Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

In James Nuechterlein’s discussion of George Will [“George Will and American Conservatism,” October 1983] insufficient attention is paid to the distinction between “strong” government and “big” government. The United States is burdened by “big” government but at the same time is paralyzed by “weak” government, perhaps the weakest government in the West. Will and many other conservatives (myself included) believe that a “strong” government will be necessary to solve the problems facing us.

What is the difference in these terms? A weak government is a state which cannot resist the demands of every special-interest group; a state which cannot pursue an independent course in behalf of the national interest; a state whose leaders cannot make a move with-out first consulting the opinion polls or the comments of newscasters. Such a state must expand in size as it redistributes more and more of the nation’s resources and creates more and more classes of social privilege in accordance with the demands of lobbyists. It must cater to such demands because without the support of the lobbyists, its leaders cannot win reelection. In contrast, a strong state is able to resist these demands and maintain a smaller, more effective administration dedicated to the essential and legitimate functions of government.

For a strong state to exist in a democracy, there must be a feeling of community which serves as proof against the “class warfare” or “beggar thy neighbor” philosophies which undergird the redistributionist state. There must be restraint, moderation, and patience. There must even be a substantial feeling of self-sacrifice (duty) to the common good and a preference for long-run progress over short-run gain.

Currently, big government is associated with individualism and democracy, as each person attempts to use his political power to gain benefits for himself regardless of the effects on others. The feelings of self-interest and competition which flow from individualism are usually linked to capitalism and are thus looked upon favorably by conservatives. But there is no reason for an individualist to limit his field to capitalism if he feels he can gain from socialism or any other “ism,” It is the ends, not the means, which count in a materialistic society which lacks traditional limitations on behavior.

Government must be inculcated with values which resist this trend. And government must possess the power to defend these values against all pressures to abandon them. Thus, government must be strong. Conservatives cannot be libertarians. Conservatives need the state as a defender of certain principles and the guardian of order. In the current environment, government must be strengthened if it is to be limited.

William R. Hawkins
Radford University
Radford, Virginia



To the Editor:

In his remarks on George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft, James Nuechterlein takes issue with Will’s assertion that “The great civil-rights legislation . . . was supposed to alter the operation of the minds of many white Americans . . . [The civil-rights laws] were explicit and successful attempts to change . . . individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. . . .”

But what proof does Mr. Nuechterlein offer to support his claim that Will’s argument is “mistaken in fact and dangerous in its implications,” other than his own opinion that when Congress passed the civil-rights acts, “it surely did not see itself as arbiter of the ‘moral beliefs’ and ‘inner lives’ of Americans” because “it would have been trespassing on grounds from which it should be rigorously excluded”? (Emphasis added.)

That, apparently, is the extent of Mr. Nuechterlein’s rejoinder. Nothing that follows indicates otherwise, except for Will’s alleged discomfort with the implications of his position. Essentially, Mr. Nuechterlein rejects Will’s thesis because he feels that government “should” be excluded from trespassing on individual citizens’ moral beliefs and inner lives.

Mr. Nuechterlein’s confidence in the libertarian sensibilities of contemporary American legislators is quaintly refreshing (particularly with respect to the U.S. Congress), but hardly, I submit, compatible with reality.

John J. Finerty, Jr.
Washington, D.C.



James Nuechterlein writes:

There is much in William R. Hawkins’s argument with which I have no quarrel. We do indeed need a government able to resist the importunate demands of lobbyists and special interests. But just how do we go about getting a government strong enough to do that? Or, to approach the problem from the other side, how do we persuade individuals and groups to stop making excessive demands on government in the first place?

If Mr. Hawkins has specific solutions to this problem, he does not offer them. He says simply that government must be “strengthened” so that it can act “as a defender of certain principles and the guardian of order” and that the American people must forsake materialistic individualism and learn restraint and a sense of community. This seems to me a restatement of the problem rather than a movement toward its solution. Mr. Hawkins has not shown us how government can acquire the strength he wants in order to accomplish the ends he seeks.

John J. Finerty, Jr. is wrong to think that I have confidence in the “libertarian sensibilities” of American legislators. I don’t think they have any such sensibilities, nor, for that matter, do I think they should. That was not my point in taking issue with George Will’s interpretation of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960’s.

Will argues that a secondary intent of those laws was to “alter the operation of the minds” and to “improve the inner lives” of white Americans by compelling them “to eat and work and study and play” with black Americans. Now individual Congressmen may indeed have hoped that closer contact between blacks and whites would change the “moral beliefs” of racists and bigots. But surely the point of the legislation was to prevent whites from transforming harmful beliefs (which they have every right to hold) into actions that violate the legal rights of blacks. As I pointed out, the government has the right to stop me from violating my neighbor’s rights, but it has no right to presume to use its coercive powers to regulate the operations of my mind or to improve my inner life. In the civil-rights laws, the government forbade certain behavior in order to secure the rights of blacks, not in order to make whites better people.

With Felix Frankfurter, and in opposition to George Will, I believe that “law is concerned with external behavior and not with the inner life of man.” And I think the overwhelming majority of legislators side with Frankfurter, not Will. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has taken increasing power unto itself to regulate the behavior of American citizens, but I know of no evidence that it claims the right to control their minds.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest