Roger Scruton, Wiltshire, England, November 2011

Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

Roger Scruton, Wiltshire, England, November 2011


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, he says, and thereby threatens to undermine the institutions that are the source of individuals’ identity as well as the bonds of their community. Scruton’s argument is shaped by the ideas of Hegel and Edmund Burke along with those of Hobbes, Adam Smith, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

In recent years, Scruton has moderated his criticisms of classical economic liberalism and the destructive effects its policies can have on traditional institutions. In A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2006), How to Be a Conservative (2014), and now Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, he endorses Hayek’s classical liberal defense of nearly unregulated capitalist markets and market distributions of income while also advocating constitutional limits on legislative power to regulate the economy and redistribute wealth. Scruton supports parliamentary government. But like Hayek, he argues that the primary source of law, especially the “private law” of property, tort, contract, and consensual transfers, should not be legislation but rather judge-made common law. The proper role of courts is to “discover” and articulate legal rules that are already implicit within our habits of thought, consensual dealings, and social customs and conventions. Courts should refine these as needed, on a case-by-case basis.

This slow evolution of the common law warrants the label “conservative” since, like the free market, it is “a network woven by an invisible hand” and not the product of anyone’s intention. Legal rules and institutions arise from innumerable actions and decisions that individuals and courts make, and, like free market outcomes, form a beneficial “spontaneous order” that is not the product of government planning. The gradual evolution of common law, which eventually takes on the form of legislated law, preserves individual liberty, which otherwise is threatened by “social engineering” by activist democratic legislatures.


These views also underpin Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, in which Scruton reworks and adds new chapters to his Thinkers of the New Left (1985), a book consisting of articles he had written for The Salisbury Review, a conservative British journal he founded and edited for eighteen years. Scruton describes that book as having been greeted by so much “derision and outrage” from academics and journalists on the left that its publisher withdrew it. He claims that this “was the beginning of the end” of his university career.


The target of Scruton’s criticisms is primarily the radical or “New Left” thinkers who, in the period after World War II, taught in humanities and social science departments in universities in Britain, Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe. Until recently, most of these thinkers endorsed communism or radical socialism. There are chapters, for example, on the British Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson; on Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in France; and on the Hungarian Georg Lukács and the Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jürgen Habermas. “Culture Wars Worldwide” discusses the Italian Antonio Gramsci, the British writers Raymond Williams and Perry Anderson of New Left Review, and, briefly, the Americans Richard Rorty and Edward Said. The penultimate chapter examines the ideas of the Frenchman Alain Badiou and the Slovenian Slavoj Žižek. Two framing chapters—“What is Right?” and “What is Left?”—summarize the main features of the positions Scruton argues for and against.

There is in addition a chapter on the American “soft left” liberals John Kenneth Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin. Both rejected socialism and endorsed a free-market economy but also were strong advocates of the welfare state. Scruton’s conception of the left is quite broad; it joins liberal democrats who support the capitalist welfare state and constitutional democracy with Communists and socialists who reject private ownership of productive resources, the market economy, and constitutional democracy. His view of conservatism, however, is narrow. Scruton strongly resists any parallel comparison of conservatism with fascism or dictatorship since in his reckoning conservatism endorses free markets and the rule of law. One of the great canards propagated by the radical left, he claims, is to associate fascism with capitalism; in fact, fascism is identical with communism since both eliminate private associations and lawlessly exercise totalitarian control over social and political life.

Scruton says that since the French Revolution, the left has held that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed because of usurpation by a dominant class. The left’s two defining ideas are “liberation” and “social justice.” By “liberation” is meant “emancipation” from what Foucault called the “structures of domination.” These are the customs, conventions, and private and public institutions that shape the “bourgeois order” and that conservatives consider the foundation of civilized life. Whereas conservatives regard liberty as implicit in the rule of law, for the left, liberty is a release from the constraints of law and traditional morals.

According to Scruton, for conservatives, justice addresses individuals’ dealings and their adherence to the rule of law, with all receiving what they legally deserve. The left’s illusory idea of “social justice,” by contrast, ignores existing law, disregards historic rights, duties, and deserts, and seeks “equality at all costs.” The left rejects all inequalities of privilege, rank, leisure, educational opportunities, property, and wealth “until proven otherwise.” But equality so conceived “can be pursued only at the cost of liberty.” Scruton echoes Hayek’s refrain that the pursuit of equality and social justice leads to totalitarianism.

The radical left, Scruton asserts, once had hoped to upend capitalist societies through violent revolution by a fictional “proletariat.” But working people—who always showed greater allegiance to their nation than to their social class—are generally satisfied with their circumstances. Accordingly, since World War II, radical leftists have retreated to universities, forgotten about the “proletariat,” and adopted a different strategy. Rather than seeking to overthrow the capitalist economy and redistribute its wealth, the radical left now seeks to undermine confidence in and allegiance to all “bourgeois” social institutions. Its aim has been to intellectually “deconstruct” and destroy our confidence in the traditional institutions of “the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us.” Its method is to foster a “bleak relativism” that casts doubt on all our conscientious convictions and, in the hands of the Parisian “nonsense machine,” casts doubt even on the possibility of factual beliefs. “The effect was to destroy the conversation on which civil society depends.”

The radical left accomplished its goal not by logical argument but by meaningless rhetoric and the free association of ideas, designed to undermine our confidence in all we believe in. The intent is to discredit the objectivity of our judgments, the truth of all statements, even the meaning of language and logic itself. Never mind the self-contradictory nature of such a twisted intellectual exercise and the obvious challenge to it: If nothing is true, then why should we believe this academic nonsense? By design, the radical left has no answer, for its “single and absolute cause” is that we come to believe “nothing.”



Scruton’s book is not the dispassionate examination and measured assessment of philosophical arguments typical of analytic philosophers. It is a polemical dissection and indictment of the perceived destructive aims and tactics of the left. Earlier chapters on Sartre and Foucault, and on members of the Frankfurt School, particularly Adorno, are the most engaging. Scruton clearly respects their philosophical acumen even if he finds their political views abhorrent. But his criticisms and reproaches of the radical left since the 1970s, especially for the “logorrhea” of the “nonsense machine” of Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, Žižek, and others, are impatient and contemptuous, even if imaginative and persuasive (for anyone already inclined to dismiss postmodernists’ tortuous prose).

Given Scruton’s charge that the left has sought to undermine the basic social institutions on which Western civilization rests, readers may be puzzled by his inclusion in this book of a chapter focused on American liberals such as Dworkin and Galbraith. Both endorsed, as all liberals do, the rule of law, a constitutional democracy, basic rights and liberties, private ownership, and a free market that is moderately regulated even if not the freest possible. Unlike conservatives, Dworkin and Galbraith advocated economic redistribution to fund social insurance and the welfare state; but neither argued for economic equality or any other “pattern of distribution” once individuals’ basic needs are adequately met. Even the conservatives Hayek and Milton Friedman endorsed a social “safety net,” if not for reasons of justice then at least for public prudence and charity. So why do American and other “soft left” liberal democrats warrant Scruton’s condemnation?

Ronald Dworkin, Martha’s Vineyard, August 2005

John Earle

Ronald Dworkin, Martha’s Vineyard, August 2005

The idea of liberation that Scruton says is central to leftist thought has not had a major part in American liberalism, other than its brief appearance in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, many of whose aims are now widely accepted, even by most conservatives, and in “gay liberation,” which is now far more tolerated than in the past. Rather than liberation from oppression and domination, liberals argue for constitutionally expanding personal rights and liberties such as freedom of expression, association, and rights of privacy, including abortion, a right to die with dignity, and same-sex relations. Liberals also call for increasing educational opportunities for historically disadvantaged minorities through affirmative action programs. Dworkin argued for all of these in this journal for forty-five years, which seems a primary reason Scruton includes him as a target.

Another reason for Scruton’s disdain of progressive liberals is that philosophers such as Dworkin, John Rawls, and others have developed philosophical accounts of social justice and related ideas—social equality, equal rights, distributive justice, and “treating others as equals,” as Dworkin put it. They have then used these arguments to criticize conservative social institutions and arrangements that Scruton apparently regards as the foundation of society—especially extensive private property rights, vast accumulations of wealth, and social and political hierarchies. But left-liberals seek to reform, not destroy, basic social institutions of the family, property, the market economy, and the political constitution. This has been the primary purpose of the idea of social justice developed by left-liberals in the twentieth century.

As for the radical left, the Marxist thinkers Scruton so delights in excoriating do not embrace the idea of social justice. Indeed, Marx (much like Hayek and Scruton, though for very different reasons) rejected “‘equal right’ and ‘fair distribution’” as “dogmas…obsolete verbal rubbish,”3 since they do not address what he regarded as the crucial problem of capitalist ownership and control of means of production. Moreover, the radical Marxists Scruton discusses put no weight on the moral aspects of social justice. Their interests, after all, allegedly lie in trying to destroy our confidence in all ideas of justice and other moral concepts, as well as in dominant social institutions.


Scruton’s dismissal of the ideas of social justice developed by left-liberal thinkers raises problems for his own position. In celebrating the common law as the source of liberty and a free society, Scruton, like Hayek, idealizes a messy historical process that long conferred on many socially unjust practices the unassailable authority of law. For example, common law judges discovered, articulated, and with few exceptions reaffirmed the legality of owning and trafficking slaves in Britain for centuries until Parliament abolished the practice in 1833.4 The justice of adherence to the common law can be no greater than the justice of the customs, rules, and conventions that it embodies. The fact that legal institutions express established ways of doing things does not make these customs just.

The problem with the conservative idea of justice Scruton endorses is that it can be applied only to assess individuals’ actions and their conformity to existing law. It cannot be applied to critically evaluate the justice of states of affairs or laws themselves, except insofar as these states and laws are incompatible with existing legal institutions. This limitation cripples conservatives’ ability to critically assess injustices inherent in the status quo or to recognize the unjust consequences laws can create.

A second weakness in Scruton’s position reveals itself in his agreement with both liberals and modern conservatives that citizens in a democratic society should be regarded as civic equals, with formally equal political and civil rights and liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, association, occupation, and so on. Scruton endorses legal prohibitions (similar to those enumerated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act) against private discrimination on grounds of race or class in contracts of employment and admissions to schools and colleges. He says that “it is part of true civil liberty to prohibit the divisive forms of it,” such as racial discrimination in public places.5 But if so, then “true civil liberty” must incorporate into the modern conservative position some idea of social justice, social equality, and “treating others as equals.”

Scruton’s difference with liberals then becomes largely a matter of degree. The major source of disagreement concerns the specific rights and liberties that are required by social justice and the degree of legitimate inequality, if any, that is permissible with each of them. The real dispute between conservatives and liberals is not whether there is such a thing as social justice but how we are to understand what it requires. Scruton’s argument that the very ideas of social justice and social equality are illusory is a distraction, belied by his own position.

Finally, rather than economic equality, progressive liberals advocate mitigating vast inequalities of income and wealth to reduce their distortions of democratic lawmaking and inequalities of political influence, and to significantly improve the position of the unfortunate and less advantaged. As liberals, progressives endorse free markets instead of social planning, in order to efficiently allocate productive resources, including labor. But in recognizing that free markets inevitably result in economic disparities, progressives also distinguish between permissible and impermissible economic inequalities. For conservatives, any degree of inequality is justifiable.

In Dworkin, Rawls, and other progressive liberals, the role of principles of distributive justice is to eliminate the socially destructive effects of gross economic inequalities, mitigate the effects of misfortune, guarantee all citizens the worth of their liberties, and insure individuals’ economic independence. Market distributions and large gifts and bequests of wealth are often the product of pure luck or other fortuitous events such as family lineage, rather than individuals’ efforts or comparable productive contributions.

This leads progressives to differ from conservatives in their understanding of property rights and what people deserve from market and other consensual transfers. Progressives advocate taxation of market income and accrued wealth not simply to maintain government and pay for public goods and services, but also to meet citizens’ basic needs and enable them, for example through publicly provided education, to effectively exercise their freedoms, take advantage of society’s opportunities, and achieve independence. Scruton does not take serious account of this idea of distributive justice. But it is what underlies the welfare state and is the major source of disagreement between progressive liberals and modern conservatives.


Another reason Scruton conflates the liberal with the radical left is his contention that, for over a century, the left has sought “to take possession of the culture, by defining the intellectual life as an exclusively left-wing preserve.” He views the recent “culture wars” as having ended with a near-universal victory for the left. He claims that the left now controls intellectual debate and discourse within universities, which are obsessed with “political correctness,” and this has spilled over into the press and popular culture.

Further, Scruton alleges that for over fifty years, The New York Review has been the primary agent of the liberal left, contributing to a “bleak relativism” and “repudiation” of Western culture. The Review’s “disdainful overview of the American cultural wilderness has been such a powerful force in shaping the oppositional stance of university teachers and journalists.” Scruton cites Galbraith, Dworkin, and Edward Said as the most entrenched critics of the establishment.

It is difficult to determine what or even whom Scruton is talking about in condemning The New York Review for fostering bleak relativism and the repudiation of Western culture. Said had little opportunity to do so since he wrote only one book review for the Review—an appreciation of the novelist Naguib Mahfouz—late in his career, and published an excerpt from his memoir6; and the few letters he submitted earlier were primarily responses to scathing criticism that his work received from two reviewers in these pages.7 Works by Badiou and Žižek also have been ruthlessly criticized in this journal for their nihilism and indifference, in terms very similar to Scruton’s own attacks.8

Galbraith and Dworkin were regular contributors,9 but neither was a relativist or repudiator of Western culture. Indeed Dworkin is widely known among philosophers as one of the most ardent defenders of moral truth and the objectivity of values.10 What both men repudiated was the social and economic conservatism that Scruton endorses and that typifies the Republican Party, not on grounds of cultural relativism but because these positions are false.11

Finally, the dominance of deconstructionism and postmodernism in the humanities has diminished in recent years. They were always concentrated mainly in literature departments and never gained a foothold in fields such as philosophy and history in the US. (In fact, although Scruton ignores it, one of the most devastating criticisms of Derrida’s idea of deconstruction was written by the philosopher John Searle in these pages.) Moreover, very few academics today teach or openly advocate communism or socialism. By contrast, free-market thinking and the advocacy of capitalism have long been dominant in business schools and departments, while subjects related to business make up by far the largest field of study in both undergraduate and masters programs.12 And even if “political correctness” remains an issue, as recent incidents at Yale indicate, liberals are divided, with at least as many supporting freedom of expression on campuses as those supporting regulation of speech.13

In combining traditional with modern conservatism, Scruton rejects both the libertarian advocacy of maximizing personal and economic liberty and the classical economists’ utilitarian maximization of aggregate wealth. He does so in order to preserve a sense of national community and the values and institutions that, he believes, sustain Western culture. Surely he is correct in arguing that there have to be individual and social values in addition to individual liberty, the satisfaction of preferences, and economic gain. Missing from his and others’ conservative vision is any political guarantee of the effective freedom, genuinely equal opportunities, and economic well-being of all members of society.