The left-leaning Guardian introduces us to someone who claims to be a conservative environmentalist, Sir Roger Scruton, author of How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism. Scruton worries that the global economy is not sustainable because so many things are heavily subsidized. At the same time, he recognizes that environmentalism today has “became a wholly owned subsidiary of the statist left,” becoming an “ism” as bad as socialism and Marxism.
“They come with massive, worldwide plans for a new form of government that will control our souls and will replace the old, inadequate ways of compromise,” Scruton argues. “It’s essentially the same mindset as imposed communism on the Russians and the Eastern Europeans and the Chinese. To me, that involves a complete misunderstanding of what our relation to the natural world really is and should be, because it’s a desire to control rather than to adapt.”
So far so good. However, he also rejects libertarianism, saying conservatives should not “advocate economic freedom at all costs, but recognize the costs of economic freedom.” In particular, he fears suburban sprawl, corporate farming, and global trade.
Scruton’s views are colored by the fact that he happens to own about 100 acres of farmland in rural England. On one hand, this leads him to worry that small farmers including his neighbors aren’t able to compete with corporate farmers. On the other hand, he worries that cities are going to pave over all the farms.
To support these worries, he engages in the same rhetoric used by left-wing environmentalists. “The suburbanization around the cities has led to the complete collapse of the center of many American cities,” he claims. To the Antiplanner, the only center to have collapsed is Detroit, and it did so for reasons other than suburbanization.
To Scruton, “collapse” means something different: he clings to the old view that downtowns should be preeminent over entire urban areas, so what he is really decrying is the decentralization of jobs. But that decentralization took place because of changing technologies (moving-assembly-line manufacturing required more land that could be found in downtown areas) and the nature of work (service jobs are naturally more decentralized than manufacturing jobs). Based on his obsolete view of what cities should look like, he endorses New Urbanism as “a movement to bring back people into the city.”
It is somewhat ironic that Scruton lives in England, which has been doing what he advocates since 1947. Most rural landowners–probably including Scruton–get paid by the government something more than $100 per acre per year to support their farming–in effect, to compensate them for not developing their land. Meanwhile, the urban residents who must pay those subsidies are hemmed in by greenbelts, making English housing some of the most expensive and least affordable in the world. This combination of subsidies to ruralites and declining housing affordability to urbanites is truly unsustainable, yet it perfectly follows Scruton’s ideas.
These ideas work only by using highly coercive tools and subsidies, such as laws or regulations preventing rural landowners from developing their lands, mandates for high-density developments in the cities, and subsidies for such developments. There’s an “ism” that applies to the idea of state control of private property and commerce, and isn’t Marxism or socialism but fascism.
If this is what it means to be a “conservative,” then I am glad I am a libertarian who believes in economic freedom, not as an end in itself “at all costs” but because it usually produces positive outcomes for almost everyone. However, I hope there are many conservatives who may not identify with libertarians and yet who also don’t believe that the government should have complete control over all private land and enterprises, for that is no more sustainable than socialism.