“The conservative temperament is an acknowledged feature of human society everywhere,” wrote the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) in his influential 2014 book, “How to be a Conservative.”
Everywhere and throughout history, classical liberalism, conservatism, reason: Apollo. Romantic liberalism, progressivism, emotion: Dionysus.
Scruton – a noted author on the subject of conservative politics, and editor of The Salisbury Review for nearly 20 years – also wrote, “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means single-handedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating, the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the 20th century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponent exciting but false.”
British and American common law, built over centuries, parliaments, due process, habeas corpus (the state cannot hold you without immediate trial), our long history of democracy, today, among progressives, is taken for granted, is not always defended properly (in the opinions of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas), as society sticks less and less to principles, to the U.S. Constitution, to the masterpiece in its defense, The Federalist Papers, because when compared to contemporary social and economic injustices, those principles are just too difficult to uphold. Because to progressives, the U.S. Constitution is a living document whose meaning is not fixed.
It is that interpretation of the Constitution that allows liberalism today to focus on issues rather than principles. It is that interpretation that allowed President Barack Obama to declare, “I detest ideologues, Left and Right; I am a pragmatist. It is more important to get something done, the Affordable Care Act, for example, than just leave things as they are.” However, such a halfway solution puts the nation in a halfway position: half socialist, half free – why the problem of the high cost of health care will never be solved. The Affordable Care Act insured those who were uninsured, but the Act was not designed to lower the price of health care. Understood was that price would rise in the long run, be paid for by borrowing (like Medicare and Social Security) and that the Act was yet another attempt to create universal health care. Except, the first attempt, Medicare, extended health care so far beyond market demand that price tripled. Before Medicare, 1965, the price of health insurance was the price of auto insurance, property insurance, life insurance, about $200 a month (in 2020 dollars) – a price everyone an afford. Unless the free market for health care is brought back, price will never drop. Cancel Medicare.
Sir Roger Scruton continued, “When the chips are down, [British] worker do not defend their class but their country, and they associate their country with a gentle way of life in which unusual and eccentric habits – such as not killing one another – are accepted as the way things are. In these respects, Orwell [a Leftist] also thought that leftist intellectuals will always misunderstand the workers, who want nothing to do with a self-vaunting [woke] disloyalty that only intellectuals can afford.”
Beware destruction of what has stood the test of time, of what is difficult to reproduce. Arnold Schoenberg’s music, atonal, was not designed to replace the great tradition of German music – but prolong it. To Schoenberg, because German music had lapsed into cliché and kitsch, it was necessary to purify the dialect of tribes (German 18th– and 19th-century composers). To Scruton, “[W]e must be modern in defense of the past and creative in defense of tradition.”
Opposite are the French, Bolshevik, and Cuban Revolutions: modern in defense of the future, creative in defense of the unknown. Marx declared repeatedly that communism is so new that no one knows how it will work, that we just have to try it. Except, why wasn’t communism tried first on a small region? Why was it imposed on whole nations, whole continents? Because romantic Dionysian Marxists knew in their hearts they were right, that the world would thank them later, would consider the million Russians, Chinese, Cambodians, Cubans and North Koreans deliberately executed as a small price to pay for a long-term future of mankind finally rid of bourgeois ownership of the means of production, finally rid of capitalism.
The slow accumulation of law, law stemming from individual cases brought before courts since the 13th century, common law, has stood the test of time – a valuable product of British and American history. It is not, according to woke progressives, a weapon of the ruling class.
Scruton wrote, ”[This] desire to control society in the name of equality expresses the contempt for human freedom.” He continued, “[That is] the impertinence of a political party that sets out to confiscate whole industries from those who had created them, to abolish [independent public] schools [by amalgamating them], to control relations in the workplace, to regulate hours of work, to compel workers to join a union, to ban hunting [in Britain] to take property from a landlord and bestow it on his tenant [rent control], to compel businesses to sell themselves to the government at a dictated price, to police all activities through [self-appointed vigilantes] designed to check for political correctness.”
The essence of conservatism, T.S. Eliot’s idea that time past, present and future are the same, has its roots in the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, who, commenting on the French Revolution as it was unfolding, 1789, warned Britain not to do such a thing, not to trash its past, the intentions of those now dead who bestowed trusts and endowments, not, as in the French self-made emergency, to exchange the idea of reform for the creation of something new. Burke warned not to let the emotional French terrorist mob be an example for Britain, a mob not listening to reason, for example, that the young king and queen (Marie Antoinette), teenagers, were willing to share power, that the National Assembly was willing to transition to a constitutional democracy; that the jailor who guarded the Bastille (someone who genuinely cared for his prisoners) should not have been indiscriminately murdered.
A product of its zealousness, ostensibly to transfer power from the top – monarchy, landed aristocracy, Catholic Church – to citizens below, the French Revolution transferred power to a new top – a dictatorship of the charismatic terrorist Robespierre, and ten years later, to Napoleon.
To paraphrase Scruton, the Revolution was a violent disruption to society’s historical development, to interpersonal relations among family, workplace, church and schools, where people learn responsibility for their actions. The Revolution turned to organization from the top, to government, where accountability disappears as government breeds “progressive” individuals who think in terms of regulation and taxation.
To conservatives, the notion that governments are instituted to regulate citizens’ lives is absurd; the notion of nonpartisan elites working together à la Woodrow Wilson progressivism to make the world a better place is absurd. There are progressives who would agree. In The World of Yesterday, Stephen Zwang attributes the decline of civil order in Europe [1930s] to the myth of progress – why Scruton believes that in all the ideologies of the day, communism, Nazism, fascism, Zweig saw the same pernicious attempt to rewrite the principles of social order in terms of a linear progression [progressivism] from the past to future. The cult of the leader, the “vanguard party,” the “avant-garde,” all supposed that society has a direction – in the way that business has a purpose and armies have a goal – why those leader felt they had the right to conscript all citizens into the machinery of the state.
People can disagree. In a family, people can disagree because they still share an identity. In politics, citizens can disagree if they share an identity, a “national we.” Without that identity they can’t live together. In Britain and America, that identity is our history of freedom and democracy, our willingness to abide by a few rules, a constitution. The U.S. has 50 states with a common identity. The EU has 50 sta5es without common identity. Created to prevent another World War, the EU, like its weak model the UN, cannot handle the unbridled nationalism currently tearing it apart. Unbridled populism is the reason Yugoslavia, Syria, Somalia, and Nigeria fell apart. According to Scruton, lacking national sovereignty they could not adapt to changing conditions.
The conservative temperament has its roots in classical liberalism, in social, political and economic freedom – in not censoring human action. Modern liberalism, progressivism, the opposite, has its roots in curing social and economic injustice by restraining social, political and economic freedom – a most un Jeffersonian fear of the economy and democracy, a fear that the wealthy are rich at the expense of the poor. The zero-sum Marxist fallacy underlies the progressive notion that equality and justice are the same thing, the default position of socialism programmed today into almost all university courses on political economy.
David Parker is an entrepreneur and investor, and the author of Income and Wealth and A San Francisco Conservative.