Excerpts from Roger Scruton’s 1998 New Criterion essay, Rousseau on the Origins of Liberalism

Rousseau’s attack on society in the name of ‘nature’ exemplifies what to me is the root error of liberalism in all its forms, namely, the inability to accept, or even to perceive, the inherited forms of social knowledge. By social knowledge, I mean the kind of knowledge embodied in the common law, in parliamentary procedures, in manners, costume, social convention, and, also, in morality. Such knowledge arises ‘by an invisible hand’ from the open-ended business of society, from problems that have been confronted and solved, from agreements that have been perpetuated by custom, from conventions that coordinate our otherwise conflicting passions, and from the unending process of negotiation and compromise whereby we quieten the dogs of war.

It was such knowledge that Edmund Burke had in mind when he attacked the apriori thinking of the French revolutionaries in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade on their own private stock of reason’, he wrote, ‘because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages’. Burke’s imagery is in one respect misleading.

Social knowledge does not accumulate as money does, nor does it grow in the manner of scientific knowledge, which can be stored in books. It exists only in and through its repeated exercise: it is social, tacit, practical, and can never be captured in a formula or plan. The best way to understand it, indeed, is through the failures of the planned economy. The Austrian economists – for example, Ludwig von Mises in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (1951) argued, plausibly enough, that prices in a market contain information that is indispensable to economic life. This information exists only in the free exchange of goods and services; it is information about the real pressure of human needs. Hence the attempt to encompass economic life in a rational plan, with prices controlled from the centre, will destroy the information on which the plan must draw. Rationalism in economics is irrational. Indeed, it is a living instance of the self-contradictions discovered by Rousseau whenever he searched for the first principles of human society. The Austrian theory parallels Michael Oakeshott’s attack on rationalism in politics in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (1963). It can also be applied in other spheres where social knowledge is the foundation of rational conduct, as F. A. von Hayek has shown in Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1982).

The common law, for example, contains information that could not be contained in a legislative programme information about conflicts and their resolution, about the sense of justice in action, and about human expectations, which is dispersed through the record of the law and is never available when legislation is the sole legal authority. Hence, the attempt to remake the legal order, through a legislative code that embodies all permissible solutions, is profoundly irrational. Such a code will destroy the source of legal knowledge, which is the judgement of the impartial judge as he confronts the unforeseeable course of human conflict.

Rousseau’s social contract leads to an abstract and a priori code, established not by the attempt to rectify injustices as they one by one arise, but by the supreme act of a Legislator who, being not God but Jean-Jacques, is destined to fail. The Legislator is the unhappy Atlas on whom the unsustainable burden of humanity falls … Social knowledge arises from the search over time for agreement.

Even the common law, which leans on coercion, involves the attempt to find socially agreed solutions. Hence, the outcome of a case in common law is always clear: rights and liabilities are determined. But the principle – the ratio decidendi – may not be clear at all, and may emerge only later in the tradition of judicial reasoning. Law, custom, convention, ceremony, moral norms, and the market are the varying ways in which human beings attempt to live by agreement. The resulting social order will be marked by inequalities and constraints. How could it be otherwise?

But it will arise, in the normal case, from transactions freely engaged in. If transactions are coerced, then the resulting conventions and norms will not contain the knowledge that is so important to us: the knowledge of what to do in order to live in harmony with our fellows. Rousseau’s rejection of society in favour of free choice and uncorrupted nature should be seen in this context.

It is not enough for Rousseau that institutions should arise from consent in the manner of the common law or the market; they must be the object of consent. We must stand outside our institutions and ask ourselves whether we would freely choose them from among alternatives. If the answer is yes, then this forms the basis of a social contract. In entering such a contract, we establish a legitimate order – but only then. For only then do our institutions reflect our own autonomous submission to government. Only then is authority bestowed upon government by the governed. Only then, in other words, does the self win against the others. In Rousseau, of course, the contract does not amount to much.

No sooner are we released from social burdens than we submit to a ‘general will’ that brooks no opposition, and that adds to its commands the insolent assertion that, in obeying it, we are doing our own will. Freedom is no sooner obtained than thrown away. All who have studied Robespierre’s ‘despotism of liberty’ will know how dangerous Rousseau’s paradoxes can be when their inner (that is to say, religious) meaning is brought to the surface. Just as dangerous, however, is the assumption that we can jettison all institutions, traditions, and conventions and decide how to make them anew.

This is the root assumption of liberalism, and it recurs in all versions of the social contract even the hypothetical contract of the philosopher John Rawls. It implies that we can make rational choices, knowing what to do and how to do it, without the benefit of social knowledge in other words, without the hard-earned legacy of consensual solutions. It is not just that there is no reason to think that this is so. It is rather that there is every reason to think the opposite. We know what to do only when we have a sense of right and wrong, an implicit awareness of the unseen multitudes whom our actions affect, and the instinctive knowledge of what is admirable or despicable, that are percolated through the channels of tradition.

Without traditions we have no ‘conception of the good’, as the philosopher John Rawls describes it. And, for all that Rawls says to the contrary, a social contract between creatures with no conception of the good is a parody of rational choice – the kind of parody that Rawls places before us, imagining that he has given a final proof, and not a refutation, of the liberal view of society.

Jean Starobinski attributes to Rousseau an emotional need to reject all mediation – every institution, custom, and practice that comes between the self and its desire. Whether in love, in religion, or in education, Rousseau’s goal is to remove the veil of ‘society’ so that the individual can take immediate possession of the good that belongs to him by nature, and that has been withheld by the ‘others’ who stand in his way. This perception of society, as a realm of ‘otherness’ or alienation, has a religious meaning.

For Rousseau, the self is naturally good and naturally free, living in a state of unmediated unity that is also a state of love: the amour de soi from which our life begins. Evil is to be explained by the sundering of this primal unity, the setting of the self against itself, which occurs when we live as others require. Society induces a fall from innocent amour de soi to guilt-ridden amourpropre. Only through the social contract, which remakes society as the expression of individual free choice, can we overcome our alienation. The contract therefore has a redemptive meaning and leads to a ‘civil religion’ imposing on every citizen the unmediated relation with the godhead that his nature requires …

There is another way of seeing Rousseau’s social contract, not as the redemption of society through the sacrament of choice, but as the rejection of society as an obstacle to choice. This other way of seeing the matter underlies Burke’s criticism of the official doctrines of revolutionary France. Society, Burke pointed out, is an open-ended partnership (he even said ‘contract’) between generations. The dead and the unborn are as much members of society as the living. To dishonour the dead is to reject the relation on which society is built – the relation of obligation between generations. Those who have lost respect for their dead have ceased to be trustees of their inheritance.

Inevitably, therefore, they lose the sense of obligation to future generations. The web of obligations shrinks to the present tense. Such, for Burke, was the lesson of the French Revolution.”

Source: The New Criterion

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