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The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty

December 28, 2009

Roger Scruton in The American:

Architecture clearly illustrates the social, environmental, economic, and aesthetic costs of ignoring beauty. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud gestures of people who want to seize our attention but give nothing in return.

In Britain, the state, in the form either of local or central government, will tell you whether you can or cannot build on land that you own. And if it permits you to build, it will stipulate not only the purposes for which you may use the building, but also how it should look, and what materials should be used to construct it. Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours.

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