The Thankless Persuasion

Review: Roger Scruton's 'How To Be A Conservative'

Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton / AP

1979 was not a good year for Great Britain. A state that had once managed a vast maritime empire could no longer perform basic governmental functions—temporal or eternal. In London, garbage lay uncollected in stinking heaps on the curbside. In Liverpool, the dead lay unburied in factories that served as makeshift mortuaries. And in Westminster, the incumbent Labour government seemed unable to do anything about it. "Managed decline"—the orderly destruction of a fierce, proud nation—was the order of the day.

But the leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher, had other ideas. She carried them in her handbag. When she needed to make a point to her "wet," sometimes waffling, Tory colleagues, she would pull out a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and tell them: "This is what we believe."

Had Roger Scruton written How to be a Conservative in the 1970s, it would have been his book, not Hayek’s, that Thatcher reached for in her purse. It is an elegant, moving work that explains, in just 195 pages, what the "thankless persuasion" is all about.

Scruton is uniquely qualified to write such a book. Throughout his career, Scruton has championed conservative ideas in the public square. How to be a Conservative isn’t a departure from or innovation on his oeuvre. Instead, it is a greatest hits collection—it contains all the big pieces, and is at once accessible to readers unfamiliar with Scruton and captivating for longtime fans.

The result is a book that every right-leaning person ought to read. This includes right-leaning Americans—though written for a British audience, Scruton’s analysis applies with equal force to our culture and politics.

How to be a Conservative is structured as a series of 13 essays on various topics that Scruton uses to tease out the true meaning of conservatism. Two large themes reoccur throughout the book: the danger of viewing economics as an ideology, and the importance of voluntary associations.

Let’s begin with the dismal science. Since the 1980s, Western cultural and academic discourse has been plagued by what Scruton calls "homo oeconomicus"—economic man. Economic man is a free-market triumphalist. He believes that every decision should be made on the basis of rational-self interest, with an eye toward increasing material well-being. As a result, trade should be ever freer, borders ever looser. Considerations that aren’t rational—religious, patriotic, duty or honor-based—shouldn’t register, and if they do, should be dismissed as bitter or xenophobic. In this way, Scruton says, economics, for some people, has ceased to be a science and instead become "the ideology of modern life."

It is an ideology that is profoundly anti-conservative. In the political sphere, economics-as-ideology robs conservatism of its most powerful weapons. This is because economics is materialistic, and necessarily involves the discussion of monetary wealth. As a result:

[P]eople think of conservatism merely as a form of complacency toward the current system of material rewards, which has nothing whatever to say about the things that ‘money can’t buy’, or about the effect of the consumer society on our deeper values. Yet it is precisely in this area that the strength of the conservative vision lies . . .

Conservatism is ultimately concerned with many concepts—place, beauty, friendship, duty—that are immaterial. By contrast, says Scruton, leftists of all stripes are largely animated by one concept—equality—that is wholly material. Incessant focus on economic issues, which are inherently material, thus gives the Left a home-court advantage. It follows, then, that it might benefit conservatives politically if the economic men among us would shut up every so often, and let proponents of a non-economic perspective have their say.

Scruton’s solution to push back against "homo oeconomicus" isn’t state action, but is instead a form of cultural conservatism: a return to a concept of property rights where "the right of property is also a duty. The one who enjoys property is also accountable for it, and in particular accountable to those upon whom it might otherwise impose a burden."

In other words, a business should factor the harmful side effects of its products into the cost of production. So, when it decides how many plastic bottles to make, a plastic-bottle manufacturer should not just account for the cost of labor and materials. It should also account for the cost of litter cleanup and landfill space, which are the inevitable external byproducts of its business. Doing so will of course make bottles more expensive, and the manufacturer will make fewer of them—which will result in less litter and emptier landfills. In econo-speak, the manufacturer has internalized its external costs. Or, as Scruton would say, it has acknowledged that its right to make plastic bottles contains a duty to make up for the burden those plastic bottles place on others.

Scruton thinks this approach, originally promoted by Disraeli, is truly conservative, because it "secure[s] the freedom of the present generation"—i.e., the freedom to hold and create private property—"without cost to the next." It "could not possibly give more than two cheers—and maybe less than two—to the global economy, to the World Trade Organization . . . or to the new kind of lawless capitalism exemplified by China." It would give three cheers to smaller businesses that have "local ties" and "responsible accounting"—both financially and in the management of harmful side effects of their economic activity.

So, what should one make of all this? Though Scruton is largely concerned with culture, not politics, and never mentions the Republican Party or its policies, it’s impossible for an American to read his critique of economics-as-ideology without thinking of the GOP. Much of the party’s agenda reflects economic man’s influence, and conflicts with the values-based conservatism described by Scruton. For instance, the party’s reflexive support for big-business lobbies doesn’t encourage business to internalize its external costs. The GOP’s enthusiasm for free-trade agreements with foreign countries can contribute to un- and underemployment at home. And the lax attitude toward illegal immigration held by some in the party weakens the rule of law.

Scruton’s analysis thus points to the need for a broader, and perhaps divisive, conversation on these issues within the GOP. That being said, it probably isn’t possible to reorient a developed economy in the way that Scruton suggests. Nor is it necessarily wise, as doing so would result in a massive reduction of national wealth (of the financial sort). Nonetheless, Scruton’s argument on the anti-conservatism of economic man is as thought provoking as the arguments made by Adam Smith on the market’s moral limitations, or Daniel Bell on capitalism’s cultural contradictions.

But enough of economic man. The ultimate lesson of How to be a Conservative is about actual man, and his interest in socializing with other people.

That lesson begins millennia ago. Mankind, Scruton says, has "a natural need to associate." Citing Burke, he argues that we satisfy this need through "face-to-face interaction" with our family, neighbors, and coworkers. These interactions teach us to "tak[e] responsibility for [our] actions and account[] to [our] neighbors," and lead to what Burke called "little platoons"—communal organizations, both formal and informal.

These organizations are exclusive, "for it is a law of association that to include is to exclude; and exclusion can hurt." Stated another way, belonging to an association is a mark of distinction—you are a member; an outsider isn’t. But, despite their exclusivity, voluntary associations are the root of all that is good in human affairs, as they provide the relationships, experiences, sense of place, and traditions "that endow our activities with intrinsic worth." As these associations grow in complexity and number, they coalesce into some form of society—a shared sense of membership among disparate individuals.

Society will eventually need a state to govern it. Every state, even those supposedly formed from scratch by "social contract," reflects its origins in the society that predates it. So, our Constitution begins: "We the people . . ." Scruton asks: "Which people?" And answers: "Why, us; we who already belong, whose historic tie is now to be transcribed into law." (Italics original.)

Conservatism, alone of political philosophies, recognizes these two truths: that civil society is both a natural result of man’s need to associate with others, and that civil society predates the state. The conservative government will thus dedicate itself to protecting civil society, and allowing the voluntary associations that form it room to grow and flourish—with the important qualifier that the state will "retain the right to control or prevent" "criminal, immoral, or socially destructive" associations. Because it seeks the flourishing of civil society, the conservative state is the best state. It recognizes and accommodates human nature.

This insight has profound political implications. For Scruton, it reveals the inadequacies of modern liberalism, or, as he calls it, socialism. Scruton argues that the main goal of socialism is to ensure equality of outcome. Socialists, wrongly, view equality of outcome as a matter of justice—what a person is owed by his peers. This worldview draws socialists to government action, which they believe can remake society from the top-down so that it will be more equal, and thus more just.

Accordingly, socialists view the already-existing, natural society with suspicion. The voluntary associations that make up this society are inherently unequal, in that they don’t confer their benefits to non-members. As such, the socialist seeks to control the associations—to make them "just"—or destroy them.

Doing so requires a massive bureaucracy that extends its reach into the associations, and rips apart the social impulse that created them. It also promotes an adversarial culture that obsesses over the "outrage" du jour—i.e., associational practices that run contrary to whatever is viewed as "just" (read: politically correct) at the time. Victims of this process, Scruton says, are as wide ranging as the all-male social club, fox hunting, and private schools. "The long-term effect" of this assault on association is disastrous—it "absorb[s] civil society into the state, and . . . subject[s] the whole of social life to a kind of ideological vetting."

Here, it’s important to remember that How to be a Conservative is written for a British audience. The process may be less visible in the United States, but can be seen in the efforts of states to compel business owners to engage in transactions—the provision of contraception in a health care plan provided by Catholic business owners, for example—that are anathema to their privately-held moral concerns.

Scruton is unclear on exactly how conservatives can be watchful about the state’s tendency to absorb society, and coy about their chances for success.

He closes the book with a beautiful "valediction forbidding mourning but admitting loss." It brilliantly describes the duty of present generations to conserve the traditions and mores of Western civilization, and pass them on to the next generation. This process is never-ending—conservatism will never "win"—and each generation must take up the fight anew. Scruton quotes Lord Salisbury: "delay is life."

This could not be more true. But it seems wrong for a book that describes the joy of human existence to end in melancholy. For there is always hope—consider Thatcher. In 1979, at the nadir of post-war Britain, she became prime minister. Thatcher inspired a new generation of men and women to continue the conservative project in years to come. With How to be a Conservative, Scruton gives energy to a cause that is far from lost.