Some Reflections on Conservative Political Philosophy

By my estimation, the political philosophy of Conservatism does not seem to have a good reputation in America (or the world) today. I've identified as a Conservative for most of my life and this has mostly meant agreeing with what had been traditional conservative views of the last 20-25 years: smaller government, balanced budgets, protection of the unborn, less taxes, reformed welfare, strong national defense, etc. Although these positions weren't always consistently articulated or perfectly represented in Republican candidates, my support has mostly gone to them. However, in the last five years, many of these positions have become marginalized in the Republican party and in some cases, entirely extinct. In fact, the ideological and platform change undergone by the Republicans in the last five years has pushed me to think more deeply on what "conservatism" means, what I truly believed, and why. Additionally, my recent viewing of the musical Hamilton and reading of Jospeh Ellis' The Quartet has provided a large spark to my investigation.

To this end, I took a friend's advice and picked up Roger Scruton's 2019 book How To Be a Conservative. Scruton is a British philosopher and writer, but he writes broadly enough about Conservatism that it's a good read no matter the country you come from. I enjoyed his articulation of the conservatism so much that I began summarzing/paraphrasing a chapter at a time on my Facebook page. Now that I've gone through the entire book, reflecting on each chapter, I think it would be helpful for me to try and create a kind of overall reflection by synthesizing his direct quotes and my own paraphrasing/structuring of them. What I'm trying to say is this - what follows is my own concoction that includes my own thoughts, direct quotes from Scruton, and lightly edited/re-worded versions of his quotes. In all - I think there's a lot to glean here and much that I fully agree with.

As I begin, let me state my own personal view on "conservatism" - I am committed foremost to the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. To the extent that a political party and ideology seeks to preserve the truth, beauty, and goodness we have inherited in our society I am a conservative. To the extent it seeks to extend and deepen in new ways the truth, beauty, and goodness in our society, I am a progressive. From here on out - this is a Leaman/Scruton synthesis:

The core of the political ideology of Conservatism tells us that we have collectively inherited good things (peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life), those things are difficult to create, easy to destroy, are currently under threat, and we must strive to keep them – especially when worse things are proposed in their place.

The great problem of politics is figuring out how we can live in peaceful community with each person enjoying their freedom and pursuing their goals. In other words, what kind of society can retain individual freedoms while remaining a united and harmonious community? Or to put the issue into broader philosophical terms, “How can we be diverse and unified at the same time?” The Conservative ideology believes that any successful answer to this question must acknowledge two important truths about societies we have learned throughout history:
  • Sense of Community: A successful society must develop in its individuals a sense of “we” – a love for home and the people in it that spurs them to call the community “ours” and take the non-contractual obligation of being a steward and a guardian of the community. This philosophy of settlement is the primary fact from which all community and politics begin and is central to conservatism. This sense of community cannot ultimately be achieved by a top-down contract where an alliance is made between the people and the state toward a goal that is rationally managed to that end, but must come from the bottom up world of face to face interaction and community association (in family, clubs, societies, schools, workplace, church, team, regiment, universities, etc)
  • Historical Embedding: A successful society must develop in its community a sense that it is not just an association of those who are alive but also of those who came before (the dead) and those yet to be born. Thus, successful societies must see themselves not just as temporary communities for their own benefit, but as a community inheriting benefits from those who came before and passing them on to those yet to come in an unbroken line of obligation. 
In light of these two truths (I’ll call them a “Community-Historical Society” from here on out), Conservatism (which really came into being as a political philosophy with the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the overcoming of religious conflict, the rise of the secular state, and the triumph of liberal individualism) should acknowledge, protect, and encourage the beautiful and good developments received by our society. Below is an overview of seven of the most important institutions/policies that we have inherited and should protect for ourselves and for those who are yet to come:

1. The Nation State: The society that has most successfully developed the sense of community and a historical embedding is the nation state. Societal cooperation and harmony among individuals with different skills, tribes, religious beliefs, and ethnicity, requires a politics of compromise. Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance – in something like the way people identify themselves with a family – the necessary forming of agreements among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as a common territory will not happen. Ultimately, the nation state is the by-product of neighborliness, shaped by an ‘invisible hand’ from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. Additionally, it is the sovereign nation state that when international disputed arise, can resolve them by treaty rather than through force. Sovereign nation states are legal persons and should deal with each other through a system of rights, duties, liabilities, and responsibilities. To make these dealings possible, nation states must be sovereign – that is, able to decide matters for themselves – and also willing to relinquish powers to those bodies charged with maintaining international agreements and the law that governs them. The nation state is worth conserving against the contemporary forces of globalism that seek to dissolve their sovereignty.

2. Traditional Liberalism: A successful Community-Historical society protects the freedom of the individual as one of the prime purposes of the state. Ultimately, it is the concept of citizenship in a nation state where these freedoms are outlined and protected by the state that has proven the best safeguard of individual freedom. Citizenship enables strangers to stand side by side against authority and to assert their common rights. It therefore provides a shield against oppression and an echo to the dissenting voice. Traditional liberalism, which grew out of the Enlightenment that proposed a universal human nature, governed by universal moral law, from which the state emerges through the consent of the governed, is the view that such a society is possible only if the individual members have sovereignty over their own lives. These sovereign rights force people to treat you as a free being, with sovereignty over your life and as one who has an equal claim on others’ respect. Rights, then, enable us to establish a society in which consensual relations are the norm, and they do this by defining for each of us the sphere of sovereignty from which others are excluded. The classical liberal tradition of constitutional thinking should be understood in this way, as addressing the question of how to limit the power of government, without losing its benefits – namely that of the sovereignty of the individual. That tradition has given us the fixed points of liberal jurisprudence: the doctrine of the separation of powers, the theory of judicial independence, and the procedural idea of justice, according to which all citizens are equal before the law, and the judge must be impartial. If we look at rights in this way, as instruments that safeguard sovereignty, and so make free dealings between sovereign partners into the cement of society, then we see immediately why freedom rights have the best claim to universality.

3. Free Association: A successful Community-Historical society grows from below through the associative impulse of human beings that create civil associations. From the raw material of human affection, we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies, and hierarchies that endow our activities with intrinsic worth. Schools, churches, libraries; choirs, orchestras, bands, theatre groups; cricket clubs, football teams, chess tournaments; the historical society, the women’s institute, the museum, the hunt, the angler’s club – in a thousand ways people combine not just in circles of friendship but in formal associations, willingly adopting and submitting to rules and procedures that regiment their conduct and make them accountable for doing things correctly. These association grow from below, through relations of love, respect, and accountability. Free association is necessary to us because intrinsic values emerge from social cooperation; they are not imposed by some outside authority or instilled through fear. This view of civil association extends to the conservative view of the military and policing, which ought to exist to protect the freedom of the individual not to control it. Military and policing institutions should be an expression of civil society, rooted in the local community, and responsive as much to local conditions as to the requirements of national government.

4. Secular Law: A successful Community-Historical society develops a secular law that derives from national sovereignty and can adapt to the changing conditions of the people. It is one of the triumphs of our inherited Christian civilization to have held on to the Christian vision while acknowledging the priority of secular law. This was not achieved without intense conflict, and a slow, steady recognition that a society could be founded on the duties of neighborliness and yet permit distinctions of faith. The achievement of Christian civilization is to have endowed institutions with a religious authority without demanding a religious, as opposed to a secular obedience to them. But religious obedience is not a necessary part of citizenship, and in any conflict it is the duties of the citizen, and not those of the believer, that must prevail. The story of the Good Samaritan, offered in answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, tells us that love of neighbor, while a religious duty, does not require the imposition of religious conformity, and is not a form of brotherhood. It is directed as much to the stranger as to the friend. You love your neighbor by administering to his needs in adversity, regardless of whether he belongs to you through family, faith, or ethnic identity. Thus, it is through religious toleration and a secular law that a community of different religions can still be unified and can still protect the most important person – the individual willing to question whether the majority is right.

5. Private Property and Free Exchange: A successful Community-Historical society encourages a market economy based on private property and free exchange. It is only when people have rights of property and can freely exchange what they own for what they need that a society of strangers can achieve economic coordination. Three key truths here must be embraced: 1) Economic activity depends upon knowledge of other people’s wants, needs, and resources 2) This knowledge is dispersed throughout society and is not the property of any individual 3) In the free exchange of goods and services, the price mechanism provides access to this knowledge – not as a theoretical statement, but as a signal to action. Prices in a free economy offer the solution to countless simultaneous equations mapping individual demand against available supply. These three points are tied together and lead to the conclusion that the price of a commodity conveys reliable economic information only if the economy is free.

6. Civic Cultural Unity: A successful Community-Historical society can absorb and integrate people from various cultures, even those bearing strange God, through a strong and unified civic culture. Thanks to the ‘civic culture’ that grew in the post-Enlightenment West, social membership was primarily freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic, and kinship ties, and from the ‘rites of passage’ whereby communities laid claim to the souls of their members. This is why it has become so easy to emigrate to Western states – nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it. Our obligations to others, to the country and to the state have been revised in a direction that has opened the way to the admission of people from outside the community – provided that they , too, can live according to the liberal ideal of citizenship. The long-term effect of this has been to open Western societies to immigration, and to impart an ideal citizenship that, it is hoped, will enable people of disparate origins and backgrounds to live together, recognizing that the real source of their obligations lies not in that which divides them – race and religion in particular – but in that which unites them – territory, good government, the day-to-day routines of neighborliness, the institutions of civil society, and the workings of the law. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

7. Obligation of Gratitude: A successful Community-Historical society must embrace the core truth in the political ideology of Socialism, the truth of our mutual dependence. We need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them. The more we take from our arrangement in society, the more we must give in return. This must remain an obligation of gratitude and cannot become a contractual obligation from the state. How this is to be done is an intricate political question, but the socialist movement is not the answer as it confuses misfortune with injustice, divides rather unifies, will produce a welfare state that will inevitably collapse, creates rents on the taxpayers earnings rather than redistributes, and is based on a zero-sum fallacy. This obligation of gratitude acknowledges how we are inheritors of good things from our ancestors (I suppose you could call this Western civilization privilege?) and protectors of these good for those coming after us. This is why some form of a collective welfare system and stewardship of the environment should be core conservative causes. 

There you have it - two core principles and seven major points of protection to help outline a better Conservative political philosophy. What do you think? Is this a helpful summation?