Scruton’s Challenge

by Patrick J. Deneen on May 28, 2009 · 2 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Authors and readers of FPR should spend some time reading this extraordinary essay by Roger Scruton, from the most recent issue of Intercollegiate Review.  Scruton is that rarest of academic birds – a serious, learned and thoughtful philosopher who rejects most modern canards of progress, deracination and liberalism.  Still, his critical intellect will not allow sloppy thinking in any camp, and in this essay he highlights some aspects of Wilhelm Roepke’s thought – not to mention some elements of Catholic social and economic teaching – that should discomfit those of us here at FPR who share similar temptations (yours truly, among them).  About Roepke’s thought, he writes,

[Roepke] believed that a form of economic order could be developed which would deliver—as a benign byproduct—the kind of social cohesion which he had found in the Swiss villages and which to his mind expressed the communal heart of European society. This was already to accept one of the most damaging of Marx’s ideas, which is that social institutions are the byproduct, rather than the foundation, of the economic order. For if Marx’s view is right, then the cure to social ills must be framed in economic terms. Specifically, if the free market delivers a fragmented society, then the solution is to replace the free market with another economic system. And how is that to be done, if not by state action, directing the economy towards defined social goals? All this is contained in that troubling expression “a humane economy,” seeming to imply that it is through economic organization that a society becomes humane, and not—for example—through love, friendship, and the moral law. Röpke intended no such implication, but his style everywhere conveys the tension in his thinking between decentrism as a social movement and as an economic policy.

Since reading this essay, I find myself regularly mulling over – sometimes agreeing, sometimes debating – Scruton’s charge.  He’s surely right that it’s a great danger to reduce the existence  of humane communities to merelyan  economic set of preconditions.  Yet it’s also equally dangerous to take the tack of modern Republicans, which is to wholly dissociate concerns for “family values” from the kind of economic system that they endorse and encourage.  Scruton rightly reminds us that a properly-ordered economic system is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a good society of stable homes and communities.  I would go so far as to suggest that it is only when we begin to consider ways of re-orienting our economic order that we will also have arrived at the point where we also evince the right set of values that necessarily precede any such re-ordering.  Commitments to community will precede economic reform.  Still, I am finally not persuaded that the economy can be simply or easily separable from ” love, friendship, and the moral law.”  Our economy can evince these commitments to a greater or lesser degree – or not at all, as in its the current form.

I hope the FPR readership will read and consider Scruton’s article.  It’s an important reflection, and one we will need to continue to weigh and consider.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar H.C. Johns May 29, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Very interesting essay, and a very interesting take on it. I’ve been mulling the same issues for a while, particularly the tendency of the FPR-right to rely on the Marxist historical and political categories. I wrote about it at my blog a few months back, but to lamely summarize here, I don’t think that radical economic overhaul is the only option for Crunchy Red Tory types… Localized piecemeal reform is also a viable program, and one that becomes more plausible if we’re willing to reject Marx’s historical analysis in favor of more communally focused accounts like Polanyi’s, where capitalism’s destruction of the village is it’s primary evil and not a positive step to the creation of the proletarian state. Taken from that direction, the importance of those communal institutions aren’t secondary to the economic base: indeed, their protection is vital to ensuring capitalism’s political stability.

All of which may sound a little diffuse… The post I linked to above does a better job spelling it out, but this is definitely something I’m still pondering, and Scruton’s essay is super useful in that regard. So gracias for the link!

avatar Thomas G. June 1, 2009 at 10:18 am

whew… I should never have read Scrunton’s essay on a Monday morning. That just about sucked the life out of me. (Kidding)

Thank you for highlighting this essay, which I think is wonderfully thought provoking. I agree with a lot of what Scrunton has to say, however, I think his claims that Ropke & CST fall prey to the same heresey as the Marxists, namely that Economic system alone was the key to a good society, is a stretch. For one, he extracts the principle of subsidiarity from Quadrageismo anno, but leaves behind the theological basis for it, which would support his ultimate conclusion that only the rebuilding of the moral foundations of both society & economy will lead us out of where we are.

Here is where localism comes into play. Even without the strong intermediary organizations that teach, and support a morals, the norms of reciprocity alone can break the atomizing influence of free market fundamentalism, that turns citizens into consumers.

In the prisoner’s dilemma game, two players are given a choice to either, cooperate or defect. Each must make the choice without knowing what the other will do. If both players defect, both get $1. If both cooperate, both get $3. However, if one defects and one cooperates, the defecting player gets $5 and the cooperator gets zero. In the prisoner’s dilemma, it is clear that no matter what the other player does, defection leads to a higher payoff than cooperation. If only one interaction is to occur, the clear choice for a player is to defect.

However, researchers have shown (and real world instances like spontaneous cease fires have supported) that when there is an indefinite number of interactions between groups or individuals, simple reciprocity is enough for cooperation to evolve. In these cases the foundation of cooperation is the durability of the relationship, trust is a secondary outcome of cooperation. Where individuals understand that their interactions with others will be repeated, there is more incentive to cooperate. In fact, one could argue that this acceptance of repeated contact between individuals is the evolutionary basis of both social capital as well as capitalism.

So, I believe that the ultimate key to rebuilding the social capital the will be necessary for the humane economy is scale. Putting a human face on economic interactions, even on a global level, is the only way to humanize the economy.

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