Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roger Scruton explains Conservatism

I refrain from using the terms conservative and liberal to describe or refer to people (and even ideas and issues) anymore because I don't feel like people authentically use and align with those terms, or they will mis-apply them to pieces of legislation and the way they vote. No, these days the only valid terms are Republican and Democrat. Americans identify themselves by whom they voted for in the last election. And, that is not the essence of ideas and ideologies like conservatism and liberalism to me.

Roger Scruton, a writer and public intellectual, may be able to help.

The most important piece of insight and distinction is that conservatism is actually classical liberalism. And, the basic premise to keep in mind is that classical liberalism in terms of the Enlightenment (18th century, neo-Classical Age) is committed to the concept of individual and natural rights. At the core of that, of course, is freedom; and the idea of freedom is where the Republicans and the Democrats get into all sorts of trouble leading to confusing disagreements. (By the way, a great source of intellectual debate about this can be found in Patrick Deneen's wonderful book Why Liberalism Failed ). In its soul, the idea of conservatism is about opposition to radical change, and it's about a commitment to norms and traditions of culture. That perspective leads us to a neat little book by Scruton on the essence and history of conservatism - Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. 

One of the most important pieces of insight in the book comes in the last chapter, where Scruton succinctly summarizes the primary canons of conservatism according to the esteemed Russell Kirk. I appreciate Scruton's work for the honesty and integrity with which he explores a line of thought outside of the somewhat obscene partisan politicizing of ideas going on in both the United States and Great Britain these days. Clearly, the election of Donald Trump is both a cause and effect of the mess that has been made of conservatism as a label and the GOP as a brand. For me, the sense of decorum and character which have always been a commitment of conservatives has been so egregiously tainted that it's absolutely necessary to identify the culprits as Republicans, not as conservatives. And, it's subsequently important to look outside the parties to explore and discover the philosophy. Perhaps someday, we can return to the purity of classical liberal thought, and we might even reach a day where people once again can choose between two human beings in an election, and not two entrenched political parties.

From Scruton (p. 144):

Kirk's philosophy is founded in the following canons or states of mind:
  1. A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law;
  2. An affection for the 'variety and mystery' of human existence;
  3. A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize 'natural' distinctions;
  4. A belief that property and freedom are closely linked;
  5. A faith in custom, convention, and prescription, and a recognition that innovation must be tied to existing traditions and customs, which entails a respect for the political value of prudence.

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