What does it mean to be a conservative today? It may mean defending individual freedom against bureaucratic largess. “Freedom” was the anthem for the political right in the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, yet “that word demands a context,” Roger Scruton writes here. He answers that freedom is a means for conservatism, but not its end. Conservatism, rather, is about a shared love of home.
In this instructional book for the English-speaking reader, Scruton argues that conservatism is inseparable from the institutions, customs, and culture that embody freedom. We have retained as our historic inheritance the habits and culture of Western civilization and the English-speaking traditions of freedom under the law—all “good things that we must strive to keep.” The purpose of conservatism is the object of our conservation, our shared space for social life which makes us free beings. Conservatism means being a lover of the home in which we find ourselves.
This begins, Scruton writes, with “the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” And these good things do not just include the Bill of Rights; they are the historic pillars and protections of civil society: an impartial rule of law, our shared environmental and cultural assets, a civic identity of citizenship and not creed, marriage, Western democratic accountability. “These and many other things are familiar to us and taken for granted,” says Scruton. “All are under threat.” Moreover, they are under threat from the excesses of ideologies—economic, social, political—with conservatism being the only rational response.
Scruton begins and ends this account by describing how his socialist father embodied Robert Conquest’s first law of politics: Everyone is right-wing about what they know. Jack Scruton “believed in socialism, not as an economic doctrine, but as a restoration to the common people of the land that was theirs.” And he held onto this love of home, or oikophilia, which means loving “not only the home but the people contained in it, and the surrounding settlements that endow that home with lasting contours and an enduring smile. . . . [It] is the place that is not just mine and yours but ours.” Home is where we make space to enshrine what we have and who we are. It is how we are able to identify, in the first-person plural, our Burkean “little platoons” of civil society.
This oikophilia, Scruton writes, includes a love of home as it has come to us: “We inherit it, and inheritance brings not only the rights of ownership, but the duties of trusteeship” for those who have yet to be born, since it is their inheritance as well. We are entrusted to maintain all institutions not run by the state: “The main emphasis of conservative politics ought now to be in freeing autonomous associations from adverse regulation,” since these associations are part of “a common dwelling-place—the place that is ours.” Again, home precedes freedom.
Scruton writes that while his father’s “grievances were real and well-founded,” his top-down solutions “were fictions.” There was a core truth to Jack Scruton’s socialism; likewise, there are core truths in other specific “-isms” (nationalism, capitalism, internationalism, etc.), known from our collective historical experience, whose falsehoods are the threats to maintaining our inheritance.
The truth of capitalism, for example, is that “private ownership and free exchange are necessary features of any large-scale economy” in which we depend for our “survival and prosperity on the activities of stran-gers.” But the falsehood of capitalism occurs when the efficient means of free exchange becomes an all-encompassing worldview. Conservatism corrects this falsehood by reminding us that there are “realms of value” in life—love, marriage, beauty in human settlement, the duties of free beings—that supersede the market. These things are intrinsically valuable and cannot have a price.
Of course, the division that Roger Scruton makes between two types of conservatism—a metaphysical kind of religious impulse to protect sacred things from desecration, and an empirical kind reacting to the excesses of modernity—does not necessarily apply to Scruton himself. He says that he is mainly concerned with earthly things, yet a religious sensibility against cultural repudiation animates his writing. Scruton argues that aesthetic value is an end in itself, and criticizes its debasement in, say, modernist architecture. This love of home embodied in design aesthetics protects the temple of human settlement against the money-changers for whom form follows function. Scruton is a metaphysical cultural conservative!