Conservatism is a rejection of utopia for reality

From an interview with public intellectual Roger Scruton:

Mr. Scruton became a conservative in May 1968 among the student rioters in Paris, where two centuries earlier another group of agitators helped crystallize the thoughts of British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke on political change and social order. By publishing The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980, he outed himself within academia—he was teaching at Birkbeck College in London at the time—and became persona non grata among his British peers. America suits him much better, and he’s now a visiting scholar at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute when he isn’t teaching part time in Britain.

The Meaning of Conservatism, however, may be as explosive to some American conservatives today as it was to the London intelligentsia in 1980. Conservatism, Mr. Scruton wrote, had been “betrayed by the free marketeers” and misunderstood by almost everyone on the left and right. Conservatism’s relationship to capitalism is tenuous, he argued. And conservatism takes no position on liberty, individual or otherwise.

Rather, conservatism is a rejection of utopia for reality—a preference for improving society bit by bit over fixing society by rubbing it out. If conservatives maintain any principled allegiances at all, they are to one’s own people and place, and to the rituals, customs and social knowledge contained therein. Anything beyond that depends on the circumstances.

A friend once told him, as he recounted in a 2005 essay, that “Conservatism is a political practice, the legacy of a long tradition of pragmatic decision making and high-toned contempt for human folly. To try to encapsulate it in a philosophy was the kind of naïve project an American might undertake.”

What of liberalism? “My own view,” he tells me, “is that left-wing positions largely come about from resentment—I agree with Nietzsche about this—a resentment about the surrounding social order. They have privileges, I don’t. Or, I have them and I can’t live up to them. Things should be organized differently.

“And there’s always some sense on the left that power is in the wrong hands. You know, that the world is misgoverned. And in particular, the nearer something is to yourself, the more you feel that on the left. There’s this rejection of your own country, of your own government.”

“That emotion is very strong,” he continues. “I think it’s the fundamental source of left-wing politics throughout the 20th century.”

“Roger Scruton: Want to Save the Planet? Turn Right” (Wall Street Journal)


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