George F. Will is a conservative columnist who sees himself as a descendant (in vocation if not in opinion) of Addison and Steele. He is the ablest and funniest columnist who calls himself conservative, far more interesting than the shallow Buckley and the leaden Safire. He is also, as this collection of his recent columns shows, the most ambitious, because he wants to define the conservative position not as a matter of party or particular political issues but as a general and distinct political theory.
The essence of conservatism, on Will’s view, is this: it is the job of government to define, achieve, and protect a society of public virtue, that is, a society which shares a strong and accurate sense of what is valuable in life and history, and what is not. This is not, of course, how conservative politicians define conservatism. But Will thinks they are hopelessly wrong about what conservatism is: he means to define “true” conservatism, not what passes for it in political rhetoric.
In the introduction to the collection Will puts his theory, that the job of government is to protect a society of public virtue, this way: “Men and women are biological facts. Ladies and gentlemen—citizens—are social artifacts, works of political art. They carry the culture that is sustained by wise laws, and traditions of civility. At the end of the day we are right to judge a society by the character of the people it produces. That is why statecraft is, inevitably, soulcraft.”
That theory is both more complex and less benign than it might at first seem. Will’s columns make plain that his theory values civilization and amenity—what he calls, in a generous conception of the word, “manners”—for their own sake, rather than as conditions under which human beings may most easily and fairly lead lives they find successful. It puts, at the center of politics, not the rights and independence of human beings that liberals emphasize, but their duties and responsibilities. Will’s conservatism is judgmental rather than humane. But he is right, I think, in supposing that his theory is a better, and philosophically more accurate, account of conservatism than the politicians whose policies he defends have themselves supplied.
Will has no doubt that those who accept his theory that government is “soulcraft” will therefore support most of the causes that nonreflective conservatives support. Will is against busing (though his columns on this issue show very little understanding of the constitutional issues); for more constraints on sexual expression; against protection for homosexuals; and very critical of campus radicals, whom he calls infantile. In a recent column he defends Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard address, which declared that “it is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as obligations” and said that “the hasty capitulation” in Vietnam was the product of a loss of nerve of American intellectuals.
But Will’s support for conservative causes does not automatically extend to support for conservative Republicans. No one is treated with more contempt, in these columns, than Nixon, unless it is Senator Dole (of whom he says that those who lie about history deserve to be forgotten by it). Will’s political hero is not Ford or Baker or Reagan or Connally but Solzhenitsyn himself, and Will is particularly scornful of Ford’s refusal to receive that writer. On the issue of free enterprise, moreover, which many conservatives make an article of faith, Will is heretical. Free enterprise and economic growth, he says, “take a severe toll against small towns, small enterprises, family farms, local governments, craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and other aspects of humane living…. To govern is to choose one social outcome over others; to impose a collective will on processes of change. Conservatism that does not extend beyond reverence for enterprise is unphilosophic, has little to do with government and conserves little.”
Will’s conservatism is not the idea, now out of fashion, that government should let business alone; nor is it the “libertarian” conservatism of Robert Nozick or F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman. It is a matter of constraint, duty, discipline, and virtue; liberty and rights, even economic rights, have little to do with it. Nor is Will especially hostile to welfare and redistribution; he agrees with most conservatives that welfare programs are inefficient, but insists that improving them does not necessarily mean reducing payments. He says that the ordinary conservative voter, hostile to welfare, “has looked into his heart of hearts, prayed long and hard, and come to the conclusion that it is high time the government cut his neighbor’s benefits.”
So Will is able to support many conservative causes, but without deference to the slogan of free enterprise or to the materialism or selfishness that has given conservatism a bad name. His conservatism is a model tuned for the 1980s and especially for a generation of new conservatives who, in their adolescence, rejected the ethics of big business in favor of “craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and other aspects of humane living,” and who might now be delighted to find that these “true” values are, after all, supported by a conservatism that might also protect the prosperity they have stumbled on as adults. Americans who don’t like “queers” but who are uneasy with Anita Bryant’s logic will be happier with Will’s argument (echoing Lord Devlin’s argument against homosexuality two decades ago) that a virtuous society must share some sense of moral outrage. People who now accept that business must serve society may be happy to learn that high salaries are nevertheless justified because they confirm that some lives are more valuable than others.
There are, however, serious intellectual and practical difficulties in the idea of government as soulcraft, which Will, unfortunately, ignores. He is contemptuous of America’s present “manners,” which he defines as “conduct in its moral aspect, the way people address one another in conversation and through culture, the way they rear children, and educate, inform and entertain themselves.” He thinks Americans have become materialistic, selfish, pretentious, and morally flabby, with barely any private, let alone public, sense of what is genuinely important and excellent. But how can a government elected by such a people, in free and democratic elections, be trusted with soulcraft? Will would reply, perhaps, that we can be at least somewhat better than we are now, and elect people who are better still. But that is not a satisfactory answer, because unless we become very much better we shall still elect leaders who fall far short of philosopher-kings. And we should still be better off telling these leaders to stick to justice, to the protection, for example, of our constitutional rights, and to leave soulcraft alone.
Will’s pessimism about human nature is not simply an aside, moreover, but an important part of his general theory. He has a very low opinion of the improveability of “biological facts.” He suggests that the chief intellectual defect of such people as socialists, historians, intellectuals, Americans, and Hamlet is that they fail to realize how little can be expected in the way of general moral progress. He says that Hamlet’s theory about man as a piece of work was refuted by a piece of work called Goring. “The Holocaust,” he tells us, “was not just the central event of the twentieth century, it was the hinge of modern history. It is the definitive (albeit redundant) refutation of the grand Renaissance illusion that man becomes better as he becomes more clever.” “The best use of history,” he adds, “is as an inoculation against radical expectations, and thus against embittering disappointments…. If historians and other intellectuals were free from Promethean pretensions, young people at school would learn the unfun, unheroic truth that history is circular, like a maelstrom.” In an essay on the birth of his son he adds that fathers can do little one way or another to affect what their children become because “genes, not environmental factors, are in control.”
I emphasize Will’s pessimism because it may strike readers as odd that he complains, at the same time, both that liberals and other intellectuals are not sufficiently concerned to improve society and that they think that too much can be done to improve people. He does not recognize any contradiction here. Indeed, there is no contradiction. But the fact that Will’s conservatism contains both ideas is crucial to understanding what that theory really is, and why it is distinct both from liberalism and from more radical nonliberal theories.
Will is right in his major assumption. Contemporary political theories do disagree precisely on the question of whether it is the function of government to take account, in any direct way, of what he calls manners.* Liberalism takes as its constitutive principle the idea that manners are not the business of the state. Liberals distinguish justice from soulcraft; they believe that a person’s soul is, finally, his own business, not because they are skeptical about values but because they believe that soulcraft denies dignity and independence. But in this respect liberalism is distinguished not only from conservatism, but from Marxism, fascism, theocracy, religious or moral spiritualism, and a variety of other ideologies each of which holds that government must in some important way concern itself with fostering specific conceptions of virtue and excellence in human beings and in social life. Liberalism stands on one side of a line that divides it from all these other political philosophies as a group.
But there are, of course, important differences among these nonliberal philosophies, and the most important is this. They disagree about why government should create an environment in which virtue and excellence are encouraged. Political theories like Marxism that are generally regarded as belonging to the left argue that government must create an environment conducive to the development of the true capacities of individuals for self-fulfillment, and that this cannot be done in the first instance except by government intervention and direction, because economic arrangements and institutions have blinded people to their own true natures. These theories of the left are reformist, but they seek reform, in the last analysis, in the interest of the mass of the governed, or at least in what they, rightly or wrongly, take to be that interest.
Theories of the right hold that government must concern itself with virtue and excellence for a very different reason. They are not, even in theory, concerned with the free development of human capacities but with the shaping of society by the superior judgment of an elite. They hold that for government to treat the rights of the noble and the base, the virtuous and the unworthy, as if there were no difference between their worth is unjust, because these differences have a moral dimension, and unwise, because the values that define a nation and a civilization are maintained by such distinctions and subverted by equality.
Each of these two groups of theories must take a position about the innate capacities of human beings. The first group must assume that people are inherently capable of self-improvement and progress, because their program is idiotic and indefensible without that faith. (Will is wrong in his belief that the idea that “man becomes better as he becomes cleverer” was invented by Renaissance humanists and taken up by liberals. It was invented by Plato, who remains the most profound opponent of liberalism.) The second group—to which Will’s conservatism belongs—needs the contrary hypothesis. They must hold that differences in people, particularly differences in virtue and sensibility, are neither accidental nor environmental nor easily remedial. Their fundamental ideas—that justice requires taking account of these differences and that civilization is constantly in peril—are more plausible if these differences are deep in human nature. They are more plausible still if such differences are genetically based, so that “environmental factors” count for little.
So Will’s combination of soulcraft and pessimism is not incoherent. But that is because his version of antiliberalism is not reformist but elitist; it cares, in the end, about culture as distinct from people. He is not bashful about his elitism. “Elitist is a label for people (like me),” he says, “who believe that, frequently, egalitarianism is envy masquerading as philosophy. Let us clear our minds of cant. Surely a just society is one in which people deserve their positions, and in which inequalities are reasonably related to reasonable social goals. Justice requires a hierarchy of achievement—unless all achievements are of equal social value, in which case all inequalities are arbitrary and illegitimate ‘privileges.”‘ His introductory statement that I quoted about “soulcraft” would be more accurate as a summary of the argument of the book if it said that society should be judged not by the character of the people it produces, but by the character of the people it honors and rewards.
Even this sort of justice is not, for Will’s conservatism, an end in itself. In the end what must be saved, if they can be saved, are the true values and civilization in the maelstrom of defeated expectations. When he insists that conservatives must care about poverty he takes Shaftesbury as his model. “He understood that conservatism is about the conservation of certain values and these values have social prerequisites. He believed that nothing is more subversive of a nation than…conditions destructive of [values] that are, conservatives know, mainstays of civilization.” Shaftesbury himself was tortured by thoughts of the suffering of the poor, but it is the values the poor threaten, not their suffering, that Will counts as the important concern for conservatives.
Will is a cultivated man who would rightly see himself as extremely civilized. But his conservatism cultivates little direct concern for the actual conditions of those who suffer from poverty and race prejudice and who appear, in his collected writings, to be quite outside civilization. His book reprints 142 columns. Dozens of these are about manners and national character and personal standards of different sorts. But his only column about race opposes affirmative action as a “stench” and his only columns about poverty are the Shaftesbury column just mentioned, and another column that argues for nuclear power plants on the ground that the poor may benefit. One recent column makes fun of the shallow campus radicals of the Sixties, and of their style and manners. But it has nothing to say about the causes, including the prevention of killing by their government, for which, however childishly or even insincerely, many of them fought.
That column is instructive about the dangers of elitist conservatism. American society has indeed become very unattractive. We are coarse and materialistic, pretentious and hypocritical. It is part of our myth (and perhaps even partly true) that American was once none of these things, that we had something like a golden age at the end of the eighteenth century when both leaders and people were much more agreeable. American society has also become conspicuously unjust, and it is no doubt tempting to assume some connection between these different vices so that the roots of racism and poverty lie somehow in bad manners and cant; so that if undergraduates had better taste and higher intellectual standards racism and poverty would later disappear.
But it is unfortunately true that even if most of us did contrive, as Will puts it, to “rear our children and educate and entertain ourselves” more commendably than we do now, we might leave most of what is unjust in our society firmly in place. Civilization and a decent tone in public affairs are much to be desired, and Will’s conservative is more attractive than the conservative of the marketplace. But even those who think that government is soulcraft are hypocrites when they pretend that the pursuit of good manners is the first order of national business. Civilization is possible without justice, but it then becomes, like slaves at Monticello, only a profound embarrassment, and a disgrace.
October 12, 1978
The analysis of the following paragraphs is expanded in my essay, “Liberalism,” in Public and Private Morality, edited by Stuart Hampshire (Cambridge University Press, 1978). ↩