Conservative political philosopher Roger Scruton tells in Conservatism: An Invitation to The Great Tradition, published last June, how modern conservatism arose during the Enlightenment as a ‘qualification’ of classical liberalism, accepting the freedom-oriented state but stressing the importance of inherited culture and customs in forging the conditions of freedom.
In the book (which incidentally is a very good introduction to the conservative outlook and well-recommended), Scruton argues that the main difference between classical liberalism and conservatism turns on whether one considers membership of the state (and thus allegiance to it) to be unchosen, like a family relationship, or more like a contractual relationship, and so in an important sense consensual. Political obligation for conservatives, he says, ‘is not a contractual deal, like a business partnership, but a binding tie, comparable in this matter to the non-contractual tie to the family.’
Conservatives point to the way that a person is born into a society and culture he does not choose and which forms him and prepares him for the exercise of rational freedom. In this way, they argue, society is like an extension of the family, playing a similar formative role, and the state, as the sovereign authority over society, warrants our allegiance in the same kind of way that our parents do, as the given voice of authority and focus of unity in the community.
For liberals, however, the family analogy isn’t sound, as the relationship between parents and children is much tighter and more basic than the relationship between citizens and the state, and besides the strict relationship of obedience to parents ends with childhood, giving way to a softer duty to honour. Classical liberals therefore look to a contract model for the state to reflect the way obligations arise consensually among free citizens. The contract idea also helps to draw some limits around the authority that the state has over its citizens: if the state is understood to originate in an agreement between citizens, the better to secure all that they would rightly enjoy in a pre-political state, that places some reasonably clear limits on what it is for and what it may do (essentially protecting life, liberty and property).
Conservatives object that, while the parent analogy is admittedly imperfect, it remains the case that one’s society and culture are given, not chosen, and integral to preparing one for freedom and for providing a sense of identity. The country and culture of one’s birth therefore enjoy an inherent claim on one’s loyalty, and the sovereign authority established over them an inherent claim on one’s obedience.
My feeling is that contract-based thinkers such as John Locke do, as Scruton argues, fail to give due recognition to the inherent claims our countries of origin place on us, and this is a weakness in their account of political legitimacy and obedience. On the other hand, some conservatives (though notably not Scruton) overplay the significance of this duty and turn it into something too authoritarian, when in reality it is more akin to the honour one should retain for one’s parents into adulthood than the bond of obedience one is under as a child.
In terms of political obedience, then, classical liberals are right that such obedience is more analogous to a contract than a family relationship, which is why legitimate government is based on consent, and why it is morally permissible to emigrate and become a citizen of a state other than that of one’s birth. Also helpful is the classical liberal idea that the comparison between the political and pre-political condition should inform the purposes and limits of political authority, an idea prefigured in the ancient Greek accounts of the origins and purposes of states found in Aristotle and others.
This said, liberal theory (especially modern-day ‘progressive’ liberalism, which is a long way from its classical liberal origins) would undoubtedly be much improved by the conservative insight that there is an important moral and practical bond between individuals and the land of their birth and ancestry – a bond we ignore at our peril, as many of our globalist elites are now belatedly discovering to their cost.
(Image: Sir Roger Scruton. Credit: NoJin/Wikimedia Commons)