A Question of Temperament
December 3, 2002
By Roger Scruton
LONDON -- Here and there in the modern world you can find countries with conservative parties. Britain is one of them. But the U.S. is the last remaining country with a genuine conservative movement.
This conservative movement is expressed in politics, in social initiatives among ordinary people, in the media, and in intellectual journals with an explicitly conservative message. True, political philosophy in the American academy has been dominated by liberals, and by the project to which the late John Rawls devoted his life, of producing a theory of justice that would vindicate the welfare state. Nevertheless, even in American universities, you can come across conservatives who are prepared to defend their beliefs.
In Britain there are very few academics who will publicly confess to conservative convictions. And we have only two noteworthy conservative journals: the weekly Spectator, and the quarterly Salisbury Review, which I edited (at enormous cost to my intellectual career) for its first 18 years of life, and whose tiny circulation is maintained almost exclusively by private subscription. In the U.S., by contrast, conservative journals spring up constantly, find large and sympathetic readerships, and frequently attract funding from foundations and business. Yet another conservative journal has appeared recently, and the high profile of its editor -- Patrick Buchanan -- will lead to much speculation about what is really meant by the journal's name: "American Conservative." Maybe a British conservative can cast a little light on this.
It is a tautology to say that a conservative is a person who wants to conserve things: the question is what things? To this I think we can give a simple one-word answer, namely: us. At the heart of every conservative endeavor is the effort to conserve a historically given community. In any conflict the conservative is the one who sides with "us" against "them" -- not knowing, but trusting. He is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited. He is the one who seeks to defend and perpetuate an instinctive sense of loyalty, and who is therefore suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk.
So defined, conservatism is less a philosophy than a temperament; but it is, I believe, a temperament that emerges naturally from the experience of society, and which is indeed necessary if societies are to endure. The conservative strives to diminish social entropy. The second law of thermodynamics implies that, in the long run, all conservatism must fail. But the same is true of life itself, and conservatism might equally be defined as the social organism's will to live.
Of course there are people without the conservative temperament. There are the radicals and innovators, who are impatient with the debris left by the dead; and their temperament too is a necessary ingredient in any healthy social mix. There are also the instinctive rebels of the Chomsky variety, who in every conflict side with "them" against "us," who scoff at the ordinary loyalties of ordinary people, and who look primarily for what is bad in the institutions, customs and habits that define their historical community. Still, by and large, the future of any society depends upon the solid residue of conservative sentiment, which forms the ballast to every innovation, and the equilibriating process that makes innovation possible.
Sept. 11 raised the question: Who are we, that they should attack us, and what justifies our existence as a "we"? American conservatism is an answer to that question. "We the people," it says, constitute a nation, settled in a common territory under a common rule of law, bound by a single Constitution and a common language and culture. Our primary loyalty is to this nation, and to the secular and territorially-based jurisdiction that makes it possible for our nation to endure. Our national loyalty is inclusive, and can be extended to newcomers: but only if they assume the duties and responsibilities, as well as the rights, of citizenship. And it is reinforced by customs and habits that have their origin in the Judaeo-Christian inheritance, and which must be constantly refreshed from that source if they are to endure. In the modern context, the American conservative is an opponent of "multiculturalism," and of the liberal attempt to sever the constitution from the religious and cultural inheritance that first created it.
American conservatism welcomes enterprise, freedom and risk, and sees the bureaucratic state as the great corrupter of these goods. But its philosophy is not founded in economic theories. If conservatives favor the free market, it is not because market solutions are the most efficient ways of distributing resources -- although they are -- but because they compel people to bear the costs of their own actions, and to become responsible citizens. Conservative reservations about the welfare state reflect the belief that welfare generates a dependency culture, in which responsibilities are drowned by rights.
The habit of claiming without earning is not confined only to the welfare machine. One of the most important conservative causes in America must surely be the reform of the jury system, which has allowed class actions and frivolous claims -- including claims by non-nationals -- to sabotage the culture of honest reward, and to ensure that wealth, however honestly and diligently acquired, can at any moment be stolen from its producer to end up in the pocket of someone who has done nothing to deserve it.
It is one of the great merits of America's conservative movement that it has seen the need to define its philosophy at the highest intellectual level. British conservatism has always been suspicious of ideas, and the only great modern conservative thinker in my country who has tried to disseminate his ideas through a journal -- T.S. Eliot -- was in fact an American. The title of his journal (the Criterion) was borrowed by Hilton Kramer, when he founded what is surely the only contemporary conservative journal that is devoted entirely to ideas. Under the editorship of Mr. Kramer and Roger Kimball, the New Criterion has tried to break the cultural monopoly of the liberal establishment, and is consequently read in our British universities with amazement, anger and (I like to think) self-doubt.
Eliot's influence has been spread in America by his disciple, Russell Kirk, who made clear to a whole generation that conservatism is not an economic but a cultural outlook, and that it would have no future if reduced merely to the philosophy of profit. Put bluntly, conservatism is not about profit but about loss: it survives and flourishes because people are in the habit of mourning their losses, and resolving to safeguard against them.
This does not mean that conservatives are pessimists. In America, they are the only true optimists, since they are the only ones with a clear vision of the future and a clear determination to bring that future into being.
Sources of Hope
For the conservative temperament the future is the past. Hence, like the past, it is knowable and lovable. It follows that by studying the past of America -- its traditions of enterprise, risk-taking, fortitude, piety and responsible citizenship -- you can derive the best case for its future: a future in which the national loyalty will endure, holding things together, and providing all of us, liberals included, with our required sources of hope. This is the message that has been put across vividly by New York's City Journal, and it is interesting to compare its optimistic articles about the American underclass with the bleak vision of our English equivalent expressed in the same journal by Theodore Dalrymple.
Sept. 11 was a wake-up call through which liberals have managed to go on dreaming. American conservatives ought to seize the opportunity to utter those difficult truths which have been censored out of recent debate: truths about national loyalty, about common culture and about the duties of citizenship. You never know, Middle America might actually recognize itself at last, when addressed in this way.
Mr. Scruton is the author of "The Meaning of Conservatism," (St. Augustine, 3rd ed., 2002).
©2002 The Wall Street Journal