Many Americans say that they are conservative.1 They support limited government with fewer regulations, free enterprise, and lower taxes; they oppose affirmative action and “welfare” programs for the poor. But many of these people also support prayer and religious instruction in public schools; seek prohibitions on abortion, marijuana, pornography, and same-sex relations and marriage; and endorse stop-and-frisk policies, warrantless intrusion into electronic communications, and other forms of state interference with and disruptions of individuals’ lives.
Two different strands of conservatism are at work here. First, there is the traditional conservatism of a strong, active state that maintains social order and allegiance to itself, enforces personal morality, and supports established social institutions of the family, religion, and education. Second, there is the modern conservatism of robust property rights and laissez-faire economic liberties.
Modern conservatism originates in the free-market liberalism of Adam Smith and nineteenth-century classical economists. The meaning of the term “liberalism” varies across cultures. In Europe it denotes support for a largely unregulated free market. In the US “liberalism” is associated with left-of-center progressivism that supports greater personal and political freedoms, the regulation of economic liberties with qualified property rights, and redistributions of income and wealth to support welfare state programs.
Roger Scruton is a British philosopher who was professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, London, from 1971 to 1992. Since then he has held positions at Boston University, the American Enterprise Institute, the University of St. Andrews, Oxford University, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is, after Richard Wollheim, the most significant British philosopher of aesthetics of the past fifty years. His works in the field focus especially on architecture and music, and are influenced by Kant and Wittgenstein.
Although Scruton has written nearly fifty books spanning many subjects and fields, he is best known for his writings on political conservatism.2 His book The Meaning of Conservatism (1980) is a major statement, defending traditional conservatism and distinguishing it from the political turn the Conservative Party took under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were heavily influenced by the free-market liberalism of Friedrich Hayek. Scruton argued that true conservatism seeks to maintain the authority of and public allegiance to the state and its laws. It encourages respect for the customs and institutions of “civil society,” including marriage and the family, religion, private property, and private associations. A strong state is needed to enforce personal morality and protect these institutions from compromise.
Conservatism does not, according to Scruton, require unthinking commitment to the status quo. But “allegiance to what is established is…a given, from which social criticism departs. It is…a form of immersion in the institutions to which one’s identity is owed.” Liberalism, by contrast, whether free market or progressive, regards individual freedom and individuality as fundamental values,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.