George Will and the conservative sensibility

I don’t know what to make of George Will anymore.

Having enlisted in the Never Trump brigade, he acts the part of MSNBC’s domesticated conservative. But is he still a conservative? Yes, he is. Will’s “The Conservative Sensibility” (Hachette Books 2019, 600 pages, $16 hardcover through Amazon) is defense exhibit number one, no additional evidence required.

This may be the most important book I’ve read in the past several years. Through its pages, Will covers conservative thought by applying its historical antecedents to contemporary issues. He quotes others extensively, both conservatives and liberal-progressives, as he presents what can only be considered an indictment of American society as expressed in her politics and culture.

This is a difficult review to write simply because the book is a difficult one to read. I was constantly stopping to make notes on Will’s assessment of current affairs and his prescription for correction. I don’t think I ever spent as long working through a book as I have on this one. (OK, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” excepted.) It was not because this is a poorly written book. Quite the opposite; it is that good.

And it is long. One recommendation I would make is to read his introductory chapter carefully. That will give a sense of why he thinks like he does. The rest of the book uses this philosophical basis to tackle what he sees as wrong with the world.

Will begins by differentiating conservative ideology of the European tradition from the American. He views European conservatives as constrained by their devotion to conserving (if you will) a class-based society and the religious and secular traditions appertaining thereto.

Americans, in contrast, root their conservatism in the principles of liberty arising out of the Founding Fathers as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ours is true classical liberalism which he defines as the exercise of natural rights within a space of personal sovereignty.

This is a distinction with a difference to Will’s way of thinking. He calls America a “creedal nation” because we developed around a set of ideals rather than tribal affinity. Only by clarifying this continental distinction can one intelligently take on the ideological battle between American conservatism and its progressive bet noire. He draws the battle lines with different metaphors such as Madison versus Wilson, Locke versus Hobbes, the pursuit of happiness versus the delivery of happiness, virtues versus values, and so forth.

He defaults to a descriptive term for all that has gone wrong with the American republic: majoritarianism. Simply put, this is the philosophy that the majority rules because that is what democracy is all about. Maybe, but Will deftly distinguishes democracy from republicanism wherein the natural rights of all must be protected against any and all comers, especially the majority.

It is on this framework that he makes an essential but somewhat confusing argument. Will favors an activist judiciary. Really? Yes, but one must read his argument carefully and get past his dislike of Justice Anton Scalia, certainly now enshrined in most conservatives’ pantheon of Supreme Court good guys. Will considers Scalia a majoritarian because he looked at the Constitution solely from a practical sense. On the other and equally confusing hand, he seems to like Justice David Souter.

Let me try to explain because this is the section of the book that gave me the most difficulty. Will argues that it is the progressive movement which over American history has most favored judicial restraint. By this, progressives mean the courts should get out of the way of the legislative and executive branches and show proper deference to their actions. This is why we have the Deep State issue today with federal agencies legislating through rule-making and then adjudicating themselves through their internal administrative law judges. (Wasn’t it Mencken who defined a judge as nothing more than a law student who grades his own exam papers? Prescient, wasn’t he.)

What Will wants now is an activist court system that reclaims its equality with the other two branches. To reestablish this equality requires courts seeing their role in constraining government by holding it to the Constitution and its implicit and explicit protection of the rights of individuals. In other words, start applying Marshall’s judicial review principle more rigorously to roll back legislative and administrative overreach. Courts, do your constitutional duty!

While this may give conservatives pause due to recent judicial branch rulings, his point is well taken. Courts should monitor government actions in protection of individual liberty, liberty being understood in terms of natural rights in a classical liberal context. Courts must protect us from the excesses of majoritarians using the powers of government to get what they want.

Will is no less critical of the state of higher education. He blames much of what has gone wrong there on the ideological conceit of presentism. Judging the past by modern sensibilities is a favorite ploy of progressives, something Will ascribes to ignorance and arrogance. He reminds them that they are tomorrow’s past. “By [being] condescending to the past, they make themselves hostages to the condescension of the future.”

And don’t get him started on the post-modern worship of values. Will sees this as the “I’m OK; You’re OK” mentality run amok (my terminology, not his). He fervently desires a return to the day when virtues mattered and not subjective values. After all, Will says, Hitler had values. Washington had virtues.

Will’s social and cultural commentaries are on point, provocative at times but always engaging. He is a thinker of the first order, and an educated one as he quotes liberally from other great thinkers both conservative and not. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan is one of his favorites.) That is one of the strengths of this book; it is a time trip through the development of American governance with the key detours and wrong turns revisited. It is an education in conservative thought and practice from an educated man. Not surprisingly this book developed over many years, its birth pangs occurring in a doctoral dissertation he wrote at Princeton.

His recurring theme that never disappears from the printed page is the struggle between those who follow the Founding Fathers in their vision for a republic based on liberty and those who don’t and are working to overturn it. He clearly is in the former camp and has written a superior apology for it.

It is our creedal nation’s set of ideals, a conservative sensibility, that he despairs of being lost to a progressive majoritarianism. He asks if conservatives have the “steely resolve” to inform Americans that their government has become “inimical to the virtues essential for responsible self-government.” Why is our government inimical in this way? Because it fosters “both dependency and uncivic aggressiveness” in a citizenry always clamoring for factional advantage.

We conservatives must face up to the conundrum of advocating Adam Smith’s free markets and their Invisible Hand as each pursues his own self-interest, all the while advocating restraint, morality and compassion. In a word: virtue. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Will is clear in what he sees as this past, one grounded in and constrained by the Founding Fathers and the limited government, natural rights protection inspiring the documents they produced. Will is an originalist after all even if he doesn’t like Scalia, so I suppose he must be forgiven for decamping to MSNBC.

This book is his convincing case in defense of our founding. Unfortunately, it may be just too scholarly for popular adoption. His prose is of the highest literary accomplishment and his logic nearly impossible to refute if one truly has an honestly open mind. Such people, unfortunately, are as rare in 21st century A.D. America as they were in Diogenes’ 4th century B.C. Greece.

Recommendation: Unqualified. Every conservative and libertarian must read this and then put it on his bookshelf for future reference.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar and of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].