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George Will and the Contemporary Political Conversation

This article by the late Joseph Sobran ran as the cover story of  the October 1983 issue of The American Spectator. It came to mind when Mr. Will recently announced that he is leaving the Republican Party.

In early July, George Will underwent a sudden role change: all at once he was the object, rather than the transmitter, of moral indignation.

He had admitted having glimpsed the Purloined Briefing Book in the course of helping prepare candidate Ronald Reagan for his 1980 TV debate with Jimmy Carter.

Two weeks later, assorted Democrats, liberals, and Carterites were out-Pecksniffing Pecksniff in demanding that the Washington Post drop Will’s column. (The Post didn’t, but the New York Daily News did.) Lengthy stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal abounded in phrases like “raises disturbing questions,” “relationships between journalists and politicians,” and so forth.

You would have thought George Will had been caught in a love nest. Actually, the press was still debating whether the papers themselves — let alone Will’s trivial and marginal role in the story — constituted a bona fide scandal. The central fact, the Reagan team’s illicit possession of Carter’s briefing book, was out in the open for two weeks, and had been known to some for far longer, before anyone thought to make an issue of it. Why was Will retroactively expected to have reacted with electric outrage at the first touch of a document he had described as “excruciatingly boring”? True, stealing a boring document is as criminal as stealing a hot one; but the point is that Will didn’t steal it. He was a bystander. Why should he have cared whether a dead horse had been stolen?

Something else was going on, though. The real event was aesthetic, not moral. The real issue, confusedly addressed, was not Will’s character, but his persona. There was something incongruous about this conservative scourge of Nixon and Agnew finding himself in the thick of some dubious behind-the-scenes political dealing. It didn’t match his aloof and starchy pose as the Pure Observer. It exposed him as a bit of — well, an operator. That was what really hurt him.

As it happened, I had recently roasted Will’s latest book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, in the pages of National
I called his position “a toothless, coffee-table Toryism, nicely calculated for liberal consumption.”

He wrote me a short, good-humored note about it, with however the complaint that my fierce tone had been “unseemly”: “You could have ascribed my bad ideas to my bad thinking rather than my bad motives.”

I could have, yes. But I didn’t see bad thinking as the real problem. Bad motives — more precisely, bad intentions — had gotten in the way of his normally lucid thinking.

Aristotle, of course, condemned the ad hominem argument long ago, and he has been mindlessly echoed by people who don’t stop to consider that Aristotle had a lot to hide: at least one illegitimate child, for instance. In his place, who wouldn’t want to keep public discussion impersonal?

But the same Aristotle pointed out that rhetoric traffics constantly in motives. The orator has to persuade the audience of his good character. It was as rhetorical performance in this sense, not just as abstract argument, that I found Will’s book interesting, and objectionable. Statecraft as Soulcraft is the work of an operator wearing the moralist’s mask.

Will has always made it a point to establish his distance from other conservatives. He generally quotes them for the purpose only of contrasting them unfavorably with himself, notably on the score of that great motive and motif of today’s political rhetoric, compassion. His, he has given us to understand, is the enlightened Toryism of Burke, Disraeli, and Shaftesbury, as opposed to the crass Manchester liberalism of “those who call themselves conservatives [nowadays].” For nowadays, in America, “there are almost no conservatives, properly understood.”

In a 1975 column he launched his campaign against “the somewhat narrow and negative social prescriptions of American conservatism.” If conservatives don’t take “a quickened interest in the problem of poverty,” he concluded, “it will be fair to assume that they have at least a mental skin too many, and have inadequate mental material beneath that skin.”

In Soulcraft he defends the welfare state in principle — “irrefutably,” he added in a subsequent column, though none of the reviewers seemed to agree — and complains that American conservatism has become “cranky and recriminatory.” He asks: “Can there be conservatism with a kindly face?” He asserts: “A conservative doctrine of the welfare state is required if conservatives are even to be included in the contemporary political conversation.”

“The conservatism for which I argue,” he goes on, “is a ‘European’ conservatism.… It is the conservatism of Augustine and Aquinas, Shakespeare and Burke, Newman and T.S. Eliot and Thomas Mann.” (Are these all the same thing?)

Well, it’s a long way from Orange County, certainly. Nobody can accuse George Will of being obsessed with fluoridation or the Trilateral Commission. And he has certainly run with the compassion issue. Almost every policy debate in America tends to turn, alas, sooner rather than later, into a compassion contest, and conservatives, like Cordelia, have a poor won-lost record in these competitions of humanitarian histrionics.

Whether it is fair to hit them with Lacking Compassion on that account is another matter. It may be that they simply have a different conception of the role of the state, not to mention the constitutional limits of federal authority. But Will doesn’t give this possibility a chance. He is talking about, not to, conservatives, and feels no obligation to answer them to their satisfaction. His relation to them is not of the I-thou variety. He is addressing another audience. To understand what he is up to, we must see the board he is playing on, and watch his moves.

The full title of the book is Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does. But its thesis is, as Adam Meyerson has noted in these pages, much narrower than the subtitle suggests. Will neither describes the full range of state activity (that would take a fat tome) nor defines the proper and specific purposes of government.

Instead he argues that whenever government acts, its actions have moral implications. It can’t really be neutral about “values.” It necessarily commits itself to some vision of the good, and thereby helps form the character of its citizens. “Statecraft is, inevitably, soulcraft.” Therefore government ought to take into account the moral impact of its policies.

So far, so good. But beyond this point, the book is vague and confused. Because state policy has moral implications, it doesn’t follow that the moral is the domain of the state. Nor does Will make quite so vast a claim for it. In fact he insists on what he has nicely called “the primacy of private life.” But he never draws a helpful line of demarcation between public and private, and he drifts toward an ever-broader conception of the state’s role.

As Will sees it, the American political system was begotten outside “the rich tradition of political philosophy, from Aristotle to Burke. Relatively recently — at the time of Machiavelli and Hobbes — we took a sharp fork in the intellectual road. It is time to retrace our steps, and rethink what we think.”

Madison, Will contends, spoke for the Machiavellian tradition when he said that “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” against the abuse of power. “It is almost as though,” Will comments, “the Founders thought they had devised a system so clever that it would work well even if no one had good motives — even if there was no public-spiritedness.” Our Constitution itself was apparently a wrong turn.

Will calls for “a new, respectful rhetoric — respectful, that is, of the better angels of mankind’s nature.” A rhetoric, that is, of “virtue,” which is to say, “good citizenship,” including a “willingness to sacrifice private desires for public ends.” The welfare state, properly understood, represents an “ethic of common provision” appropriate to this sort of virtue.

All this is questionable on several grounds. The Founders weren’t building a new society from scratch, in Utopian fashion, but striking a deal among preexisting polities. Madison wasn’t being cynical, just realistic, when he said fine motives couldn’t be “relied on” to prevent abuses of power. He insisted that republican government “presupposes” more virtue than other kinds of rule, but he had enough sense to know that even where there is a normal degree of virtue, human nature being what it is, institutional restraints are needed. If that isn’t conservative sanity, I don’t know what is.

For all his emphasis on property rights, Madison was anything but indifferent to virtue. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people,” he argued in the Virginia ratifying debates in 1788, “is a chimerical idea.” These are hardly the accents of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, Madison, like most conservative thinkers, tended to associate property and character; acquisition requires providence and industry, and possession makes people rooted and responsible. (Tocqueville thought America owed much of its stability to its widespread, though unequal, distribution of property.) The pertinent question to ask ourselves is whether Madison would have thought the modern welfare state, on the evidence, more conducive to civic virtue than the Republic he so lovingly helped to design.

Meyerson has already pointed out that our own recent experience gives grounds for doubting that the size of the public sector is an index of our public-spiritedness. The number of pressure groups defining their own interests as “public ends” these days would surely confirm the Founders’ worst apprehensions of rapacious “factions.”

Will is echoing contemporary liberalism, not Burkean conservatism, when he reduces the private sector to “private desires” (in the sense of “appetites”). There is no correlation. The public sector has become the great arena of selfishness and greed. It is the triumph of liberal rhetoric to have disguised this truth, while portraying the competition for entitlements and the mass bribery of voters as the politics of “compassion.” Meanwhile, it has been all but forgotten that property rights are the great impediment to greed, and to the greedy state; for greed consists in the desire for what is not one’s own, especially the fruits of others’ labor, which today’s politics puts up for grabs.

That is why the great task of conservatism today is to restore the limits of the state, not to enlarge its claims. But Will shows no interest in this task. Instead he says, again and again, that we as a nation are “undertaxed.” He says little about property rights, and less in their favor.

When he assigns the Founders to the Machiavellian tradition and calls on us to “retrace our steps, and rethink what we think,” Will may seem to be throwing down a bold, even quixotic challenge to the status quo. But look again at the curious sentence — in my judgment, the key sentence in Soulcraft:

A conservative doctrine of the welfare state is required if conservatives are even to be included in the contemporary political conversation.

Odd. If Will can say we took a wrong turn as long ago as 1513, or even 1789, why can’t other conservatives say we took a wrong turn as recently as 1932? If our entire national tradition is Machiavellian, wouldn’t it really be much easier to retrace our steps from the New Deal than from The Prince?

Here is where we had best keep a careful eye on the actual framework of Will’s rhetorical performance. He speaks from the strongholds of contemporary liberalism, in publishing, broadcasting, and education (Soulcraft began its life as the 1981 Godkin Lectures at Harvard), where the “contemporary political conversation” takes place. In terms of contemporaneity, if not political philosophy, 1932 is more real than 1513. Within the liberal strongholds, where Will finds the audience he is addressing primarily (and it is anything but a conservative audience), you can say what you like about 1513, as long as you watch what you say about 1932.

Under the circumstances, Will is gingerly in his approach to liberal pieties, but cavalier in his remarks about conservatives, who aren’t “included” as he is. It would be one thing if he seriously criticized the principles he says they should abandon; but he doesn’t even bother to state those principles carefully. In a book teeming with quotations, he never quotes an important conservative spokesman. The conservative position is represented by three-and-a-half sentences from Reagan campaign speeches.

He knows that a liberal audience will not object, as a conservative audience would, to such 1964-vintage japery as this: “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?” (If Goldwater doesn’t like government, why does he want to run it?)

Apart from assuming that conservatives are anarchists at heart, Will seems to think that misguided programs, once established, should be administered only by people foolish enough to believe in them. After issuing the grand invitation to all of us to rethink what we think, his practical advice to conservatives boils down to that sage reminder, “You can’t turn back the clock.”

Will oscillates erratically between two arguments for the status quo. In some moods he adopts the familiar tactic of falling back rhetorically on the simple fact that the welfare state exists: it is a “fact,” it is a “reality,” it is not “reversible,” and so forth. This amounts to saying that whatever is, may as well be regarded as right. The virtue (such as it is) of this argument is that it spares one the trouble of specifying genuine norms of politics: approval of what currently obtains can be disguised as resignation to immutable conditions of existence. But why are they immutable? If the human will produced them, it can presumably change them. The refusal to criticize them because of their power is more in the spirit of Machiavelli than of the Great Tradition.

But in other moods, Will ventures a cloudily worded moral justification for welfarism: it represents an “ethic of common provision” or is an aspect of a “just society.” He offers no helpful explanation. Instead he moralistically — and inaccurately — contrasts his communitarianism with libertarianism, which he defines as “the doctrine of [sic] maximizing freedom for private appetites.”

The best answer to this familiar error is that of the ever-sensible Kenneth Minogue:

Like many other writers, Marx simply identified individualism with egoism, and a tendency to think in communal terms with altruism. An individualist, however, may well be altruistic to the point of self-abnegation; he merely wishes to choose his own way of acting. Similarly, egoism and selfishness can appear in the most communally minded people. That I should claim the right to own property might mean that I am greedy and wish to do in my fellow men; but it might also mean many other things — such as that I enjoy taking risks, investing, saving money, and so on. And if I should acquire a great deal of property, I may spend it on my own pleasure, or I may set up charitable foundations for art and science, or even (as some millionaires have done) spend it financing socialist revolutions, because such is my pleasure. There is, in other words, no logical relationship whatever between a right on the one hand, and a motive (such as egoism) on the other.

There is no telling, on a given day, whether Will is going to argue from Reality or Morality. In one frolicsome column, though, he recently announced the happy news that Mrs. Will had been confirmed by the Senate as Assistant Secretary of Education, a post that will annually diminish by a reported $68,000 the amount of money available for the gratification of the nation’s private appetites. “I herewith disclose that I am sleeping with a government official,” he joked amiably. Well, a man’s sexual orientation is his own business. But conservatives should at least take note that the woman works for an agency with no constitutional warrant. Even the Supreme Court recognizes the problem of excessive entanglement.

Will, in short, neglects to specify. He is “for” government, “for” virtue, “for” somehow promoting virtue through government. But what is government itself for? The conservative, as Michael Oakeshott reminds us, “does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing,” but recognizes governing as “a specific and limited activity.” The order of the words is subtly exact in its import: “specific,” then “limited.” Government exists, not to do nothing, but to do good; but good of a certain kind, and no other. What kind? That, I take it, is the central question of political philosophy. Mere general approval of the status quo is no answer to it.

“Conservatism in the modern age,” Will has written, “has one fountainhead: Edmund Burke.” In Soulcraft he derides with special sarcasm “today’s soi-disant conservatives who have been so busy praising Burke they have not taken time to read, or at least comprehend, him.” He continues: “It is perhaps marvelous that people who preach disdain for government can consider themselves the intellectual descendants of Burke, the author of a celebration of the state. But surely it is peculiar — worse, it is larcenous — for people to expropriate the name ‘conservative’ while remaining utterly unsympathetic to the central tenet of the greatest modern conservative.”

Burke’s “celebration of the state” that Will refers to is the (too-) familiar passage in which Burke says the state ought to be regarded as a transcendent partnership among the generations, not as a dissoluble partnership like those of the marketplace. But this is hardly an endorsement of everything states do: in fact it is (rather obviously) a re-buke to a particular state that breaks faith with citizen and alien, repudiates its debts, and confiscates property — namely, the new state Burke sees wreaking havoc in France. There has been a long controversy as to the essence of “Burkean conservatism,” so one wonders how Will can pluck out this particular passage and hold it up as Burke’s “central tenet.” Burke was a complex thinker, a devious man, and an occasional rather than a systematic writer. Even to talk of his “central tenet” this way is to betray an insensitivity to his wonderfully serpentine style.

Will is right to see the importance of the passage, just as he is right to notice Burke’s stress on the key role of “manners” in society. But it is also necessary to weigh such passages against others that add fuller meaning to them. Burke did not mean that the state should regulate manners, but that it depends on them. Civilized government needs a civilized populace.

Quoting isn’t learning, and Ellen Wilson scored a shrewd point when she wrote, reviewing Soulcraft for the Wall Street Journal, that Will’s conservatism seems to be “the conservatism of Bartlett’s.” You don’t bag Burke for Toryism by quoting a few familiar paragraphs, any more than you bag Shakespeare by citing a few familiar lines from Troilus and Cressida (“Take but degree away, untune that string…”).

Does Will really know Burke? He seems to think Burke can be claimed for the tradition of Tory paternalism; but nothing could be further from the truth. Burke was a Whig of the most rigorous laissez-faire stripe. To understand him fully we have to read not only the familiar quotations from the first half of his Reflections, but the passages on economics from the latter half, where he expresses his horror of confiscation and argues that “it is to the property of the citizen… that the first and original faith of civil society is pledged.” There is nothing Burkean about Will’s suggestion that “government’s role in the generation of wealth” gives it the right to redistribute wealth as it sees fit (somewhere short of total leveling).

Even more vehemently than Madison, Burke holds that the rights of property (including its acquisition) take precedence over any financial needs of the state: “The claim of the citizen is prior in time, paramount in title, superior in equity.” The operation of the market, moreover, is “the natural course of things,” which it is “pernicious to disturb,” even for the purpose of relieving the poor.

It may be fortunate that Will didn’t get to know Burke in time for Soulcraft: he would have found an irresistible specimen of stony-hearted conservatism to whip for lacking compassion. In 1795, with famine spreading over England, Burke offered his “Thoughts on Scarcity” specifically to oppose government efforts to better the lot of the laboring poor. “To provide for us in our necessities,” he wrote, “is not in the power of government.”

The whole essay refutes the notion that “government’s role in the generation of wealth” somehow creates a limitless sovereignty over the wealth of a nation. Burke understood that government creates necessary conditions for prosperity, but he did not think it a derogation of the state to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. He also disliked humanitarian cant. Speaking of the common laborers who were suffering, he said: “Let compassion be shown in action — the more, the better — according to every man’s ability; but let there be no lamentation of their condition.”

To Burke the problem even had a theological aspect. He spoke of the duty “manfully to resist the very first idea, speculative or practical, that it is within the competence of government… to supply to the poor those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them.” He went even further — further by far than Adam Smith. He called “the laws of commerce… the laws of Nature, and consequently the laws of God.”

Mr. Will, meet Mr. Burke.

We are all impersonators of ourselves, says Ortega y Gasset; and Will has taken his characteristic posture so far in Statecraft as Soulcraft that several reviewers have found the book an exercise in “self-parody.” His persona suffered a wound of a different kind when it transpired that he had seen the “pilfered” briefing book, hadn’t told anyone, and, after helping prepare candidate Reagan for the debate, praised the performance as that of a “thoroughbred.” Nobody could specify what he had done wrong — there was some huffing about “journalistic ethics” — but somehow everyone knew this wasn’t the George Will we had thought we were seeing.

From now on it is going to be harder for Will to let on that he is to other conservatives as “Masterpiece Theater” is to “Dallas,” and nearly impossible for him to climb back onto the moral pedestal from which he was wont to address the public. This is all to the good. He is, after all, a really excellent columnist, because he has one extraordinary gift: he can think straight. He can reduce an issue to its essentials.

He fails to do this only when he is preoccupied with making an impression of himself on the reader. His pseudo-Burkean affectations, his somewhat promiscuous quoting, his more-caring-than-thou postures — these are signs of distraction. He should write, as it were, anonymously; as if the point were to make the reader remember the argument and forget the author. “Read over your compositions,” Dr. Johnson recalled a tutor instructing one of his pupils, “and whenever you meet with a passage which you think particularly fine, strike it out.”

“Ethic of common provision,” “contemporary political conversation,” “the central tenet of the greatest modern conservative” — one has the horrible suspicion that in these phrases Will thinks he is being “particularly fine.” Too bad. The pundit trade is already overstocked with what the editor of this journal has called “moral hams”; but there is no danger of a surplus of thinkers like Will in peak form. His real face is much handsomer than his mask.

In 1983, Joseph Sobran was Editor at National Review and the author of Single Issues (The Human Life Press).

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