Scruton on Anti-Government Conservatism



Rousseau told us that we are “born free,” arguing that we have only to remove the chains imposed by the social order in order to enjoy our full natural potential. Although American conservatives have been skeptical of that idea, and indeed stood against its destructive influence during the time of the ’60s radicals, they nevertheless also have a sneaking tendency to adhere to it. They are heirs to the pioneer culture. They idolize the solitary entrepreneur, who takes the burden of his projects on his own shoulders and makes space for the rest of us as we timidly advance in his wake. This figure, blown up to mythic proportions in the novels of Ayn Rand, has, in less fraught varieties, a rightful place in the American story. But the story misleads people into imagining that the free individual exists in the state of nature, and that we become free by removing the shackles of government. That is the opposite of the truth.

Roger Scruton, “The Good of Government” (First Things, June 2014)



  1. Thanks for sharing this mate. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, thoughts induced by Australian news & politics, about the growing confusion around what the State is for. This quote is a timely reminder to me that in understanding the line between indentured subject and free citizen we must first understand where the source of empowerment ultimately comes from. Without this, any understanding of freedom and/or slavery can be skewed in all directions, primarily towards – utilitarian/ relativist justifications that inevitably will lead us towards nihilism.

    • In Scruton’s other writings and lectures, he discusses extensively the utilitarian re-definition of human rights, beginning especially with late 19th century ideologies (indeed, the conceptualization itself of “ideology”), which is now a basic assumption in liberal academic discourse. And not a few theologians are still pining after this low-hanging fruit, sad to say.

      On a more pedestrian level, the reactionary conservatism that Scruton is criticizing is the result of the “growing confusion,” as you mention. It’s just lazy — to reduce everything to government heteronomy. I have never been fond of the libertarian alliance with conservatism.

  2. As I understand them, the Founding Fathers saw government as necessary, and it should be vigorous in its areas of application, but still within limits. We don’t want a police state, but we do want a responsive and objective police force.

    “Al Queda has just parachuted a division of terrorists in who are killing everyone in their path!” Libertarian: “Let the free market respond” Me: “Call in the Marines!” There is a place for good government.

    Yes, it does seem as if some conservatives simply seem to define their desires only in a negative sense: less government. The founding fathers were more creative and nuanced in how they expressed things.

    But it is also surely the case (as I see it) that we see more and more power, more and more money, concentrating in fewer and fewer people who live far away from us (Washington) and who have more and more control over greater areas of our lives. What could possibly go wrong?

    It would seem better to present it not strictly as a negative, but as a gain. Lots of government often means less involvement and participation, not more. Example: current head of department of education stated on NPR he wanted to just meet with the union leaders of the teachers union, no need for meeting with the teachers, meeting and consulting with parents, just focus on the top leaders. So now he plans to consult with maybe dozens of the top elite. My response is it is better to let 30 million sets of eyes and ears (the parents) make plans and make decisions, rather than an elite few. 30 million (or whatever the actual number is) will see and know more (as a whole) than even 10,000 beaureuacrats (sp?).

    My thoughts at least.

    • Yes, conservatives, as of late, “define their desires only in a negative sense.” There is a political expediency involved (seemingly), and liberals did much of the same in the 80’s and 90’s — until they finally got smarter and resourced their own tradition of collectivist ideology in fairly explicit terms. Not that I agree, but it was the smart thing to do.

      As for myself, even though I dislike libertarianism and its baleful influence in conservative political philosophy, as a good Southerner I advocate for greater state control and federal de-centralization — for the purely pragmatic reason that smaller is more manageable and accountable to local needs. I also despise the nationalism and militarism that extends from Lincoln to Wilson to Johnson to Bush to Obama.

      • Woodrow Wilson was an avid fan of Edmund Burke – I actually once heard an AEI guy say that’s one reason American conservatives should only go so far with Burke!

      • Huh, I didn’t know that. That’s not surprising to hear from an AEI guy, though not to pigeonhole AEI as monolithic libertarian. After all, Scruton is a scholar with AEI.

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