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Conservatives Are Wrong: There’s Nothing Natural About Hierarchy

Conservative thinkers like Roger Scruton defend traditional hierarchies as natural and inescapable. But our social order is the product of human decisions — and it can be remade to benefit the many rather than the few.

Conservatives like Roger Scruton are right to regard themselves as defending a more ancient set of ideas than their liberal and socialist rivals. (Awakening / Getty Images)

When Roger Scruton died early last year at the age of seventy-five, right-wing outlets hailed him as “the most important conservative thinker of his era,” even “sacred.” The honorifics were understandable. The British philosopher possessed a rare combination of theoretical intelligence and expository panache that made him both a deep and accessible thinker. Whereas conservative figures like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro blow a lot of hot air complaining about Marxist authors, Scruton took the increasingly novel step of actually reading leftists and meticulously responding to their points.

But I’ve come here to criticize Sir Roger, not praise him, and Scruton’s virtues should not blind us to the severe ethical and political flaws of his traditionalist conservatism. So I want to do two things. First, explore Scruton’s conservatism and what it tells us about the right-wing worldview. And second, explain one of the key moves in the conservative playbook: to naturalize power and existing forms of authority. For thinkers like Scruton, such arrangements are to be revered and rarely questioned — yet like Dorothy’s Oz, when you look past the flash and bang and peel back the curtain of power, the authorities Scruton defends often look not only unimpressive but theoretically and morally bankrupt.

The Conservative Sublime

For many people, the bond of allegiance has immediate authority, while the call to individuality is unheard. It is therefore wrong to consider that a politician has some kind of duty to minister to the second of these, and to ignore the first. . . . But if individuality threatens allegiance — as it must do in a society where individuality seeks to realize itself in opposition to the institutions and traditions from which it grows — then the civil order is threatened too.

—Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism

Conservatives like Scruton are right to regard themselves as defending a more ancient set of ideas than their liberal and socialist rivals: in this case, the notion that inequalities — whether of virtue, status, wealth, or strength — are natural and should be reflected in society. But modern conservatism is in fact younger than left-wing politics, arising as a response to Enlightenment-era revolutions in France, Haiti, and the United States.

For early thinkers on the Left — who insisted that individuals were moral equals and thus deserving of political and economic rights — a central task was to unmask power by revealing its contradictions, hypocrisies, and reliance on violence and coercion. Above all, they argued that the world as it is doesn’t conform to some inviolable pattern, vindicated either by nature or religion. It is the product of human decisions, and thus capable of being remade.

This desacralized vision of political society, with authority exposed as mere power, was anathema to early conservatives like Edmund Burke. They castigated their opponents’ “abstract” and chaotic visions of the world and claimed to be “realists,” unmoved by fanciful visions. When progressive movements toppled their preferred authorities (kings, priests, even slaveowners), reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries fought to restore the “proper order of things” in some modified form.

Right-wing intellectuals labored, often begrudgingly, to reinvest the toppled system of power with moral gravity — to, in a sense, sublimate power as authority. I say begrudgingly because, as Scruton himself noted, conservatives have traditionally preferred the “natural instinct in unthinking people — who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfillment in the world as it is — to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born.” In an ideal world, conservatism would need only offer reaffirmations rather than apologetics and counterblows. After all, the danger of defending power is that it implies power is open to analysis and criticism — and not, as conservative philosopher Russell Kirk put it, an “enduring moral order” beyond critique.

Human Nature and Sacred Obligations

In his book On Human Nature, Scruton calls our attention to an interesting (and, to my mind, correct) point from Hegel: my sense of being me, of being an I, depends on an immense net of inherited social relations. The autonomous “I” of liberal theory, creating a wholly independent identity, simply isn’t tenable.

But Scruton takes this point much further: he argues, in true conservative fashion, that inherited social relations shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny because they are “sacred” — a move that very quickly becomes an apologia for some people getting more power than others. Later in the book, Scruton says we should adopt a posture “of submission and obedience toward authorities that you have never chosen. The obligations of piety, unlike the obligations of contract, do not arise from the consent to be bound by them.” He goes on to claim that the “main task of political conservatism, as represented by Burke, Maistre, and Hegel, was to put obligations of piety back where they belong, at the center of the picture.”

At times, Scruton lends the point a sentimental gloss by likening it to a filial obligation. Just as a child loves and appreciates their parents, so too should we accept the guidance, protection, and, yes, discipline that those in power mete out. Scruton makes this association most explicit in his metaphysical tome The Soul of the World: “Not all of our obligations are freely undertaken, and created by choice. Some we receive ‘from outside the will.’ . . . It is hardly surprising, therefore, if they are wound into the order of things by moments of sacrificial awe.”

Scruton’s analogy between a political association and a family is wildly, even comically, stretched. Putting aside the fact that abusive families and marriages warrant dissolution, a political union is ultimately backed not by mutual relations of love and assistance but violence. Scruton gestures at this, rather disturbingly, when he talks about “securing society against the forces of selfish desire” through “sacrificial awe.”

The obvious question is whether those who would sacrifice others for their preferred “eternal” social order are in fact the selfless ones dedicated to filial love and community. But there is a deeper point here. Underneath Scruton’s call to defer to political and economic authorities is a history of prisons, imperial wars, torture of dissidents, mass starvation, genocide, racism, poverty, patriarchal abuse, and more. From the perspective of those who have suffered and died at the hands of such authorities, calls for pious reverence can only seem a mockery. If such is to be our god, we should celebrate the death of God.

Scruton’s “Ordered Liberty”

It would overstate things to call Scruton an out-and-out apologist for authoritarianism (though he had a sneaky habit of going soft on regimes like Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and the post-antebellum South). Scruton was squarely in the tradition of British “ordered liberty” conservatism, accepting many of the classical liberal freedoms when complemented by a respect for traditional authorities, practices, and culture mores. What he opposed, above all, was the idea that political allegiance should be seen as voluntary and that individuals should be free to recreate society as they like.

His main target on this point was the “social contract” tradition inaugurated by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and carried on in the twentieth century by thinkers like Rawls and Nozick. Social contract theorists argue that it is voluntary consent, not mere allegiance, that grants political and economic authorities their legitimacy. If I never explicitly agreed to respect political power, or to venerate the existing regime of property rights, then I am under no obligation to do so.

Scruton is relentlessly critical of this idea, arguing that it animates a wildly emancipatory impulse that quickly becomes destructive. In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, he pillories the “restless” demands for liberation since the French Revolution, always seeking out new victims and “emancipation of the structures: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared systems of norms and values at the heart of Western society.”

There’s a long history of right-wing intellectuals criticizing the contractarian model. Edmund Burke famously mocked its rootless abstraction before putting forth his own grandiose vision of political society as a contract between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” In Burke’s mind, no generation is entitled to break the “great and primaeval contract of eternal society” that allocates “all physical and moral natures” to their appointed place.” Rather than a voluntary contract, Burke’s covenant is a duty imposed upon all, the high and the low alike, to keep to their appointed place.

Scruton’s criticisms are in the same vein. He claims that our pious obligations to respect authority are unlike a contract because they “do not arise from the consent to be bound by them” but instead from the “predicament of the individual.” I am born into a system of political authority and hierarchical traditions, which apparently requires me to not just tolerate but revere them.

The Freedom to Change the World

This is an extremely bizarre claim that no one would consistently hold to, Scruton included. No person born into, say, Hitler’s Germany had a moral obligation to revere the authorities — quite the opposite. The only criteria Scruton seems to accept in differentiating the good authorities from the bad is ultimately aesthetic — those who seem worthy of respect just are. Scruton writes in The Meaning of Conservatism that “it does not matter if the reason” for venerating traditional authority “cannot be voiced by the person who obeys it” because tradition is enacted and “not designed.”

Scruton is right to criticize the hyper-libertarian vision of a social contract, which assumes only those obligations I deliberately chose are binding upon me. But this vision was never adopted by any of the classical social contract theorists or contemporaries like John Rawls. For these theorists, the point of thinking about a hypothetical social contract was to determine what kind of political system a group of equals would choose for themselves.

Predictably, the result of this exercise is usually more egalitarian and free than conservatives are willing to permit, since no contractor in an equal position would accept a political system that severely limited their personal freedom or left them deeply impoverished. They would demand a political system that worked in the interests of all, not just the few.

So the real problem with the contractarian model for conservatives like Scruton is that it inspires us to think of political authority as mere power that must continuously justify its legitimacy to all those it seeks to rule, and not just those who benefit from it. Where power fails to do so, we are under no obligation to obey, let alone revere, the authorities. We may even be obligated to overthrow them.

It is this emancipatory and revolutionary impulse that has inspired the liberatory movements that have arisen since the French Revolution. And we are all the better for them.

Much of human history has conformed to Thucydides’s gloomy diagnosis that “the strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” Whatever improvement we’ve seen in modern times has been inspired by the idea that there is nothing morally impressive about mere strength and power — that in fact they have all too often accrued in the hands of people like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro who are comically ill-equipped to command much of anything.

Rather than revere authority or wealth and ask what we owe it, we should recognize that any granting of authority and power is contingent upon what it does for all. It is this ideal of a truly just society that we should venerate and seek to create — not the rust and fantasia of sacred power that conservatives like Scruton would have us bow before.