Sir Roger Scruton passed away on January 12th, 2020. Since then, I have made my way through eight of his books as well as many of his speeches and interviews.
Roger Scruton was in no sense a libertarian. In fact, he was often critical of the Friedmanites and the Thatcherites, and argued against the idea of being anti-state in all respects. He was also critical of the focus on “economics” in political thought.
However, to accept these criticisms at their surface would be a mistake. When reading further to understand Scruton’s perspective, his criticisms are, at times, understandable and valuable. His criticism of the focus on “economics” is backed by a criticism of homo economicus and the economists that act as if man’s only pursuit is material gain, rather than the Austrian school’s homo agens. In this sense Austro-libertarians would agree.
In regards to the Austrian school, he is far more well read in their work than most conservatives. He repeatedly cites Mises, Hayek, Röpke, and Böhm-Bawerk in a positive manner when discussing economics.
Certain fans of Murray Rothbard will find a similar admiration for Scruton. Though the two were ideologically different, in both there is a clear principled and passionate devotion and defense of their respective ideas, and a thorough understanding of the topics they are covering. Scruton’s bibliography is nearly that of Rothbard’s, and it would be difficult to determine who would best the other at a game of Trivial Pursuit.
Though critical of the libertarian mindset, Scruton was a defender of free association and saw the need for voluntary institutions instead of state bureaucracy. In his defense of the UK in Where We Are: The State of Britain Now, he writes:
“In [the UK], by contrast, private foundations, amateur circles, clubs and friendly societies were reshaping civil society without explicit help from government, while law remained in essence common law, extracted from the judgements of the courts and not dictated by the legislature. It was not the state but the churches, chapels and philanthropic associations of citizens that brought education to the people. It was not the state but friendly societies, building societies and charitable employers such as Robert Owen and the Cadbury family, which first provided the industrial workforce with housing. It was not the state but People’s Dispensaries and volunteer hospitals that first brought the benefits of modern medicine to the poor.”
Scruton was truly a Burkean conservative, and therefore was a defender of liberty in the Burkean sense. In this sense, government and the state are not the same thing. Scruton was a critic of the state, but a defender of government through self-responsibility and free association. In his essay Governing Rightly, he wrote:
“In other words, in our tradition, government and freedom have a single source, which is the human disposition to hold each other to account for what we do. No free society can come into being without the exercise of this disposition, and the freedom that Americans rightly cherish in their heritage is simply the other side of the American habit of recognising the accountability towards others. Americans, faced with a local emergency, combine with their neighbours to address it, while Europeans sit around helplessly until the servants of the state arrive. That is the kind of thing we have in mind, when we describe America as the ‘land of the free.’ We don’t mean a land without government; we mean a land with this kind of government – the kind that springs up spontaneously between responsible individuals.”
Libertarians will find much of value in Scruton’s defense of voluntary society. After reading several of his more politically-oriented books, it becomes clear that his two favorite phrases appear to be “little platoons” (from Edmund Burke) and “the invisible hand” (from Adam Smith). But Scruton sees voluntary society as much more fragile than many libertarians do. He believes that much of libertarian theory presupposes that a “voluntary spirit” already exists, a spirit that, he believes, is mostly limited to the United States.
In his essay Hiding Behind The Screen, which focuses on the damage to interpersonal relationships done through social media addiction, he makes a defense of freedom and society:
“It seems to me incontrovertible that, in the sense in which freedom is a value, freedom is also an artefact, which comes into being through the mutual interaction of people. This mutual interaction is what raises us from the animal to the personal condition, enabling us to take responsibility for our lives and actions, to evaluate our goals and character, and both to understand the nature of personal fulfilment and to set about desiring and intending it. This process is crucial, as the Hegelians emphasised, to the growth of the human subject, as a self-knowing agent, capable of entertaining and acting from reasons, with a developed first-person perspective and a sense of his reality as one subject among others. It is a process that depends upon real conflicts and real resolutions, in a shared public space where we are each accountable for what we are and do. Anything that interferes with that process, by undermining the growth of inter-personal relations, by confiscating responsibility, or by preventing or discouraging an individual from making long-term rational choices and adopting a concrete vision of his own fulfilment, is an evil. It may be an unavoidable evil; but it is an evil all the same, and one that we should strive to abolish if we can.”
Though Scruton surely was not thinking of the state when writing this, libertarians could surely use this same argument as a critique of state interference in civil society.
Though not all libertarians will endorse his writings, and will no doubt take issue with his critiques of the free marketeers, many might be surprised to see how similar his perspective is to their own. Most times I find myself on his side, occasionally saying (as I did with the above quote) “Yes, I agree, but I would take this further.”