The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Sobering Thoughts

by George F. Will
Harper & Row, 333 pp., $10.95

George Will
George Will; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.