Liberal Conservatism


Review of How to Be a Conservativeby Roger Scruton.

London, UK: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014


Has conservatism any intellectual merit? Or is it essentially a mere collection of rationalizations for the status quo? With Trump’s influence and visibility, never has the issue been more urgent -- or more confusing. Trump seems to be a man of the Right. The Republican Party today is largely defined by loyalty to him. Is he a conservative? The Never Trumpers say he is not, but why? Is there any form of conservatism that deserves our attention today?

A good place to begin to think about those questions is the work of Roger Scruton, who died in January. Princeton professor Robert George called him “the most important Anglo-American conservative thinker of his generation.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker—who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.”

How to Be a Conservative is a good introduction to Scruton’s thought. The book is evidently aimed at the left-curious, who are drawn to the ideologies that oppose conservatism. Scruton’s aim is to show that the best elements of each of those ideologies is most attractive when it is incorporated into a broadly conservative vision. 

Conservatism at its core, as Scruton understands it, “tells us that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep” (vii). It “starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created” (viii). Our inheritance “brings with it not only the rights of ownership, but duties of trusteeship. Things fought for and died for should not be idly squandered. For they are the property of others, who are not yet born” (182).

But what are we preserving? Without further specification, these ideas lead nowhere in particular. Jerry Muller observes that “conservatives have, at one time and place or another, defended royal power, constitutional monarchy, aristocratic prerogative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship; high tariffs and free trade; nationalism and internationalism; centralism and federalism; a society of inherited estates, a capitalist, market society, and one or another version of the welfare state.”[1] Samuel Huntington argues that conservatism has no continuing essence: it must be understood situationally, “as the ideology arising out of a distinct but recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.”[2]

Scruton, on the other hand, has a specific answer. The goods that he wants to conserve are the achievements of contemporary democracies: the “opportunity to live our lives as we will; the security of impartial law, through which our grievances are answered and our hurts restored; the protection of our environment as a shared asset, which cannot be seized or destroyed at the whim of powerful interests; the open and enquiring culture that has shaped our schools and universities; the democratic procedures that enable us to elect our representatives and pass our own laws” (vii). 

Most liberals would agree with that list because what Scruton is interested in conserving is, well, liberalism. His ideology is a liberal conservatism. As Huntington observes, “in the proper historical circumstances conservatism may well be necessary for the defense of liberal institutions,” for “the greatest need is not so much the creation of more liberal institutions as the successful defense of those that already exist” (460, 472). 

Then what is the disagreement about? He doesn’t put it this way, but the most important line that divides Scruton from his interlocutors on the moderate left concerns how to defend liberalism. Conservatism, in all its many forms, aims to preserve an inarticulately valued inheritance. That leads it to rely on argumentative moves that many liberals distrust: a tolerance of imperfection, skepticism about experiments in social engineering, and an attachment to existing institutions, customs, and habits, particularly the irrational prejudices that lead one to defer to existing authorities. Those moves are useful today. In fact, they are constantly being used against Trump. Scruton offers a path for liberals to understand that they are already, in a certain way, conservatives.

His strategy in How to Be a Conservative is to take up, seriatim, conservatism’s rivals, and show how a conservative philosophy can acknowledge each while placing each in a sounder philosophical framework. The basic approach is Hegelian: each ideology is overcome, while its partial truth is preserved and contextualized. Thus, the heart of the book is a series of chapters titled “The Truth in Nationalism,” “The Truth in Socialism,” and so forth. A summary chapter, “The Truth in Conservatism,” pulls the argument together. Three concluding chapters offer Scruton’s reflections on broader questions of value.

“The Truth in Nationalism” is the most important chapter. In it he argues that a liberal polity can’t function without a widely shared, prerational reverence toward our collective identity. Scruton concedes that nationalism has been the basis of enormous destruction, most prominently in the case of Nazi Germany. That’s why liberal democrats are suspicious of it, and attracted to transnational organizations such as the EU and the UN. Yet a prejudice in favor of one’s fellow nationals is an indispensable precondition of democracy. National prejudice does need moral constraint. Nations must deal with one another decently. “The truth in internationalism is that sovereign states are legal persons, and should deal with each other through a system of rights, duties, liabilities and responsibilities” (106). Internationalism however becomes malign when it denies the truth in nationalism. The basic Hegelian insight here is that abstract right is meaningless unless it is tied to some concrete way of life.

Liberals are characteristically drawn to social contract theory, which follows Hobbes’s dictum that there can be “no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own.”[3] They envision a society based on mutual consent. Yet, Scruton argues, any social contract presumes that the parties have mutual obligations that precede contract: “if they are in a position to decide their common future, it is because they already have one: because they recognize their mutual togetherness and reciprocal dependence, which makes it incumbent upon them to settle how they might be governed under a common jurisdiction in a common territory” (23). In any democratic decision, those in the minority need some reason not to secede; to maintain attachment to the common enterprise. “Only if people are held together by stronger bonds than the bond of free choice can free choice be raised to the prominence that the new political order promised” (80). Identification with one’s nation thus is not antithetical to liberalism. It is the indispensable precondition of a free society.

One persistent theme of conservatism is the importance of irrational, sentimental attachment to what is familiar. That’s why so many conservatives emphasize the importance of religion. Russell Kirk, enumerating the “canons of conservative thought” (like Scruton, he focuses on British and American conservatism), placed at the top of his list belief in “a transcendent order, or body of natural law.”[4] Scruton expressly rejects the idea that the conservative position necessarily rests on theological foundations (140), but he does think that political society rests on a kind of faith, attachments that are beyond reason.

Many on the left will resist this claim. Since the Enlightenment, they have often claimed that their philosophy rests on reason, not superstition. Lately much of the American left has taken on an antireligious animus as intense as anything in Voltaire or Diderot. On the other hand, their commitment to rights and dignity itself rests at bottom on an inarticulate faith that evolved out of Christian commitments. Scruton has written elsewhere that “the experiences which form the bedrock of religion” undergird “the vision of human life as mattering, and mattering more than can easily be said.”[5] This is the fundamental common ground that secular liberals share with religious conservatives.

Liberal society’s implicit dependence on a common identity brings with it a chronic danger. Charles Taylor observes that the imperative toward a common identity pushes the state in two different directions. State builders have reached toward secularism, an ethic independent of confessional differences, “as a potential common point of allegiance for citizens, above and beyond their other differences.” But at the same time, the imperative to bond citizens together can create “an all-but-irresistable pull to build the common identity around the things that strongly unite people, and these are frequently ethnic or religious identities.” In the limiting case, “the logic of democracy can become that of ethnic cleansing.” Thus democracy does not necessarily entail liberalism. “Rather it ups the ante: either the civilized coexistence of diverse groups, or new forms of savagery.”[6]

Liberalism must always construct a narrative of national identity that repudiates nationalism’s brutal potentialities. Our common identity must be constructed in a liberal way. The move is a familiar one: Lincoln was mighty effective, if not strictly speaking accurate, when he described the United States (whose Constitution at that time still protected slavery) as “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We are properly loyal to our traditions, but the loyalty is always selective. The meaning of those traditions is constantly renegotiated and rearticulated.

In his chapter on “The Truth in Socialism,” Scruton similarly aims to place a conservative frame around core commitments of the left. Consider the concern about the worst-off members of society. The truth in socialism is this: “A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded in gaining it for themselves” (42). In a Burkean spirit, he sensibly places himself against revolutionaries who propose to tear down the system and start over. He wants rather to expand existing institutions to bring in those who were excluded. This is in fact what proponents of social justice (a term he loathes) ought to strive for. Equality should mean, not simply opportunities to consume more stuff, but participation in our inheritance. 

A useful paradigm here, one that Scruton can’t avail himself of, is same-sex marriage. That movement, so far from liberating polymorphous perversity (as some early gay rights advocates hoped), aimed to make the preeminent institution for channeling and directing sexuality more inclusive. (He once wrote, in a passage later disavowed: “A concern with social order prompts us to view homosexuality as intrinsically threatening.”) He denounces it as an instance of top-down social engineering (142-45), without noticing that the movement was driven by couples who had spontaneously formed households which then demanded legal recognition.

When he confronts the problem of redistribution—and the project of extending social membership is certainly going to cost money, which will have to come from somewhere—he drifts into an odd combination of abstract theory and reaction. He complains that welfarist redistribution produces paralyzing dependency. This is notoriously true of some welfare programs. But Social Security, Medicaid, and the National Health Service have created conditions of independence for many people. If you have food stamps you don’t need to beg to survive. Charles Reich observed in 1964 that one function of property is “maintaining independence, dignity, and pluralism in society by creating zones within which the majority has to yield to the owner.” An income from government sources will accomplish this so long as it is effectively guaranteed: “There is no surer way to give men the courage to be free than to insure them a competence upon which they can rely.”[7]

Scruton’s deeper objection is that “wealth comes into the world already marked by claims of ownership, which can be cancelled only by violating the rights of individuals” (45). That idea of property, one that is inconsistent with his far more nuanced discussion of taxation and the welfare state in his earlier work, precludes any redistribution at all. It attacks redistributive institutions that were around before we were born. Why should free police and fire protection be provided to those who are too poor to pay taxes? Why should their children get free public education, paid for by mulcting their more prosperous neighbors? And so forth. This kind of minimal-state libertarianism yearns to tear down all these for the sake of exactly the kind of abstract understanding of liberty that Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, warned against. Scruton repudiates the moderate redistributionism of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, but only because he mistakes them for Marxists. A better conservatism, exemplified by Dwight Eisenhower and recently articulated in some detail by Peter Berkowitz (now director of policy planning in Trump’s State Department), is reconciled to the institutions of the New Deal and aims to make them work better. In earlier work, Scruton argued that because property is so important, conservatives “must desire the distribution of property through all classes of society.”[8] He who wills the end wills the means.

“The Truth in Capitalism,” Scruton writes, is that any large economy needs private ownership and free exchange, because there is no other effective way to coordinate the economic activity of a society of strangers. But Scruton is ambivalent: markets tend to erode the social basis of the solidarity and trust on which they depend. He “never swallowed in its entirety the free-market rhetoric of the Thatcherites.” (7) Society needs habits of reverence, and “that is sacred which does not have a price” (57). Here he can make common cause with leftists like Wendy Brown, who worry about a neoliberalism that aims to leave all important decisions to the market.

“The Truth in Liberalism” is that, in a good society, “the individual is sovereign over his own life” (69). But Scruton fears rights that go beyond carving out a region of noninterference, and make claims on other people, such as “health, education, a certain standard of living, and so on.”  These “require a massive expansion of state power, a surrender to the state of all kinds of responsibilities that previously vested in individuals, and the centralization of social life in the government machine” (74). He is right about the danger of hypertrophying government power in the name of humanitarianism, but in soberer moments he acknowledges that “[t]he welfare state has become a social and political necessity.”[9]

“The Truth in Multiculturalism” is that Western societies attract immigration, and must define themselves in a way that enable people of different backgrounds to live together. The common culture of citizenship must adapt to make a place for new arrivals. But that imperative is sometimes distorted into a demand “that we need to marginalize our inherited customs and beliefs, even to cast them off, in order to become an ‘inclusive’ society in which all our newcomers feel at home” (82). Scruton insists that “not all cultures are equally admirable,” and “not all cultures can exist comfortably side by side” (90).

As an abstract proposition that claim is unexceptionable. Some cultural forms are in deep tension with liberalism. But like nationalism, the impulse here is easily abused. Scruton’s work is marred by some nasty overgeneralizations about Islam. (“Cultures” don’t come in monolithic packages any more than “traditions.”) Conservatives are prone to this kind of thing. In nineteenth-century America, they articulated similar sentiments about the danger of Catholic immigration. Huntington, later in his career, bizarrely persuaded himself that Mexican immigrants would be bad American citizens if their grandchildren were bilingual.

“The Truth in Environmentalism” is that unregulated economic activity can destroy a crucial part of our inheritance. Scruton is right that “it is astonishing that the many conservative parties of the English-speaking world have not seized hold of that cause as their own” (93). The explanation is that “the conservative cause has been polluted by the ideology of big business, by the global ambitions of the multinational companies, and by the ascendancy of economics in the thinking of modern politicians” (ibid.). All true. But he also gripes about “the agitated propaganda of the environmentalists” (ibid.), who put before us such unmanageable problems as climate change and mass extinctions. Here Scruton is at his best and worst. Of course environmentalism is conservative: it rests at bottom on the understanding that we must understand the value of what we have inherited and do what we must to pass it on undamaged to our children. But it is uncharitable to blame environmentalists for depressingly harping on catastrophes that are, in fact, happening. Scruton observes that the only way to avert climate change is with cheap green energy, and that such energy will only be developed by massive research supported by the one entity in the world that can afford it, the government of the United States. This is the deepest reason why today’s Republican Party is the opposite of conservative. The destructive ideology of freedom from regulation, here opportunistically seized upon by the predatory subset of it that produces fossil fuels, is so antithetical to Burkean commitments that serious conservatives ought to support Democrats for that reason alone.

The deepest truth in Scruton’s conservatism is the way he proposes to understand the task of politics. Hegel was right: you can’t build a civilization on abstract right alone. You need specific institutions, and whatever the defects of the ones you’ve inherited, you need to work with them instead of throwing them away and starting over. 

Why, then, a liberal conservatism? Scruton would doubtless answer that the goods of our free society are not derived from any abstract philosophy. You learn to appreciate them through the experience of living with them. The defenders of the conservative position, he has written, do not bear the onus of proof, because “they defend the virtues of what is actual, and may, in the last analysis, point to what they mean.”[10] Liberalism, to the extent that its institutions are established and then threatened, is bound to become conservative, to rely at least in part on inarticulate attachment to the familiar. Those who find theory boring—which includes, always and everywhere, the majority of the human race—can still notice the peace and prosperity that liberalism has delivered. Burke said: “It is a presumption in favour of any settled scheme of government against any untried project, that a nation has long existed and flourished under it.”[11] 

Scruton’s liberal conservative vision is powerful, but he exhibits certain failings characteristic of the conservative intellectual tradition. The most important fault line between him and his moderate left interlocutors is, as I remarked earlier, how to defend liberalism, but it is not the only one.

First, Scruton understates the problem of injustice, just as Burke did before him. Burke shrewdly exposed the failings of the French Revolution, but could not account for why the ancien regime was so vulnerable in the first place. Alan Ryan observes that, for the peasants, artisans, and professionals, “[t]he promise that they were to be citizens, not subjects, was irresistibly attractive, however often it was honored in the breach,” and that “meant something for which they were willing to fight with an enthusiasm not seen in the armies of their enemies.”[12] In order to answer the revolutionaries, a viable conservatism must make the lower classes a credible counteroffer.

Liberalism’s aspirations are both embodied in established institutions and imperfectly realized, which is why it is permanently pulled in two directions. Liberal institutions are endangered and must be defended. The world is deeply defective, and we have inherited a mess. Both of these are true. The condemnation of the mess, the deep objections to the injustices and exclusions that persist, are themselves best understood as rooted in the liberal tradition, and manifest its continuing power.

Second, and relatedly, Scruton and the conservative intellectual tradition he upholds often whitewash the past. Most of the whitewashing consists of delicate silences, but he occasionally goes over into misrepresentation. In Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (2017), 141-2, he claims that William F. Buckley, the preeminent American conservative of the twentieth century, “distance[d] conservatism from anti-Semitism, and from any other kind of racial stereotyping,” and “believed that conservatives had made a great error in opposing the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” In 1957, Buckley wrote a National Review editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” The white community, he wrote, is “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically…because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley declared that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” As for how the claims of civilization could be realized, “sometimes the numerical [white] minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.” Historian Kevin Schultz comments: “In other words, it was up to the white community to decide when violence was appropriate.”[13]

It’s easy to see how Buckley’s rationalization of racist terrorism could grow out of Scrutonian conservatism. Southern whites were the educated class, who, Buckley wrote, knew how to “affirm and live by civilized standards.” Southern blacks were mostly poor and uneducated. What did they know of Shakespeare or Mozart? Of course the whites had worked very hard to keep them poor and uneducated, using methods that violated any civilized standard. The history of conservatism reveals enough of this kind of behavior that Corey Robin has plenty of evidence that conservatism’s core is “animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.”[14] The basic flaw in Robin’s account is his omissions, which mirror Scruton’s: Robin doesn’t acknowledge the existence of liberal conservatisms, and implicitly claims that there is no form of conservatism that has anything useful to teach us.

The problem is that we have inherited a lot of things that are good for only some of us, and Anglo-American conservatives have often defended those things. The idea of preserving our inheritance will not, without more, tell us which parts we ought to preserve.

So Scruton's achievement—like that of many political thinkers—is brilliant and flawed, insightful and incomplete. Yet I think it has something urgently relevant to say to us today, because it provides a framework in which to think about the problem of Trump. Scruton understood that Trump is no conservative. Indeed, Trump might well be the most anti-Scrutonian American leader ever to win the presidency.

Trump treats settled norms, practices of deference to professional expertise, and unwritten limits on power with oblivious contempt. He casually trashes complex administrative structures on which the nation depends for its safety. (Don’t you wish he hadn’t fired the pandemic response team that Obama created?) Such people will always be with us. Before Trump, our electoral system had kept them out of power, at least at the highest levels.

Trump’s critics have relied on conservative themes. Burke knew about the likes of him. Disdain for expertise? The members of the French National Assembly “seem to have taken their opinions of all professions, ranks, and offices, from the declamations and buffooneries of satirists.”[15] Corruption? Those men were the kind who “at any expence to the state, of which they understood nothing, they must pursue their private interests, which they understood but too well” (131). A childish yearning for admiration? They were “actuated by sinister ambition and a lust for meretricious glory” (128). Malevolence mixed with incompetence? “In all this procedure I can discern neither the solid sense of plain-dealing, nor the subtle dexterity of ingenious fraud” (366). More general flaws of character? “Their objects would be enlarged with their elevation, but their disposition and habits, and mode of accomplishing their designs, must remain the same” (131). Today’s Democrats echo these complaints, but their conservatism is largely unconscious. Admiration for Burke is primarily to be found among the Never Trump Republicans.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has offered an influential explanation of the divide between liberals and conservatives. He argues that the human mind contains basic categories of moral evaluation, which he calls “moral foundations.” The care/harm foundation prompts us to care about people and try to save them from harm. The fairness/cheating foundation is sensitive to people who try to exploit and use others. These foundations are common ground between American liberals and conservatives. But Haidt argues that Western liberals tend to be less sensitive to three other moral foundations that matter to most of the world: loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Conservatives care about allegiance to one’s tribe, deference to one’s superiors, reverence for the sacred. Liberals, Haidt thinks, are often oblivious to these concerns, and that is why they and conservatives tend to talk past each other – and why liberals find it so hard to appeal to those values, leaving a vacuum that Republicans rush to fill. 

Liberal talk about Trump is filled with amply justified grievance about his betrayal of American ideals, his corrupt self-dealing, his subversion of institutions, his incessant profanations of the dignity of his office. Liberals in fact invoke all of Haidt’s moral foundations. They just have trouble fitting them into their official story about themselves. If liberals knew themselves better, conservatives might like them better.

As I said at the outset, conservatism can take myriad forms, depending on what you want to conserve. Trump’s contempt for tradition is in deep tension with Anglo-American conservatism, but his racism and cruelty are not. They have deep cultural roots. That is why they have a constituency. American identity has always been split between liberalism and racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies. The response to Trump should invoke the better side of our traditions: make America good again.



[1] Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, 3 (1997).

[2] Samuel P. Huntington, “Conservatism as an Ideology,” 455 (1957).

[3] Leviathan, Pt. 2, ch. 21.

[4] The Conservative Mind, 8 (1985).

[5] Scruton, “The Aesthetic Endeavour Today,” 338 (1996).

[6] Taylor, “Modes of Secularism,” in Secularism and Its Critics (1998).

[7] “The New Property,” 771 and 773 (1964).

[8] The Meaning of Conservatism, 95 (2002)

[9] Id., 171.

[10] Id., vii.

[11] Speech on Reform of Representation, in On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters, 274 (2000).

[12] On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present, 636 (2012).

[13] Buckley and Mailer, 119-20 (2015)

[14] The Reactionary Mind, 7 (2017).

[15] Reflections on the Revolution in France, 282 (1968 [1790]).



Posted on 26 August 2020

ANDREW KOPPELMAN is John Paul Stevens Professor of Law and Professor (by courtesy) of Political Science, Department of Philosophy, Affiliated Faculty, Northwestern University.