The Intellectual Evolution of George Will - Commentary

In an elegant and erudite speech (see here and here) at Washington University on December 4, 2012, the conservative columnist George Will, in speaking about America’s political philosophy, said this:

And these [natural] rights are the foundation of limited government – government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.

A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions – private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones – that supply the conditions for liberty.

Will went on to postulate this:

A nation such as ours, steeped in and shaped by Biblical religion, cannot comfortably accommodate a politics that takes its bearings from the proposition that human nature is a malleable product of social forces, and that improving human nature, perhaps unto perfection, is a proper purpose of politics… Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limiting purpose of securing natural rights.

A conservative, equally elegant and erudite, offered quite a different understanding of things:

A purpose of politics is to facilitate, as much as is prudent, the existence of worthy passions and the achievement of worthy aims. It is to help persons want what they ought to want. Politics should share one purpose with religion: the steady emancipation of the individual through the education of his passion.

This conservative went on to say this:

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… we must rethink today’s constricted notion of the legitimate uses of law.

And this:

The institutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individualism – family, church, voluntary associations, town governments – with collective concerns have come to seem more peripheral. Using government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives… If conservatives do not want to use government power in behalf of their values, why do they waste their time running for office? Have they no value other than hostility to government? … National character is a real thing, molded in part by law and politics, and it is not made of marble.

The conservative who said these words was also George Will. He wrote them in 1983, in a book titled Statecraft As Soulcraft: What Government Does.  

My point in juxtaposing George Will then v. George Will now is not to be critical of him. In fact, I admire Will. His writings, especially Statecraft As Soulcraft, had a significant shaping influence on me and on several of my closest friends and colleagues. And the fact that Will’s views have changed over the years may reflect well, not poorly, on him, demonstrating a mind that is open to a new interpretation of things.

What I do hope is that before too long, Mr. Will does what I don’t think he has done, which is to help us understand his journey from what he called “strong government conservatism” to a much more libertarian view of things.

I will admit that my own intellectual sympathies are more with the early Will than the current one. Over the years our laws–on civil rights, drug use, smoking, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, genocide, apartheid, the size of government, and much else–have helped shape the dispositions and habits of the polity. “Much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres in life,” Will wrote 30 years ago. He argued that desegregation explicitly and successfully changed 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.” Perhaps a new book or speech by Will, on why statecraft should not be soulcraft, will cause me to reexamine things. 

But whether it would or not, I hope Will–one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers–directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.

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