Saturday, August 05, 2006

Wisdom from Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton, if you haven't heard of him, is a conservative English philosopher. I first came across Scruton through his book of essays, Untimely Tracts. Marvelous reading. Scruton is witty, erudite, and articulate -- everything one would expect of graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge. He is, moreover, bitingly and devastatingly iconoclastic about the idols of the Left. Nor does he spare conservatives and libertarians.

In any event, I recently found a speech given by Scruton two years ago, "An Englishman Looks at American Conservatism in the New Century." In the course of the speech Scruton says that

the underlying purpose of left-wing argument is not to conserve existing things but to destroy them. It is always so much easier to find arguments against the imperfect customs of human society than arguments in favour of them, and so much easier to posture as the virtuous champion of the underdog than as the prudent defender of social hierarchy and other such 'permanent things'.

What is neo-conservatism, really? Here is Scruton's take:

When Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter and Gertrude Himmelfarb first staked out what came to be known as the neo-conservative position it was very obviously an attempt to repossess the European cultural inheritance, and to reaffirm for a secular community the moral values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It was a belated endorsement of the culture that was taken so much for granted by the Founding Fathers that it never occurred to them to make explicit that the Constitution was premised on it.

He talks about conservatism, American foreign policy, and the war in Iraq:

For me, the true conservative approach in international relations is that adopted by the paleo-conservatives - namely to do whatever is required by the national interest, but to leave others to their fate. However, I also think that leaving others to their fate is not always in the national interest. The September 11th attacks awoke America to the existence of enemies that it had neglected to uncover and therefore failed to destroy. Whether it was right or wrong to invade Iraq, I believe that the motive for the invasion was one that all conservatives - whether neo or paleo, American or European - could endorse, namely a perception that the national interest required it. That perception may have been wrong. But it was not so obviously wrong that a responsible president could merely choose to ignore it - as Mr. Clinton chose to ignore the persistent threats from al-Qa’eda during his presidency.

The difficulty for American foreign policy is that America is always held to a much higher standard than any other country. To be precise, America is required always to have some other motive than self-interest when it goes to war, and is therefore compelled - in the forum of world opinion - to justify its belligerence in terms of benefits conferred on others. We invaded Iraq, the President will find himself saying, in order to bring law, rights and democracy to a people which had suffered under tyranny. We will do what is necessary to confer these benefits, and then we will withdraw. It is somehow not acceptable to world opinion - though it would be perfectly acceptable to me, as an English conservative - for the President to say ‘we invaded Iraq in order to destroy a tyrant who presented a real threat to our security. Having destroyed him we will leave, and allow Iraqis to get on with their lives’. It is not American conservatism that has led to a foreign policy of democratic internationalism, but the tyranny of liberal opinion, which won’t allow to America what every other country claims by right, namely, the freedom to make war in the national interest. America is allowed to make war, but only in the international interest, as this is defined by liberals.

As for "world opinion":

As the world’s most successful country, the place where almost all its critics want to live and whose generosity all its enemies are determined to enjoy, America occupies a large place in the envy and aspiration of the world’s people. Americans believe that people will therefore love them. In fact it means that people will hate them. Human nature is so framed that, unless rescued by a large dose of humility, people will hate those who possess what they covet. They will destroy what they cannot create. And the sight of freedoms enjoyed by a people who seem to have no special entitlement to them, other than being born in the right place at the right time, gets up the nose of snobs, failures and fanatics everywhere.

Toward the end, Scruton returns to the meaning of "conservatism":

Conservatism, as I understand it, means maintenance of the social ecology. Individual freedom is a part of that ecology, since without it social organisms cannot adapt. But freedom is not the sole or the true goal of politics. Conservatism and conservation are in fact two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; it also includes the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law-governed economy. The purpose of politics, in my view, is not to rearrange society in the interests of some over-arching vision or ideal, such as equality, liberty or fraternity. It is to maintain a vigilant resistance to the entropic forces that erode our social and ecological inheritance. The goal is to pass on to future generations, and if possible to enhance, the order and equilibrium of which we are the temporary trustees.

Agree with Scruton or not, you will learn from him. You will learn not just because he sometimes supplies arguments that buttress your beliefs, but also because he challenges your beliefs and forces you to consider them more carefully.