, because Christians recognize the good in the created order and common grace among others. But I don’t love and value all of the institutions and settlements that have grown from the Western way of life. I’m willing to be a radical where the roots of the trees need to have axes laid to them.

Read Scruton’s whole article.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

6 thoughts on “Excellent, Positive, Constructive Comment on what Conservatism Is”

  1. A stimulating turn. One question I have, after reading: How might the politics (or theology) of attachment compare to the philosophy and even theology of Sehnsucht so powerfully articulated by the Romantics? Sehnsucht was certainly a vital category for C.S. Lewis (e.g., his island in The Pilgrim’s Regress). He famously preferred old books to new ones, but was he a conservative?

  2. A great question. Yes, excellent. I feel a little out of my depth, but my initial thought is to see a powerful conservatism, of just the right kind, in Lewis. He breathed the air of other centuries, and that brought so much value to his life and writing. I just listened to him saying that he loved myths: the Greek first, the Irish still more, and the Norse best of all—underneath the True Myth of Christianity’s dying and rising God. What I can’t do is connect this kind of conservatism directly to Sehnsucht. I don’t understand the latter well enough.

  3. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a nice one-stop source) mentions Sehnsucht/Longing only in connection with Schlegel (d. 1845), whose views on the subject were very different from Lewis’s. But the preference of other centuries to the present binds the two. The Island is John’s great object of longing, and his “regress” is two allow for substitutes in lust.

  4. Scruton’s observations–excellent. Many have struggled to put their finger on what’s at the core of a genuine conservatism. But I think the best efforts I’ve seen contrast it with it is not along with describing what they think it is. The rejection of the actual is certainly the heartbeat of our times.
    On the other hand, I often see a similar attitude among conservatives on the tactical level. There are such things as conservative ideals and these are also not “actual.” And the elected officials tasked with making rubber meet road are often harshly judged for their inability to snap their fingers and make the ideal suddenly become actual. They have to deal with what is.
    I’m not remotely suggesting these guys should be above criticism, but conservatives–of all people–ought to have a more reality-based set of expectations.

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