Wednesday, April 1, 2020
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The duties we owe to the state

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READING the comments sections of TCW and the wider conservative media, it is evident that a war within a war is raging, as proponents of freedom from authoritarian government do battle with proponents of self-sacrifice in the national interest. Yet both are fundamental conservative principles, for conservatives value the interests of both the individual and the community. Matters are immeasurably complicated because such are the unknowns that any calculation of costs and benefits – medical, economic, political, psychological – is impossible.

I have argued for the lockdown, but I fully recognise that powerful arguments can be marshalled on the other side. As Trump has said, the cure may wreak more damage than the disease.

What, I wonder, would the late Sir Roger Scruton have made of it all? Scruton always veered more to the communal than the libertarian strain of conservatism. For him, the essence of conservatism was family and community, not the market. But at the same time, there was no braver or more principled opponent of communism, of the totalitarian state, or proponent of the importance of private property and of the rights of individuals to enjoy life’s pleasures.

The key to Scruton’s conservatism, I think, lies in Burke, Hegel and F H Bradley. For Burke, wisdom lay not in one man’s ‘private stock of reason’, but in the ‘the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages’. For Hegel, the individual is ultimately a social being. We owe an absolute obligation to the state and its institutions because the existence of civil society is conditional on the existence of a state. And for Bradley, it is only because man is first a social being that he can realise himself as an individual. ‘We have found ourselves,’ writes Bradley, ‘when we have found our station and its duties, our function as an organ in the social organism.’

Libertarians and individualists might be shocked at these sentiments – and they are easy to misconstrue; but they were second nature to Scruton. He particularly admired Bradley’s essay My Station and its Duties, from which the above quote is taken, and often referred to it. His early essay Hegel as a Conservative Thinker bowled me over when I stumbled across it more than twenty years ago. The subtly woven arguments are beyond my ability to summarise, but consider the import of this sentence from the final paragraph:

An understanding of the human being as a social artefact shows inequality to be natural, power to be good, and constraint to be a necessary ingredient in the only freedom we can value.

Libertarian advocates of the minimal state will heartily disagree and warn of the path to totalitarianism. But for Scruton, the guarantee of our liberties, of the liberties we might truly value, was the state. Not a totalitarian state, to be sure, but a state to which we owed profound obligations.

It may be that those obligations have never been greater than they are now. 

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Alistair Miller
Alistair Miller
Alistair Miller writes for The Salisbury Review

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