Do charities exist to help the government achieve its goals? In one sense, maybe—governments have an interest in services that help support a strong society. But in a more important sense, no—charities grow out of voluntary passion and freely assumed obligations to help our neighbours. So I’ve always thought this IRD statement was rather like saying the quiet part out loud: “Subsidising charities enables governments to further their social objectives”, with those “subsidies” taking the form of tax exemptions for the charities themselves and tax credits for their donors. Although it’s from a 2001 discussion document, I suspect this view still has adherents. But whatever its currency, it’s an apt illustration of a conflict with a conservative vision of society, one that prioritises free associations and the people that make them possible.
Readers might remember that we’re working our way through Roger Scruton’s How to be a Conservative. Having considered a multitude of other philosophies, we’re now turning to the truth in conservatism itself. It’s a truth that depends on certain beliefs about what people are like, how we understand and pay attention to one another, how we form social groups, and how we form political society itself.
It starts with anthropology; your understanding of what humans are, how we behave, and what we need. If you think, for example, that people are rational and just need opportunities to choose whatever it is they value, your politics will tend towards some flavour of libertarian. If you think we can progress closer towards some kind of ideal human nature but we’re corrupted by society’s institutions and structures, you’re more likely to end up on the progressive left. But if you think people have a crucial but limited measure of freedom which we use to pursue base desires as well as noble ones, that we can improve but never perfect ourselves, and that we’re unique individuals who are also inescapably social, then you have a conservative anthropology and your vision of society will take a different shape to the libertarian’s or the progressive’s. That’s why Scruton says conservatism’s “starting point is the deep psychology of the human person” and it leads him to say that we are, therefore, “home-building creatures, cooperating in the search for intrinsic values”.
To build our homes and express our sociability, we naturally join with others and form groups. This is how “free associations” are made “out of the raw material of human affection”—sports clubs, trade unions, churches, book clubs, and knitting groups. This is how civil society grows, the interwoven fabric that we make, and that binds us, together. Scruton uses conversation as a metaphor to illustrate what civil society is like; in good conversations, we listen with generosity and we seek to understand, we’re willing to change our positions depending on what we hear, and we go with the flow of the dialogue instead of trying to impose a predetermined conclusion on it. Civil society is also made of these “responsive relations”, organic interactions in which we recognise the dignity and humanity of those around us, joining with them to achieve shared goals and allowing them to redirect and shape our purposes and plans.
Political society also grows out of these interactions between us, so our government and its relationship with civil society will reflect the people we are and the relationships between us. The modern state often appears to be a “market state” offering its citizens “a deal … in which the old notions of national loyalty and patriotic duty are replaced by conditional allegiance, in return for material benefits.” If it is a conversation, “[i]t will be one in which deep loyalties will be withheld and attachment carefully prevented.” Or, the modern state may be based on pleasure, as in many Western societies “as consumption takes over from reproduction to become the high point of the human drama.” By contrast, Scruton wants to call us back to an older ideal, Aristotle’s contention that society and therefore the state should be “organized by and for the purpose of friendship … Only the virtuous polis can be based in friendship of this kind, and the virtuous polis is one that encourages virtue in its citizens.” As we’ve already seen, conservatives don’t believe that virtue comes about automatically or by accident. Free association has to be “ordered towards fulfilment, rather than mere utility or recreation.” This moral order requires discipline to create it and to sustain it. “Conservatism is the attempt to affirm that discipline, and to build, in the space of free association, a lasting realm of value.”
Returning to our opening example, we can see that charities grow out of our relationships with each other. They are not the state’s creation, and they do not exist to serve the state’s purposes. If the state supports them, it should be because it recognises the importance of free associations like these, not because they can be enlisted to achieve policy metrics. If we support them—and we should—it should be because we recognise that they are fundamentally an expression of our humanity. Through them, we serve our neighbours. In them, we express and meet our need for connection. For them, we engage in listening, understanding, and self-giving relationships—in short, we’re formed into the virtuous people that make the virtuous society possible.