Thursday, July 5, 2018

Scrutonizing America

Iconic representation of the trickle-down prose of Roger Scruton, via Luxury Fountains for Your Home.

Ten days ago David Brooks devoted one of his book-report segments to Roger Scruton, the somewhat important writer on aesthetics and damnfool English political writer, whose new book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, is described by Joseph Hogan in The Nation as
less an intellectual history of conservatism than a brisk walking tour through its main hall. We hear from Aristotle, skip to Burke, Thomas Jefferson, and later get to T.S. Eliot, Buckley, Russell Kirk. These individual voices join in a chorus of custom-worship, of adoration for tradition and nonideological prudence. Jefferson is important to conservatives, we’re told, for his “insistence on continuity and custom as necessary conditions for successful constitution building.” Burke teaches us that “Real popular sovereignty…involves respect for what the people themselves respect—namely tradition, law and the narrative of legitimate order.” Throughout the book, Scruton makes little effort to clarify what these ideas have looked like—or, more importantly, could look like—in practice. One quickly realizes that the book introduces conservatism in the style of promotional material. In effect, Scruton has authored a 150-page pamphlet to be handed out to freshmen at Hillsdale College or at a Heritage Foundation conference table. 

Apparently Brooks's description of it was so bad that Roger Scruton himself had to come out to correct it, or maybe Scruton didn't even know Brooks had done the promo, because he's out in the Times himself today to re-reiterate the Scrutonian position on how Donald Trump is No True Conservative:
Like many others, both conservative and liberal, I did not foresee the political career of Donald Trump, nor did I imagine that such a man could occupy the highest office of state, in the name of a party that specifically makes appeal to conservative voters. Is this simply an aberration, or are there some deep links that tie the president to the great tradition of thought that I describe in my recent book, “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition”?
When describing the history of an idea, one naturally looks for its best expression. A history of liberalism will have a lot to say about John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, somewhat less to say about Hillary Clinton. A survey of the conservative idea will dwell at length on Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson and devote only a paragraph or two to Margaret Thatcher.
This thing about Jefferson as conservative icon makes me insane. Jefferson did more effective intellectual work than anybody to obliterate a century and a half of political tradition in British North America, the end of the monarchy, the end of state churches, possibly even the switch from tea to coffee. He was more deeply inspired by Rousseau than any other political philosopher (switching Locke's inalienable right to property to Rousseau's inalienable pursuit of happiness was one of the best tricks of the Declaration).

He backed Shay's Rebellion from his safe Paris residence when he was ambassador to France (the "watering the Tree of Liberty" line). He split the country apart politically in the First Party System because of his fanatical preference for Revolutionary France over Tory England, and Federalists all but accused him of colluding with the French government during the XYZ affair. His loony idea of a republic of smallholder farmers managing their affairs independent of government in a deindustrialized agrarian paradise has less in common with Edmund Burke than with Pol Pot. And when he became president himself in 1801 he threw the "small government" ideal out faster than a bad oyster. Bad and good, and there's plenty of bad to discuss, in particular his selfish and cowardly insistence on preserving the institution of slavery though he knew precisely how terrible it was, he was a radical.

I can't say how far Scruton's version differs from Brooks's version of what Scruton says, because reading them one at a time is bad enough and I'm damned if I'll read them both in tandem. There's an echo of Brooks on "we the people", but instead of treating it as a case of Brooksian collectivism, Scruton treats it as a case of Burkean localism:
Those first words of the United States Constitution do not refer to all people everywhere. They refer to the people who reside here, in this place and under this rule of law, and who are the guardians and beneficiaries of a shared political inheritance. Grasping that point is the first principle of conservatism.
They do not say, "We the people of the universe, in order to form a more perfect union in North America except for Canada and the Spanish colonies..." Well, no, they don't, are you sure that's really significant?
In another of conservatism’s founding documents, “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith argued that trade barriers and protections offered to dying industries will not, in the long run, serve the interests of the people. On the contrary, they will lead to an ossified economy that will splinter in the face of competition. President Trump seems not to have grasped this point. His protectionist policies resemble those of postwar socialist governments in Europe, which insulated dysfunctional industries from competition and led not merely to economic stagnation but also to a kind of cultural pessimism that surely goes entirely against the American grain.
This is so deeply screwed up. Imagine Trump "grasping" an idea.

Protectionism in Adam Smith's Britain had nothing to do with "dying industries": It was about benefiting wealthy landowners by keeping prices high, and mainly involved agriculture. All the industries were new.

The whole discussion comes from the struggle of 19th-century Britain between protectionist Conservatives (who caused mass starvation through the high grain prices maintained by the Corn Laws) and free-trade Liberals. The idea of a Progressive protectionism to favor industrial development was associated in the United States with Hamilton and Lincoln and the young Republican party, and opposed by the conservative agricultural interests of the South (in developing countries, the protective tariff protects growing industries, not dying ones, and isn't conservative).

Postwar socialist governments in Europe moved without exception toward the freest trade they could, this is where the European Community comes from, until they came in the 1970s under the threat of Japanese advanced manufacturing and cheap goods from the "Third World", and that is where all Trump's "ideas" on trade come from (they'd best be called "mercantilist", since his basic plan seems to be to force countries to buy American goods, by military means, including withdrawing military protection, if necessary).

Scruton does find some appealingly conservative features in the Trump regime:
he has understood that the legal order of the United States is rooted in customs that the Constitution was designed to protect. In this, too, Mr. Trump has shown himself to belong to the wider conservative tradition
What "customs"?  The Star Chamber and the House of Lords? Wassailing and Morris dancing? The Constitution was designed to create new institutions of representative government such as Britain had failed to create. This is so dumb. By all means check Driftglass (who treats a completely different aspect on the "Conservatism never fails" meme), but the man is an idiot.

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