We have seen before that Roger Scruton, the Conservative English philosopher, is like a refreshing breeze in a foetid room. He is an English rarity – an intellectual. What we badly need in Australia is someone who can stand up for Conservatism in a manner that is intellectually responsible – and, for that matter, honest. I am not aware of any valid claimant to that role in this country.
In his 2012 book Green Philosophy, how to think seriously about the planet, Scruton seeks to make the case that conservatives are better placed to deal with problems of the environment, like climate change, than those on the other side of politics. God only knows what he thinks about those who call themselves conservatives here who are still reluctant to acknowledge the problem, and whose peeved retardation has left us up the proverbial creek.
The book is I think twice as long as it needs to be, and there is a fetish for footnotes that borders on the North American. (And what’s the point of a footnote that says ‘See Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832’, or ‘See F W Maitland, Equity, Cambridge, 1909’? They are both very big books and very dangerous in the hands of the amateur.)
Scruton was heavily and publicly involved in the fight over fox hunting in England. His side lost, and you can see some scars. In talking about a fund for animal welfare, Scruton says:
…the Political Animal Lobby gave £1 million pound to the Labour Party in exchange for a promise to instigate the ban. It is worth noting that this kind of corruption of the political process elicits no cries of outrage when donor and recipient, are both ‘on the left’.
Dear me – it is not corrupt for a lobby or ginger group to advance money to a political party in return for a promise that the party will support the objectives of the group. And the suggestion that those ‘on the left’ might get better treatment suggests that the author might be afflicted with some of the resentment that so disfigures so much commentary in a paper like The Australian. And he should be aware of the problem, since he spends a lot of time speaking of the resentment of those ‘on the left.’ He even quotes Nietzsche on ressentiment.
Two pages later we get:
Shareholders rarely ask questions, and certainly not about the environmental consequences of actions that are bringing them a return on their investment.
Well, things have changed since 2012. Shareholders do ask questions. Rio Tinto has just sold all its coal holdings. At least some analysts say that one motive was not to upset conscientious fundholders. But then Scruton makes amends.
It is one of the weaknesses of the conservative position, as this has expressed itself in America, that its reasonable enthusiasm for free enterprise is seldom tempered by any recognition that free enterprise among citizens of a single nation state is very different from free enterprise conducted by a multinational company, in places to which the company and its shareholders have no civic tie.
The author argues that the problems can best be met by local action, rather than grand international schemes, and by people, including those in the markets, coming together voluntarily for that purpose, rather than by being driven there by government.
The premises of the argument may be ideological, but their justification is empirical. I will not rehearse the argument, which trips into many meadows, but I will comment on a few items. I merely say here that after the Great Financial Crisis, anyone arguing that the great currents in our lives might best be left to the markets is standing at the foot of a very high mountain that is plagued by lethal avalanches.
There is a related problem with the phrase ‘people who pursue politics of top-down control’. The phrase ‘top-down control’ is favoured by those who get uneasy about the reach of government. But the essence of any government is precisely to achieve top-down control. That’s what ‘ruling’ entails. The name for the alternative is anarchy. You don’t alter the nature of an apple by calling it a pear.
As we remarked previously, we in Australia are committed to what is called the Welfare State. It is suicide for any politician of any colour to suggest the contrary. It will therefore be difficult to argue about the role or reach of government a priori.
Take the way we try to look after the role of the poor. We do so through bodies known as charities and through government agencies. The law relating to charities was founded, and still is in some part, on laws made during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – before the U S or Australia were ever thought of. The English government then intervened on behalf of the poor in ways that really surprise us – and would revolt many Republicans in the U S. The Elizabethans prefigured, by three centuries, the famous statement by Lloyd George in 1908:
These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal. They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.
The role of charities today is the subject of heated argument. They don’t pay tax, and to that extent they lean on us. But their role in the system is fundamental. Scruton is I think on very thin ice in trying to put charities and NGOs in different boxes. He cannot sustain the proposition that ‘many of the best-known NGOs steer clear of politics.’ Their mere existence is the subject of political contention. It’s the same with charities. When speaking of charities, the author says:
…English law has acknowledged their social significance and granted exemption from taxes that might otherwise have impeded their work. Indeed, we rarely use the ‘NGO’ label in describing this kind of institution, for the very reason that we do not see them as competing with government or as pressing for political results. They are active but not activists.
To repeat, an apple does not cease to be an apple just because you change its epithet, or label. And that last proposition is a shocker. (An ‘activist’ is a person whose being ‘active’ irritates the person bestowing the epithet. If you turn on Sky News any one night you will hear one load of activists complaining about the activities of other loads of activists. We could expect more from the Professor.) And if you think that a charity like Red Cross has nothing to do with politics, have a look at their website; or suggest that they pay tax.
The field of inquiry is so wide, that the author is constantly at risk either of going in above his head, or revealing that he has taken his opinions on matters in which he has no expertise from very loaded sources. One example is his treatment of class actions in the U S. I am not qualified as an American lawyer, but I have considered the main issues at many ABA Conferences in the U S and at a summer school at Harvard. I think I know enough to say that on this issue, Scruton has hitched his horses to a wagon that was only ever headed in one direction.
Such problems have become abundantly apparent in America, where the English law of tort [a civil wrong like an action for negligence] has encountered a formidable accumulation of greed and vindictiveness, and lost out in the fight. In the American courts, tort cases are decided by a jury – a right guaranteed by the seventh amendment of the U S Constitution – and the jury also assesses damages. Predatory lawyers, taking advantage of ‘class-action suits’, and of the procedure whereby jury members can be challenged and removed prior to the trial, have been able to ensure that the one who can pay is the one who does pay, regardless of fault.
There’s a lot there that is misleading, but it is at best unprofessional of the author to suggest that a significant branch of the jurisprudence of America has been distorted by greedy, vindictive and predatory lawyers – and, presumably, by juries of the same temper. That is the kind of abuse or invective that we have some to expect from our soi disant conservatives – and which we go to people like Professor Scruton to avoid.
Unlike me, Scruton does see some meaning in the terms ‘left’ and ‘right.’ We are apparently talking about a state of mind. Elsewhere I said:
Left and right
I do not like and I try to avoid these terms, which come from the French Revolution, but I shall set out my understanding. The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions. The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution. The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change. The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it. The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it. The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it. These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous. Either can be authoritarian. On the left, that may lead to communism. On the right, you may get fascism.
That discussion shows how shaky such a label is in the premise of an argument that claims to be logically tight. But Scruton refers to something known as ‘cultural theory’ on the footing that it ‘captures tendencies within social and political thinking that help to show why there is a real, lasting and rooted difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’’. This is worrying, not least because Scruton says ‘I put no trust in its scientific credentials’ and that the relevant terms ‘do not describe theories or goals, but identities, revealed in the structure of collective choice.’ Talk like that may have unhinged Wittgenstein.
Still, the author is good enough to come clean about the lack of contribution from his professional colleagues.
What I have read of ‘practical ethics’ has not persuaded me that professional philosophers today are any good at giving advice….And I doubt that there can be such a thing as a moral expert.
I have no doubt about the latter, but if the former holds good, would it be rude to ask what we might hope to gain from this discussion?
So, while we now have access to a sensible conservative response to climate change, the scars of the old wars of ideology are still sadly apparent. For some reason it remains an issue that continues to suck in even sensible people like Roger Scruton.