The other day I watched a video of Roger Scruton addressing an Oxford Union audience.
During the Q&A, one student asked him how to counter the widespread view that conservatives are stupid.
Roger replied with the words in the title and then suggested this isn’t a bad thing. After all, we all know how much harm intellectuals have caused.
I’d field the same question differently.
First, I’d say that this common perception isn’t supported by statistical evidence. However, even to begin to garner such evidence, one would have to define intelligence, which is no easy task.
After all, a functionally illiterate computer boffin may well have a higher IQ than Roger or me. Would that make him more intelligent? Not according to my definition.
If we narrow the concept of intelligence to a capacity for coming up with deep thoughts, which was Roger’s stock in trade, the task becomes easier. Since I like my tasks easy, these are the confines within which I’ll remain here.
I’d say that not only are people of the right deeper thinkers than those of the left, but that the left aren’t serious thinkers at all.
If we take economics as an example, let’s see how the conclusions reached by the two groups are justified by observable facts. How well, in other words, they wield the basic cognitive tool of induction.
Accepting for the sake of brevity Marx’s crude juxtaposition of capitalism and socialism, the facts are unequivocal.
Wherever they’ve been tried in earnest, the former has proved a spectacular success and the latter an unmitigated disaster. It’s a demonstrable fact that, the more capitalism and the less socialism in an economy, the better it’ll perform.
Now, how would you describe a person who, on the basis of this empirical fact, reaches the conclusion that a socialist economy is a desirable ideal? Not to cut too fine a point, I’d describe him as daft.
Proceeding from the simple to the complex, the starting point of left-wing anthropology is that the state can – and therefore must – mould human nature by legislative and administrative means.
Even socialists who’ve never read Rousseau agree with him vicariously that man is born perfect, a noble sauvage in all his primordial beauty, a clean slate on which [choose your own bogeyman: the church, monarchy, capitalism, conservatism, Roger Scruton] then writes a corrupting message.
It’s then the state’s job to write on that tabula rasa its own meliorative message, dictated by the current political vogue. When the vogue changes, so will the message. But the presumption of the state’s unwavering wisdom won’t change with it.
This contrasts with the conservative assumption of original sin, held, if not in so many words, even by agnostic conservatives. That sin, man’s manifestly imperfect nature, can only be counteracted not by fiat, but by a lifelong personal effort at virtue as it’s understood in our civilisation.
Again, tasting both slices of the pudding (and God knows, mankind has done plenty of tasting throughout its history) should produce two types of conclusions: one intelligent, the other stupid – words I use interchangeably with conservative and left-wing.
The taster is bound to notice that, whenever a state starts from the presumption of human perfection, it eventually gets bitterly disappointed: human nature holds firm. Out of its sense of frustration the state often decides that, since people have let it down, it has to kill them all.
How would you rate the intellect of a person who still clings to the underlying philosophy or even its close approximations? Quite.
Then there’s the notion of change, desirable or otherwise. Conservative thinkers from Falkland (“if it’s not necessary to change, it’s necessary not to change”) to Burke (“a state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation”) never opposed it as such.
They simply advocated prudence, especially if a planned change was irreversible. Even when it isn’t, any drastic change always produces unintended and unpredictable consequences, so care must be taken.
Again, how would you describe those who eschew prudence and advocate large-scale social experimentation, with millions of people as guinea pigs? This, in the knowledge that most such bold experiments have ended in disaster? Yes, I agree.
Morality also comes into this. Even an agnostic conservative is weaned on a culture shaped by Christianity. Hence he intuitively believes in the need for some outside moral authority, accepted as such by the whole society.
This, he realises, is an adhesive without which a society will fall apart. His supposedly smarter opponent, on the other hand, believes in his own moral infallibility – or, barring that, his own right to arrive at a voluntarist and arbitrary moral judgement, even if it goes against the grain of custom, consensus and common sense.
Which approach do you think is more intelligent? Indeed.
And so forth: take anything on which the right and the left disagree, and the conservative view will always be more sound and defensible.
As to the damage supposedly done by intellectuals, this myth is often repeated by many conservatives, including such brilliant ones as Roger. Yet this statement is meaningless if left unqualified.
For the history of the greatest civilisation ever is signposted by sublime minds who gave it structure, tone and a sense of direction. Many, though far from all of them, worked in Roger’s own discipline, philosophy, and Western civilisation simply wouldn’t have survived without them, at least not in any shape we’d recognise as Western.
Some people called intellectuals have indeed caused much harm, often of the carnivorous kind. But that gets me back to the original proposition: name some of those pernicious people.
Whether we come up with five names or fifty, we’ll find they are all of the left. That makes them pseudointellectuals, which is to say not very bright. (See above.)
It’s true that bad ideas can have destructive consequences if they appeal to a certain critical mass of humanity. It’s also true that stupid ideas are easier to encapsulate in a catchy slogan: they by definition lack the subtle nuances characterising deep thought.
But saying that stupidity isn’t so bad because intellectuals are responsible for blood-stained revolutions and collapsing economies simply doesn’t add up.
Obviously, the quick-fire format of a Q&A period wouldn’t accommodate such prolixity. In the same situation, I too would say something facile. But my facile would be different from Roger’s.
I’d probably suggest that, if we take the 50 top conservative thinkers and the same number of left-wing ones, the first group will be incomparably more intelligent. Or I’d simply say that the opinion implied in that question may indeed be widespread, but only on the left.
My purpose here isn’t to criticise the late Roger Scruton, whose invaluable contribution to conservative thought can’t be gainsaid. I only want to point out that conservatives shouldn’t accept the terms of debate imposed by their adversaries.
The truth is on our side, which should make our position easier to argue. Every core assumption of the left is intellectually weak, and we should never tire of pointing this out and proving our point.
God knows, Roger Scruton did more than his fair share. But perhaps not on that occasion.