George Will and American Conservatism
Once upon a time American conservatism was something of an intellectual embarrassment. When Clinton Rossiter in the mid-1950’s dubbed it the “thankless persuasion,” he expressed what was the common judgment of most scholarly observers even at the mid-point of Dwight Eisenhower’s Presidency. Eisenhower was not the first conservative Americans placed in the White House in modern times, and he would not be the last, but the nation’s political thought remained unwaveringly liberal even when its political practice veered, as it occasionally did, to the Right. In a society where liberalism was less a creed than an assumption, conservative thought could only appear a curious anomaly, an eccentricity tolerantly to be endured because it made so little difference. Ordinary citizens might frequently act as conservatives and even on occasion think of themselves that way. But intellectuals paid conservatism little attention, and then mainly to affirm that its thankfulness derived from its mindlessness.
It was a curious situation. Post-New Deal America, widely considered the most conservative in its politics of all industrial states, had no conservative thought to speak of. (It had not much radicalism either, such was the hegemony of liberalism over its political culture.) There were conservatives, of course, but for the most part they dwelt in sectarian isolation. Treated by those who counted as if they were not there, conservatives spoke to each other in a febrile coterie language that further confirmed their exclusion from the common cultural conversation. Not infrequently they talked and acted like the extremists everyone imagined them to be. The great disgrace of postwar American conservatism—its participation in the depredations of Senator Joseph McCarthy—can be understood in part (though excused not at all) as a reckless act of vengeance against an intellectual establishment that would not recognize conservatism’s existence.
Yet over the past fifteen years, the pattern of better than half a century has begun to erode. The New Left movement of the 1960’s, itself a challenge to the dominance of liberalism in American culture, produced a neoconservative reaction that offered for the first time in memory a critique from their Right that liberals felt obliged to take seriously. And things did not stop there. The Watergate scandal notwithstanding, the decade of the 70’s amounted to an ongoing rebuke to liberal thought and practice. Signs of weakness and faltering of will abroad, combined with the impact of inflation, economic stagnation, and cultural degeneration at home, provoked a questioning of liberal public-policy assumptions unprecedented since the 1930’s. Policy reversals led in turn to questions concerning the assumptions behind the policies, and when liberals found themselves unable to account coherently for what had gone wrong or to promise plausibly that they knew how to make things right, they lost almost overnight the assurance of natural rule that had been theirs since the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan’s convincing victory in 1980 over Jimmy Carter, whose administration seemed to symbolize the decay of the liberal idea, brought the promise, though not yet the certainty, of an extended post-liberal era in American history.
Conservative political victories had occurred before without bringing into question the continued supremacy of liberal assumptions. What made Reagan’s election appear more than just another turn in the normal political cycle had to do with contemporary developments in the world of ideas. To put the matter simply: while liberals were losing faith in their beliefs, conservatives were developing unaccustomed confidence in theirs. Though liberalism still dominates within the intellectual community, as anyone who spends any time there knows full well, at no time since the 1920’s has conservatism been as much a force to be reckoned with as it is now. Not all conservatives have caught on to this. Some of them, accustomed to derision and intellectual ostracism, still speak with the defensiveness, rancor, and resentment of habitual outsiders. They do not understand how far in from the intellectual cold they have come. Conservatism is not yet the state church of the American intellectual world, but it is no longer a despised sect either.
One of those who does understand, and who acts accordingly, is George F. Will. No political columnist has succeeded to the exalted position in public commentary once held by Walter Lippmann, but Will is among the handful of those who today occupy the rank just below that. His newspaper column is widely syndicated, he writes an influential biweekly column for Newsweek magazine, and he appears to have captured the role of obligatory conservative on television political talk shows. The Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary that he received in 1977 affirmed his high reputation and his establishment credentials. (Nor, it seems clear, will the silly recent flap over his part in the Carter briefing-book non-scandal affect his position; if it does, it will mean that the level of ethical discernment in American public life has fallen lower than any of us had feared.)
Will personifies conservatism’s rehabilitated condition. When he speaks, people listen (even non-conservatives), and he exhibits the natural ease and authority of those who assume as a matter of course that their opinions will be attended to. He reflects conservatism’s new respectability even as he has helped establish it. Reading Will’s confident prose, one gets the impression of a man who sees conservatism as the natural state of things and who finds it difficult fully to understand anyone who does not. A conservatism expressed in tones of quiet assurance rather than insistent assertion is a conservatism that has found a secure place for itself.
Will’s conservatism commands respect because it is more than a political reflex or a set of policy prescriptions. He began his career as a professor of political philosophy (having done graduate work at Oxford and Princeton) and the coherence and quality of his political judgments reflect his background: even those who deplore Will’s politics express admiration for the subtlety and sophistication of his arguments as well as the elegance of his prose. His columns attempt to ground particular political cases in larger philosophic and moral contexts, and he has a knack for finding what he calls “the kernel of principle and other significance that exists, recognized or not, inside events, actions, policies, and manners.” This explains the unusual success of the two volumes of his collected columns that have already been published.1 They have been far more widely noticed and respectfully reviewed than is usual for such collections, and deservedly so: Will’s columns age well because they regularly address, without awkward strain, matters that go beyond the immediate issues at hand.
For all these reasons, the publication of Will’s new book, Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does,2 has been eagerly anticipated. Given Will’s reputation, there was every reason to expect a highly favorable response. Yet the book has received a mixed, generally unenthusiastic reception. The fullest expression of Will’s philosophy yet—there is nothing new here for regular readers of his columns—it has encountered far more intellectual resistance than Will’s ideas had earlier run into.
The reasons for this indifferent reception bear careful examination. It is worth analyzing in particular why conservative reviewers have been, if anything, more critical than have those on the Left. More than that, Will’s book offers a convenient occasion for a discussion of conservatism’s larger situation and prospects.
Will’s program in Statecraft as Soul-craft is nothing if not ambitious. Arguing the need to “change somewhat the agenda and even the vocabulary of contemporary politics,” he insists in particular that “the cluster of ideas that is commonly thought to constitute conservatism should be pried apart and reconstituted.” And what is wrong with American conservatism, Will suggests, traces back to flawed philosophic assumptions on the part of the nation’s founders. This is, then, something of an unusual project for a conservative to undertake in that it proposes a radical rethinking of the national political tradition.
Will argues that America, like all liberal democratic societies, is “ill-founded.” By that he means that the political philosophy of modernity represents a falling away from the great classical tradition of political thought. The classical tradition, based in Aristotle and kept alive at least as late as Edmund Burke, understood that the first question of government is, How should we live? or (the same question in different words), What kind of people do we want our citizens to be? But, Will goes on, the Moderns (exemplified by Machiavelli and Hobbes) have forsaken the Ancients’ preoccupation with virtue and are no longer concerned “to cultivate the best persons and the best in persons.” Rather they focus simply on questions of political management and political skill, on “keeping order and keeping power.”
This lowering of sights, according to Will, proceeds from a decline in belief in natural law, in universal norms of truth and virtue accessible to reason and in accordance with “the better angels of our nature.” Modernity, says Will, seeing reason as slave to passion and man as a purely self-interested creature, can only think of the public good in terms of the aggregation of narrow private interests. The Ancients concerned themselves with the ends men ought to seek; the Moderns satisfy themselves with the most dexterous management of those elemental desires and passions that they take as the given materials of politics. For Moderns, in Will’s analysis, achievement of the good society does not require serious contemplation or conscious willing of the social good. Much as in the economic world of Adam Smith, it emerges willy-nilly out of individuals’ unreflecting pursuit of their own interests: private vice, public virtue. The classical tradition wanted to know how man ought to live; modernity finds it necessary only to understand how he behaves.
Such a view of the social process, Will argues, denigrates government and politics. In the classical tradition, the state, led by the natural aristocracy of the wise and virtuous, served the noble purpose of nurturing virtue and gently guiding its citizens by precept and law in the direction of social affection, moral community, and dedication to the common good. Thus statecraft as soulcraft. To the extent that the Moderns concern themselves with such ends at all, Will says, they assume that they will be provided for not by the state but by the larger—and largely automatic—workings of society. In the modernist view, as Will has it, the state becomes dissociated from society and looked to simply as an instrument of coercion, justified only in its negative, if necessary, function of intervening in those situations where automatic social processes cannot be depended on or where the clash of individual self-interests threatens to disturb the public order. Given modernity’s mechanistic and individualistic assumptions, Will says, the state becomes an object of suspicion, even scorn—it acts, when it acts, to limit individual freedom—and the political vocation is robbed of the honor and grandeur that should attach to it. From statecraft as soulcraft, it might be said, we have descended to statecraft as public nuisance (or, at best, necessary evil).
All this brings Will to America, “modernity’s destination.” It was James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, who turned the management of private interests from an art into a science and who provided the most elaborate rationale yet constructed for elevating self-interest into the central assumption of politics. In The Federalist Papers, as read by Will, Madison praised large republics (such as the proposed United States of America) for what had earlier been seen as their greatest defect: their absence of unifying homogeneity and their proliferation of competing interests (“factions”). Madison argued that the greatest of democratic dangers—the potential tyranny of the majority—could be avoided, first, by constructing a constitutional system incorporating federalism, separation of powers, and multiple checks and balances and, second, by so multiplying interests and passions in society that no one group or no combination of groups could come together as a stable and dominating force.
Note, Will emphasizes, that “Madison’s attention is exclusively on controlling passions with countervailing passions; he is not concerned with the amelioration or reform of passions. The political problem is seen entirely in terms of controlling the passions that nature gives, not nurturing the kind of character that the polity might need.” As Will interprets Madison, disinterested virtue is no more to be expected from the rulers than the ruled: “public-spiritedness will not be assumed, or even necessary, even in public officials.” At the heart of Madison’s scheme, Will says, lies the assumption that man cannot be improved; he can only be controlled.
According to Will, the “defective philosophic premises” of the nation’s founding have continued to manifest themselves over the years. America to him is still a nation marked by excessive individualism and inadequate sense of community, its politics too frequently “a mere partnership in low concerns and vagrant desires.” He finds the quintessential political drama of American history in the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas over the extension of slavery into the territories. Douglas, operating in the true Madisonian tradition, reduced even slavery to a clash of material and economic interests, and he proposed to settle the issue by a political weighing and balancing of those interests without regard to moral principle. Lincoln, in Will’s reading, argued to the contrary that there are limits to popular sovereignty, that even in an open society there can be—indeed there must be—closed questions. To accept the possibility of the extension of slavery was to deny the self-evident moral truth of human equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. (Most historians conclude that Northerners fought the Civil War in order to preserve the Union. Will argues that more was involved, that they fought to preserve a union “dedicated” to a “proposition.”)
In Will’s view, Americans have more often followed Douglas than Lincoln. Their political theory and practice have focused on the satisfaction of individual wants, without consideration of the possibility that some wants might be less deserving of satisfaction than others. Their individualism—an individualism most often expressed, in Will’s view, in terms of the pursuit of economic self-interest—has gotten in the way of the self-restraint and public-spiritedness necessary for true social cohesion. They have failed, Will thinks, to cultivate that form of community “which proceeds from shared adherence to a public philosophy and shared emulation of exemplary behavior and values.” They have neglected statecraft as soulcraft: the careful nurture of the character of the citizenry through moral exhortation, wise laws, and good government.
Will’s central complaint about American political culture, with its “disproportionate individualism and . . . inadequate sense of human beings as social creatures,” often finds poignant expression:
An American dream is to be unconfined by geography or history. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American archetype, considered himself “an endless seeker with no Past at my back.” And his idea of satisfactory education was the self-education of the Thoreau boys who had “gone up the Merrimack to live by their wits.” The oldest American romance is with the idea of a pathless wilderness in which absolute individualism—what is today called “self-realization”—is uninhibited by social bonds. But must we always speak of society in connection with the nasty word “bonds”? The word suggests ropes biting into wrists. We have had quite enough Leather-stocking Tales, thank you. We need a literature of cheerful sociability, novels of social “thickness” that make society seem a complex but friendly place where social relationships facilitate rather than frustrate individualism and “self-realization.” And we need a public philosophy that can rectify the current imbalance between the political order’s meticulous concern for material well-being and its fastidious withdrawal from concern for the inner lives and moral character of citizens.
This is not the usual stuff of American conservatism, not, at least, of its dominant strain.
Will wants to reshape American political culture and reconstitute the conservative tradition through the establishment of what he calls “strong-government conservatism.” The American Right, he argues, should stop acting as if its only settled principle were hostility to government and should instead adopt a more positive attitude toward politics and the state. Conservatives, in Will’s view, need to develop a self-conscious program of political economy, one that goes beyond unqualified support for free-market economics and unyielding antipathy to government. To him all economic programs are expedients and should be subordinated to higher political/moral considerations. What is needed in particular is an “affirmative doctrine of the welfare state” based on a “limited but clear ethic of common provision.” Will argues that conservatives have for too long defined themselves simply in opposition to the New Deal. The American people, he says, have emphatically affirmed the New Deal principle that the state bears a considerable responsibility for the material well-being of its citizens, and conservatives will never enjoy the long-run confidence of the public until they fully acknowledge that principle themselves. Conservatism, if it is to prosper, must be a “conservatism with a kindly face.”
Will’s conservative welfare state follows along lines laid out earlier by Irving Kristol. Like Kristol, Will argues that government is better at providing the poor with cash than with goods and services, and he is convinced that the poor will be better off receiving money to purchase their necessities from the private sector than being tended to by an inefficient and intrusive social-welfare bureaucracy. He also follows Kristol in urging that, wherever possible, government weave its net of social protection for citizens by providing private-sector incentives, as in allowing tax deductions for medical-insurance premiums.
Will sees a vigorous national government as a supplement and support to society’s network of private institutions and voluntary organizations—not, as conservatives so often have, as its enemy. As a Burkean, he wants to strengthen the “little platoons” that nurture our social lives and shelter us from the pressures and terrors of mass society, and he argues that a limited welfare state can sustain rather than weaken the family, the school, the church, and the local community. A wise government, he suggests, will always delegate many of its functions to intermediary institutions.
Will’s recommendation of the welfare state to conservatives is not based solely, or even primarily, on grounds of political expediency. Its fundamental justification, he says, is justice, the sense of giving all those united with us in the common endeavors of society their due. Beyond that, while Will notes the welfare state’s potential for divisiveness, he argues that it can be, on balance, a unifying force. It should, he thinks, help shape a social consensus of the common good based on assumptions of “shared values and a shared fate.” Then too, Will suggests, only when conservatives have displayed their commitment to the common purpose through support of the welfare state will they be able plausibly to advocate use of the state to shape social values with respect to such issues as abortion, sexual relations, and pornography. Conservatism, he seems to argue, must be all of a piece. If it wishes to make government’s weight felt in social policy (and in a strong defense and foreign policy), it cannot very well justify a principled refusal of government intervention in other areas of public concern. The proper distinction between liberalism and conservatism, Will appears to be saying, lies not in whether or not government should be strong, but in the uses to which strong government should be put.
Will’s conservatism is obviously a conservatism with a difference. Enough of a difference, in fact, that some question Will’s conservative credentials. His very respectability makes him suspect. If liberals are so enamored of him, the reasoning goes, he must be less than a genuine conservative. Part of this criticism perhaps stems from simple jealousy: Will has made it in a way that other journalists on the Right naturally envy. In part too conservative suspicion of Will can be attributed to what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. To the degree that conservatives are still susceptible to the sectarian temptation, they are likely to spend more time and mental energy searching out apostasy on the Right than invincible ignorance on the Left.
But to some extent it is Will’s own doing that so many conservatives have turned on him. He appears to take a perverse delight in highlighting his differences with fellow conservatives. He never hides from the conservative label, but he does seem insistent at times on defining conservatism in terms so exclusive that he alone could comfortably meet the requirements for membership in its ranks. It takes a certain arrogance to proclaim, as Will does, that there exist in America today “almost no conservatives, properly understood.” It is one thing to argue the legitimacy of one’s own perhaps recondite understanding of conservatism, quite another to insist that it is the only understanding possible.
Yet for all that, there can be no mistaking Will’s conservatism. Readers of Statecraft as Soulcraft might not always be certain, but regular observers of Will’s columns will have no doubt. When he dwells on generalities, he does on occasion sound like a closet liberal, but when he gets down to specifics, he is soundly and unmistakably conservative. On social issues—gay rights, abortion, busing and quotas, pornography, feminism, sexual morality, crime and punishment—he is consistently on the Right. He may be worlds removed from the Moral Majority in style, but on the issues he is far more often with them than not. On foreign and defense policy, his characteristic criticism of the Reagan administration is that it is insufficiently Reaganite. He is a persuaded and profound anti-Communist and an unapologetic cold warrior. It is true that on economic issues and on government interventionism he does stray from conservative orthodoxy, but even there his heresies are only marginal. He may speak in generalized praise of the welfare state and of activist government, but his specific recommendations in those areas, both in his columns and even in Statecraft as Soulcraft, would be acceptable to all but the most Manchesterian of American conservatives.
Will qualifies as a conservative both by temperament and by political affinity. He is a nationalist, a fatalist, a traditionalist, and an almost curmudgeonly anti-modernist. His reverence for the past is palpable: how many writers today yearn, as Will does, for a pre-modern era “when cities were supposed to be something other than mere arenas for acquisition, when civil society was supposed to serve ends other than the pursuit of self-interest, when civil law was supposed to be patterned after a higher law”? And for all his talk of the need and possibility of making the most of “our finest potentialities,” he has not abandoned the classic conservative view that the fundamental source of social ills resides in human nature. “Nothing dies harder,” he has written, “than the myth that society is the source of all human imperfections and anxieties.”
The same pattern prevails at the level of political choice and association. Will has identified with and supported the Reagan administration, even as he has maneuvered (no self-respecting journalist could do otherwise) to keep some critical distance from it. While it is true that Will awarded Reagan a grade of only B—for his performance in his first year as President, the apparent severity of that mark has to be weighed against the grades Will assigned to Presidents Carter (D—), Ford (C—), and Nixon (F). Had Professor Will graded on the curve, Reagan would have emerged with a solid A. The President may get annoyed at Will’s regular complaints that the nation’s deficits are too high and its taxes too low, but he surely understands that on essential matters he has at least one dependable friend at Newsweek and the Washington Post.
Yet if it is the case that Will’s conservative credentials cannot reasonably be challenged, it is also true that his conservatism may not be entirely suited to American conditions.
It is odd that an author should be more impressive in brief essays than in a fully developed argument, but that is the situation with Will. His columns, taken together, offer a richer and more satisfactory (if less systematic) public philosophy than does his book. Part of the reason for this has already been alluded to. Will’s columns normally begin with discussion of a specific issue and move on from there to more general analysis. Statecraft as Soulcraft too often lacks the anchor of particularity. For long stretches, the argument proceeds at such a high level of abstraction that the reader finds himself unable sensibly either to agree or disagree. Without a specific political context, one can only say of much of Will’s philosophic pleading, “it all depends.”
One of the distinctive strengths of conservative political thought is its preoccupation with particular cases and conditions and its distrust of large abstractions. That inclination is not, as is frequently suspected, a sign of anti-intellectualism; it is rather the healthy appreciation that in the world of political analysis, where we characteristically choose not between good and evil but among competing goods, context is everything. Will is too sophisticated (and too genuinely conservative) not to understand that, but that understanding is not always reflected in Statecraft as Soulcraft.
The discipline of particularity tests and qualifies overambitious generalizations. A number of conservative reviewers of Will’s book have complained, with some point, that it provides aid and comfort to the Left in that it spends most of its time attacking the failures of the Right. Much of that has to do with the nature of Will’s project: as a conservative who wants to reconstitute conservatism, he naturally focuses his attention on the inadequacies of conservatism as presently understood. But part of the problem relates to Will’s too elevated level of discourse, as a comparison of his book with his columns demonstrates. In the immediate and quotidian world of Will the columnist, his sympathies for strong government are regularly checked and restrained by his knowledge of government’s habitual failures. But in Statecraft as Soulcraft, Will can hymn the glories of government not as it exists but as Edmund Burke imagined it in its ideal state. Toward the end of the book, when Will descends from general precepts to specific prescriptions, his cautious conservatism reasserts itself, but by that time most readers, liberal or conservative, will have gained an impression of the book’s argument contrary to what the author precisely intended.
Matters of form and proportion are not what most trouble this book, however. The central problem lies in its unabashed Toryism, which gives it an angle of vision useful as a corrective to American conservatives but doubtful as a base on which native conservative thought might build.
Will’s difficulty begins with his title. The notion that the state or the political order in general should be concerned with the care of souls might be congenial to those in a certain tradition of state-church thought, but most orthodox believers will regard it with deep suspicion and alarm (as, for that matter, will most secularists). Talk of the soul belongs to the province of religion rather than social ethics; it suggests matters of ultimate concern beyond the realm of the penultimate in which politics resides. True religion transcends and judges all political philosophies and systems. It does not exist as a prop to the social order, even if, in practice, it might often function that way. Soulcraft belongs to priests, not politicians.
Will may very well not intend to associate “soulcraft” with theological implications. Disinterested public virtue, which is his primary concern, has normally been thought of, after all, in secular and not religious terms. But even if he only means “statecraft as soulcraft” as a shorthand phrase to suggest concern on the part of the state for ethical nurture, he is in dangerous waters. The reader is forewarned of trouble when Will argues that Felix Frankfurter was “radically wrong” to suggest that “law is concerned with external behavior and not with the inner life of man.” The danger becomes fully clear when Will applies his argument to the civil-rights laws of 1964 and 1965:
The great civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s was, of course, designed primarily to improve the condition of the descendants of slaves. But it had another purpose. It was intended to do what it in fact did. It was supposed to alter the operation of the minds of many white Americans. [The civil-rights laws] were explicit and successful attempts to change (among other things) individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people. [Emphasis added.]
This argument is mistaken in fact and dangerous in its implications. When Congress passed the civil-rights acts, it surely did not see itself as arbiter of the “moral beliefs” and “inner lives” of Americans. If it had, it would have been trespassing on grounds from which it should be rigorously excluded. The government has every right to force me to behave in ways that do not violate the legal rights of my neighbors. It has no right at all to presume to improve my inner life through the use of its coercive powers. If such a right is once granted, it is difficult to see that there are any proper limits a society can set on the powers of government.
Will himself appears to sense the danger here, for he no sooner makes his connection between the power of law and men’s inner lives than he begins to back away from it. He reminds us (and himself?) that a government which has become conscious of itself in the realm of morality can easily rationalize tyranny. What is really at issue between the state and the citizen, he says, “is not coercion; it is not compelling persons to act against their settled convictions; it is not a collision of wills. . . . Rather it is a slow, steady, gentle, educative, and persuasive enterprise.” Government at its best, Will goes on, exercises not raw power but a “gentling function.” The reader is left to reconcile these passages with those on the civil-rights acts as best he can. The civil-rights laws were not, of course, tyrannical, but if Will’s interpretation of their secondary purpose were allowed to stand, they could serve as a dangerous precedent.
There is a problem too with the distinction Will draws between the classical teaching that politics has to do with the pursuit of virtue and the modern doctrine that political thought must assume the centrality of individual self-interest. That may be a defensible proposition in general, but Will’s application of it to the founding of America is not. Though Madison and the other founders were certainly concerned with balancing interests, they were in fact also deeply concerned with the cultivation of republican virtue. Moreover, throughout the nation’s history, Americans have operated on the common-sense assumption that they could maintain a reasonable balance between the pursuit of their own interests and concern for the common good. Part of our self-interest, after all, is to think well of ourselves, and most of us could not do so if our concerns never extended beyond our own needs. We all have care for our own interests, but we almost all also have a desire to advance along with rather than at the expense of those around us. And for most Americans, the naggings of conscience have been reinforced by the teachings of their churches and other moral authorities. The Judeo-Christian moral tradition has been one of the great determining influences on American culture. It has consistently preached that concern for self is not enough, and its power to counterbalance the instinct of self-interest has been and remains greater than Will acknowledges.
Disputed understandings over American history and culture aside, Will’s preoccupation with public virtue raises troubling questions. The problem is not his concern with the subject as such; he may well be right to argue that the best measure of a society is the quality of the people it produces. But Will grounds his concern and draws implications from it in ways that many people, including many conservatives, will find unpersuasive or overdrawn.
Will anchors his belief in the pursuit of virtue in the concept of natural law. We can only speak coherently of public virtue, he seems to suggest, if we accept the existence of “norms apprehensible by common judgment.” But even those who share Will’s belief in the indispensability of some notion of natural law (as I do) have to concede that it remains a notably elusive concept. Even within the Christian tradition, for example, there has been considerable disagreement over both the precise definition of natural law and the extent to which fallible men and women can be expected to live according to its precepts. Considering the heterogeneous nature of modern American society, it is difficult to imagine that we can find common ground based on any theory of natural law. Even if we shift vocabulary and speak simply of “shared values,” we will be hard put to find agreement, except at the most general level, on standards of right thought and action. Will has failed to reconcile his concern for American moral community with the reality of American pluralism.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand how an America of 230 million people can create a sense of community at the level of intensity Will would seem to require. When he speaks of “organic collectivity,” one wonders what that can mean in a society which, as he concedes, has very little by way of a common culture. John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony had true community, but that community is lost to us because its binding faith is lost to us. Today we have so little in the way of common moral beliefs and standards that even on such a fundamental issue as abortion-on-demand (in opposition to which I stand entirely with Will) we as a nation are hopelessly divided. Will wants to make of us a tighter moral community than we can sustain.
It is true, of course, that we are social creatures and that we do require a sense of community. But Americans, for all their unabashed patriotism, have traditionally found close ties and shared values at levels of association less grand than the community of the whole nation. Ties of family, friendship, church, ethnicity, neighborhood, and voluntary-group membership provide the intimacy, warmth, and sense of shared moral sentiments for which we naturally yearn. Our love of country, by contrast, functions at a high level of generality. Will wants to go beyond this. He wants to use government both to strengthen our private groups and associations (though he offers little by way of specific recommendation) and to provide for the society as a whole a denser weave of consensus and community than now exists.
It is this latter purpose that Will intends his conservative welfare state to fulfill. He defends the welfare state less in reference to the needs of those who benefit from its services than by reason of the unifying function its “ethic of common provision” performs. The welfare state, he says, gives citizens a sense of shared fate, and its altruistic intentions help mend and maintain the “chain of community” that the individualistic tendencies of modern politics put under constant strain. We need to provide a welfare state, Will argues, because it is the right thing to do and because it provides a moral basis for community.
But one wonders if that is the way the welfare state actually functions. Here as elsewhere Will tends to see government not as it is but as he would have it be. Even as he talks of government strengthening society’s “little platoons” when all about us the evidence mounts that the state’s expansion coincides with their contraction, so he praises the unifying powers of a welfare state that in practice tears us apart by politicizing and thus intensifying intergroup rivalry for social benefits. In both cases, Will recognizes the potential dangers but, having done so, turns his back on them without further consideration. More than that is required for the construction of a workable doctrine of conservative political economy.
Will is right, given the conditions of modern industrial society, to argue the necessity of the welfare state and to suggest that conservatives must learn to adjust themselves to it with better grace than they have sometimes displayed. But that is not to argue that conservatives are wrong to regard the welfare state with considerable uneasiness. For someone so concerned with the virtue of citizens, Will curiously overlooks the moral effects of welfare on its recipients. The evidence is strong that for a critical minority welfare erodes those qualities of self-respect and self-reliance that are essential to a decent social existence. If we are to judge a society by the kind of people it produces, we cannot ignore the clear signs of social pathology associated with welfare. Will should be careful of the peculiar temptations of noblesse oblige: welfare may be morally uplifting for those who bestow it but morally destructive of those who come to rely on it as their due. It is almost impossible to raise these questions without engendering suspicions of callousness and moral arrogance (even in one’s own mind), but such matters must be factored into the moral calculus by which we measure the effects of the welfare state.
In any case, the existence of the welfare state is not really at issue. Outside of a handful of libertarians whom everyone ignores, no one seriously contemplates the dismantling of the welfare state. The question is not whether we shall retain it but how, if at all, we are to go about setting limits on it. As Marc Plattner put it some years back, the issue is “the welfare state vs. the redistributive state” (Public Interest, Spring 1979). Contemporary advocates of the state want to use it not simply to put a floor of security under those at the bottom of society but to turn it into the central agent for the allocation of social resources and rewards. Will has a point in arguing that conservatives need to come up with a coherent attitude toward the welfare state, but while they must find ways to affirm it, they must not in so doing philosophically underwrite its unlimited expansion. Will is better at suggesting means of affirmation than mechanisms of restriction.
What is at stake here is Will’s whole program of “strong-government conservatism.” He affirms strong government against what he sees as the dominant modernist politics of individual self-interest. But modern politics—the politics of the 20th century—is not rooted in individualistic and competitive values; it is rather collectivist and egalitarian. Will notes this in passing and then ignores it to return to his talk of modernism as individualism. What he also ignores is that his preferred language of strong government and community has been captured by the Left, which identifies social progress as movement toward greater equality of condition under government aegis.
One can sympathize with Will’s irritation concerning the “careless anti-government rhetoric” of American conservatism. Ronald Reagan’s speeches do sometimes arouse the suspicion that he wishes the government could find a way of going out of business. Yet the American tradition of insistence on limited government is neither ignoble nor frivolous, and it does carry with it an inherent suspicion of an activist state. Will defends his preference for strong government with appeals to Burke, but those appeals are less persuasive than he supposes. Burke lived and wrote, after all, in an aristocratic society where the functions of government were few and the political nation was carefully circumscribed; a “celebration of the state” in such a context cannot easily be translated into modern circumstances. Conservatism, in any case, has to do not simply with tradition but with particular traditions, and Will himself states that political thought necessarily gets expressed in parochial categories—“native flowers sprung from native soils.” Since he concedes that his is a species of “European” conservatism, it is odd that he should be so categorical in denouncing as illegitimate varieties of American conservatism at odds with his own.
In one sense, of course, Will is entirely correct about “strong-government conservatism.” Given modern conditions, government will be large; the only alternative to big government in a complex industrial society is anarchistic chaos. But it is precisely the inevitability of big government that makes American conservatism’s instinctive suspicion of it—and resolute defense of individual freedom against it—necessary and salutary. Without a strong presumption that government should be carefully limited, it will grow hopelessly out of control. We need not, in America, fear the schemes of tyranny, but we have been granted no exemption from the imperatives of bureaucracy. Government grown unwieldy, inept, and intrusive is part of the bargain of modernity, but it requires eternal vigilance to keep the costs of the bargain from becoming prohibitive. That, in America, is a task for conservatives.
All this is not to suggest that Will’s “European” conservatism holds no message or utility for Americans. The language of virtue, discipline, and restraint, of concern for values, pursuit of excellence, and cultivation of community, has a universal validity. Indeed, there has always been a strain of such cultural conservatism in the American tradition. It serves as a valuable check on the temptations to reckless hedonism and mindless populism that our society must perpetually guard against. But if it is a necessary program, it is not sufficient. Will’s position is ironic. He seeks to deepen and broaden the American consensus, but his philosophic principles keep him at a distance from the most available source of revivified consensus: a celebration of democratic capitalism.
In the tradition of cultural conservatism, Will is uneasy about the social consequences of capitalism. The heart of capitalism, he says, lies in its “restless energy,” while true conservatism seeks “a still point of virtuous equilibrium.” The dynamism that makes capitalism work—and Will respects capitalism’s vitality—unleashes passions and desires that loosen restraint, license excessive individualism and materialism, and dissolve the bonds of community. Unless certain disciplines are imposed by the political/moral order, Will suggests, capitalism has the ironic potential of eroding the very qualities of prudence, industry, and deferral of gratification necessary to its long-run survival. One hears echoes in Will of Daniel Bell’s suspicion that capitalism may finally be undone by the cultural decadence engendered by its own successes. Will would not go so far as to say that capitalism and conservatism contradict each other, but it is obvious that for him they coexist only in considerable tension.
Will’s concerns cannot lightly be dismissed, nor the tensions he describes easily be resolved. The problems they address may well in theory be insoluble. But history often confounds theory, and democratic capitalism has proved in practice a remarkably durable and resilient system of political economy. American history continues to be, on balance, a success story, and for all the difficulties the society has experienced over the past two decades, there is no good reason to despair of its ability to endure. Will is not in the end bearish on America, but he does offer a more troubled view of our condition than may be found in the works of such recent defenders of the American system as Michael Novak3 and (in a neoliberal vein) Robert Benne.4
Will’s picture of the workings of the economic order occasionally borders on caricature. He notes but does not sufficiently emphasize the system’s benefits (prosperity, opportunity, a self-reliant citizenry) and he exaggerates its presumed heartlessness and inattention to virtue. The competitive world of capitalism would be unacceptably harsh were it not softened by the concern citizens display for their neighbors both through private sharing and through the institutionalized charity of the welfare state. Americans under capitalism do not appear a more self-preoccupied and grasping people than those who live in more socialized societies, and the American system does not seem to bear more harshly on the great mass of its citizens than is the case elsewhere. Moreover, given their unrivaled opportunities for hedonistic self-indulgence, Americans are if anything less decadent, materialistic, or rootless than could be predicted.
In other words, our pluralistic and uncoordinated moral order works better than might at first appear and better, perhaps, than we have reason to expect it to. It is certainly not clear that it would work more satisfactorily under the self-conscious tutelage of the state that Will proposes. American society operates with but a low-level public conception of the common good, but its moral/cultural private sector offers more support for moral decency and purpose than its pluralism and diversity would seem to indicate. Americans are less in need of soulcraft than moralists suppose, even moralists as sympathetic and discerning as George Will.
Democratic capitalism deserves support from conservatives on its merits. Its ability to provide economic abundance, political freedom, and cultural vitality should not be cheaply discounted or taken as given. It is a system worth defending. It is also, for conservatives, a political opportunity. American leftists have over the years drifted, almost without knowing it, into an adversarial stance toward the system that undergirds their society. Few on the liberal Left will attack capitalism directly, but even fewer can utter its name without awkward apologies or qualifications. The Left’s problem is fundamental and overwhelming: it proposes to lead a society about whose constituting arrangements it has a bad conscience. Conservatives—at least those conservatives unbeguiled by cultural critiques of capitalism—are not so inhibited or constrained, and their opportunities for positive leadership should improve accordingly, as in fact in recent years they have.
When George Will addresses particular issues or situations he participates, often brilliantly, in the conservative revival. It is only when he succumbs to the lures of philosophy that he risks losing his bearings. There is a lesson there for all conservatives.
1 The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts, Harper & Row, 333 pp., $10.95; The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, Simon & Schuster, 397 pp., $16.50.
2 Simon & Schuster, 186 pp., $13.95.
3 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Simon & Schuster, 434 pp., $16.95.
4 The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment, Fortress, 267 pp., $10.95.