American conservatism has achieved a respectability for itself greater today than at any time in the last fifty years. This is partly due to the failures of its rivals on the left and partly because of the success of conservative politicians. But conservatism evidently remains a body without a head. What is it conservatives want to conserve? What vision do they have for America?
No one reflects the increased respectability of American conservatism more than George F. Will, author, syndicated columnist, and television commentator. But Will's latest book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, has yet to receive a favorable review in any conservative journal. Dennis E. Teti's review essay attacks Will on different grounds. The Review asked David Green, who has followed Will's work for some time, to respond to Teti. Finally, Richard L. Williams indicates how problematic is the endeavor of another conservative, Burton Yale Pines, in Back to Basics.
A review of Statecraft as Soulcraft – What Government Does, by George F. Will
In choosing a journalist to deliver the 1981 Godkin Lectures, Harvard University selected one of the very best-George F. Will, who has expanded those lectures into this, his first full-length book. Like his widely syndicated, Pulitzer Prize-winning columns, collected in his Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts, this work contains political insights showing that a journalist and television commentator (ABC) can be both elegant and thoughtful. Thus Will (Ph.D., Princeton) is in an extraordinary position to edify a vast audience. Unfortunately, this great potential for public benefit merely intensifies our exasperation at the ultimate failure-indeed the folly-of Will's case for an American brand of "European" conservatism.
Nearly awash with quotations from the great thinkers, Statecraft as Soulcraft's argument for conservatism reflects an exceptional literacy with the great books. Familiarity with themes of Leo Strauss and some of his students, notably Martin Diamond and Walter Berns, can be discerned. In particular one notes Will's appropriation of Strauss's framework of the ancients versus the moderns, of those who sought to promote virtue versus those who were concerned with "keeping order and keeping power" (pp. 23, 24, 27 ff.). Whether Strauss would have been entirely satisfied with Will's use of his teachings is another question.
In his central chapter Will articulates his great theme of man's "second nature"-the habits and customs binding citizens into one community. It is this second nature which is said to be threatened by the American neglect of morality and character development in the law and politics. Here is the crux of Will's political teaching: statecraft, or government, is in its very essence "soulcraft," or cultivation of civic character. Government is unable to prevent itself from affecting the souls or character of men; government can only choose the types of character it should encourage and discourage. In showing the inseparability of morality and politics, Will performs an invaluable service for his audience, much of which assumes the discreteness of the two concerns.
American politics, however, lacks an awareness of its capacity as soulcraft. In Will's view, this lack derives from James Madison and the other Founders, who concentrated on a low self-interest as the basis for the American way of life, and thus undermined the American character and the ability to maintain our way of life.
Will wants to overcome the neglect and erosion of civic character by establishing a new kind of conservatism (p. 12). It would be of a "European" variety; its paradigm is Edmund Burke (p. 146). (I count 22 page references to Burke, more than any other philosopher, Madison excepted.) It is characterized by "degree," "proportion," "custom," "priority," and so on; i.e., by a stress on hierarchy and a kind of moderation. ("Up to a point" is Will's favorite expression [p. 93], as readers of his columns know.) Will's conservatism appears to be at furthest remove from the kind of revolutionary politics marking the era from the War for American Independence through the Convention of 1787. In Will's formulation, Burkean conservatism is related to the Founding somewhat as Aristotelian virtue is related to the extreme vices between which it is a mean.
But Will disregards two facts about Burke: he was a friend of the American Revolution and a follower of Adam Smith's economics. Reserving the economic emphasis for later, I will now elaborate on Will's divergence from the Founding.
Will is not a friend of the American Revolution or the Founding Fathers. We might be tempted to praise his forthrightness in admitting that his "argument comes close to filial impiety" in a nation notable for its reverence for its Founding Fathers (pp. 167-68). But, like Machiavelli, Will conceals his audacity behind his audacity. He opens his argument saying that the "thinkers" on whose thought the Founders constructed the Constitution defined the tasks of politics in "inadequate" and "dangerous" ways (p. 18). What is more, "liberal democratic societies," i.e., all of them (a fortiori, the United States), are "ill founded" (ibid.). The "inadequacy" of liberal democracy is "glaring" by now (p. 23). It consists in a radical lowering of politics "to the strongest and commonest impulses in the mass of men" instead of concerning itself with "the best persons and the best in persons," as Aristotle taught (p. 24). Liberal democracy replaces the concern for virtue with a reliance on self-interest, and undermines the political community in the name of a radical individualism. Of the Founding Fathers par excellence, Jefferson and Madison, he says of the author of the Declaration that his "robust rhetoric of self-evidence . . . seems anachronistic" (p. 50), and comes perilously close to calling the Father of the Constitution a fool (p. 156). If conservatism implies devotion to the Founders and the principles of the Founding, Will's teaching is the opposite of any normal understanding of the term.
By describing the pursuit of happiness as a "sobering thought" (in the title of his first collection of columns), Will associates himself with the neoconservatives, who regard the American Revolution as a "sober" revolution-a revolution that did not make a radical break with the political order of old Europe. It is not surprising that Will describes "the traditional conservative function" as "judging and editing the social transformation that comes with the dissolution of old forms and modes of action" (p. 119). This type of politics ought to be named "clean-up crew conservatism," for it limits itself to criticism of social transformations that have already taken place. But this kind of conservative politics as a matter of principle cannot provide leadership that gives any direction to the course of social transformation.
Not a page after quoting George Washington that the American "Empire" was founded in a clear understanding of "the rights of mankind," Will terms the Revolution a "rebellion in defense of traditional rights"; that is, the rights of Englishmen (pp. 99-100). Between Washington's clarity and Will's confusion there lies the difference between a democratic regime founded on natural rights and an aristocratic order based on class distinction. Will, accordingly, called "the pursuit of virtue" a "Tory notion" in the title of his second book, and thus a New Republic satire granting Will the appellation of George III was not off the mark in this respect.
Will elevates Hamilton above Jefferson and Madison as the Founding Father (p. 106). He implies thereby that Hamiltonian commercialism is the real basis or substructure of American society, anchoring the ideological superstructure of Jeffersonian democratic "idealism."
As a writer sensitive to the art of language, Will heaps generous praise on the "rhetoric" of Lincoln, describing the Gettysburg Address as "the greatest moment of American rhetoric" (p. 18). Yet, he is practically silent concerning the content of Lincolnian rhetoric, which consists of a continuous elaboration of the meaning of equality and its democratic consequences. Will tries to drive a wedge between Lincoln, who demanded universal consensus on certain fundamental questions in an "open society," and Jefferson with his principles of "self-evidence" (p. 50 ff.). Will writes as if Lincoln himself had not credited "all honor to Jefferson" whose principles "are the definitions and axioms of free society." But there is no difference between them. Jefferson's contention was that the "self-evident principles" of natural rights have scientific certainty; the terms once grasped cannot be denied by rational men; they are closed questions in the way a geometric proof is a closed question. Jefferson took great pains to inculcate those principles among his countrymen, in full agreement with Lincoln that free government is impossible without consensus on natural rights.
But nature has only a tenuous place in Will's thought. He would teach that government is "natural to man as clothes and shelter because it serves needs that are natural to man" (p. 160); those needs are preeminently psychic (p. 143). Statecraft should be guided by "human nature"; it should gently pull citizens in that direction as if guided by a compass (p. 42).
Ultimately, however, the only "human nature" which is relevant for Will is "second nature." Will's adherence to Burke and the consequent substitution of custom for nature create an insuperable and inescapable problem. On the one hand he attacks historicism-the doctrine of determination by history or tradition-and its political offspring, such as Hitler, for whom "[n]ature makes no difference, because man is only what happens to him" (p. 149). On the other hand, "[t]he variety of human capacities at any moment in any society is historically conditioned; therefore the range of suitable forms of political association also is conditioned" (p. 161; cf. pp. 82, 155). Since "second nature" is historically determined, it is impossible for Will consistently to point to any transcendent political standard in his critique of liberal democracy. Burke, as Leo Strauss has pointed out, stands at the fulcrum between the end of the modern natural-rights school of thought and the beginning of its replacement by historicism. By its inner "dialectical" necessity, historicism, despite its origins in the sober Burke, culminates in the doctrines of Marxist class-rule or Nietzschean elite-rule. The real origin and confusion of Will's "conservatism" come to sight in this paradox. It is entirely understandable why Will holds Hamiltonian commercialism to be the real basis of American society, and why he insists on defending "elitism" against attacks by "populists" (cf. pp. 90, 158-59). The effort to climb the historicist mountain by returning to the politics of Burke proves to be a Sisyphean enterprise.
Will writes page after insightful page on our contemporary political ills, all the while missing the controlling fact that the responsibility for those ills lies squarely with our political elites themselves, who oppose the "populist" demands of the American people.
All political societies tend to divide between people and what I follow Will in calling elites. The moral qualities he praises are, in fact, virtues which retain their hold on most Americans. For example, American wage earners, black and white alike, still struggle so their children can receive the best education and can perhaps even go to Harvard to hear George Will attack the evils of "populism." American parents continue to develop the character of their children as well as they can, unintimidated by the prevailing elite belief that character is a restraint on "freedom of expression." As far as the American people are concerned, it is the elites who are not responding to their "populist" demand to restore moral and political principles to the nation's educational and political institutions.
A viable American conservatism would begin with a defense of popular virtue on the basis of an understanding of natural rights. Such a conservatism is "populist"; it is the opposite of a politics of divisiveness. It does not pit group against group (compare post-New Deal Democratic Party "pluralism"); nor does it govern by opinion poll, which is a common caricature of populist politics. Populist conservatism contends that one of the decisive tasks of leadership in representative democracies is easing political, economic, and social pain by articulating solutions to the problems causing people to suffer that pain. Thus, it is not sufficient to describe leadership as "the ability, among other things, to inflict pain and get away with it" (p. 159). And the "clean-up crew conservatism" that Will would oblige us to follow precludes any possibility of directing social transformation.
The difference between Will's elitism and populist conservatism is most evident in the debate over economic policy. Will chastises conservatives, Ronald Reagan explicitly (pp. 122-23; p. 23 notes Reagan's "Manchester school" liberalism), for their belief that economics and politics are totally separate realms; doubtless, this is justifiable criticism of some on the right. But he simply ignores the President's (and many conservatives') conversion to the "supply-side" school of economic thought. Supply-side economists have drawn an inseparable connection between the economics of growth and the politics of democracy. Supply-side economics is to populist democracy as the concave is to the convex. Indeed, supply-side policy is the archstone of President Reagan's populist political revolution-and populism is George Will's archenemy.
Will's argument gives rise to several related problems. Few working-class Americans believe with Will that "the one thing we do not have is strong government" (p. 159). Fewer yet would accept his eccentric opinion that Americans are undertaxed. His solution, enhancing the authority of elites and restoring the deferential politics of Burke, would lead dialectically to a further compounding of the difficulties he wants to overcome. For example, he defends the welfare state on the ground that it fosters "neighborliness" and other such virtues (p. 135). But in a regime based on the idea of human rights-unlike Tory aristocracy with its noblesse oblige-the welfare state fragments the community even further than the ethic of self-reliance does (cf. p. 129).
The reader may well suspect that Will's conception (or misconception) of "virtue" is in tension with the egalitarian ground of liberal, representative democracy. Will's project in this book amounts to articulating another argument in support of the political and social agenda of the elites; it represents a threat to a viable, popular-based conservatism. We are relieved only by the fact that Will's elitist conservatism bans itself from any hope of success.
To be truly edifying, journalism must be more than elegant and literate. It must seek to refine the decency of the American people and not repeat the error of political pundits since the Progressive Era. It must do more than merely strive to achieve another circulation of the elites.
In attempting to reconstitute political argument in contemporary America, George F. Will provokes vigorous counterarguments from reviewers like Dennis Teti. Teti praises Will's emphasis on the importance of virtue in politics and his defense of the grandeur of the political calling. But Teti condemns Will's "Toryism," his reliance on Burke, and his preference for rule by elites as opposed to conservative populism.
It is lamentable, to be sure, that Will likes to refer to himself as a Tory. The day when Americans of any stripe should seek that label should have passed with Bunker Hill, or at least with Thomas Jefferson's suggestion, in his reply to the 16th Query in the Notes on the State of Virginia, that a Tory has been "properly defined to be a traitor in thought but not in deed." Even so, it is unfair to imply that Will is an enemy of the American Revolution. At no time, that I know of, has he suggested that America was wrong to sever its connections with Great Britain; at no time has he questioned the truth or wisdom of the central doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, he even refers to those doctrines as "great truths," regretting only that they are not easily self-evident (p. 55).
At the same time, however, it must be admitted that Will has on occasion expressed reservations about some emphases in the Declaration, reservations that are grounded on a highly imperfect understanding of the document's meaning. When Will derides the pursuit of happiness as a "sobering thought," he, like the hedonists he deplores, misconstrues the import of Jefferson's words. The pursuit of happiness is a sobering thought only to those who believe that Jefferson's idea of happiness was indistinguishable from that of say, Larry Flynt, or who believe that a Larry Flynt would be free to operate in a Republic presided over by Jefferson. Those who would make Jefferson into an intellectual father of the American Civil Liberties Union forget that the cultivation of civic virtue was a lifelong preoccupation of his, as almost any page taken at random from his voluminous writings would confirm. Having declared that men have inalienable rights, Jefferson labored ever afterward to educate his countrymen in the conditions of freedom, lest they otherwise lose what was justly theirs.
As for Will's contention that the Declaration, in its emphasis on rights, tends ultimately to produce a nation of individual men intent on declaring their independence from each other, let it be remembered that the Declaration is a pronouncedly political document. Its enumeration of rights implies a corresponding set of duties; the inalienable right to life, set forth at the beginning, is matched by a pledge of lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, at its conclusion. Had not the signers, and the men and women they represented, been willing to surmount their private concerns and unite in a common endeavor, the desire for independence would have been nothing but a vagrant hope. The
continued enjoyment of the liberties thus won is predicated upon a similar willingness to provide for the common good. An appeal to the better angels of men's nature, though never better expressed than by Lincoln, is not without its corollary in the Founding era.
Will quotes liberally from Burke, but it is unclear just how much of Burke's thought he agrees with. It is by no means certain that Will shares Burke's contempt for "theoretical" politics, for governments founded on abstract truths which, in Lincoln's
phrase, are applicable to all men at all times. Will fully accepts the distinction between the traditional and the good, and insists that, of course, the good must take precedence. Moreover, as a fervent opponent of totalitarian government, Will can have no objection to a revolution aimed at rectifying a "long train of abuses." He is wary only of revolutions aimed at laying waste to all institutions in a society, revolutions that recklessly disregard the settled convictions and predilections of a people. Such revolutions inevitably produce chaos, disorient citizens, and pave the way for more vicious tyrannies. In this respect, Will resembles the Founders themselves, who, having waged a revolution in defense of natural rights, thereupon took pains to create a system of government whose principal features were consistent not only with those rights but also with the prevailing habits, mores, interests-in short, the genius-of the American people. The Founders' labors in this regard are fully explicated in the Federalistpapers, particularly numbers 1-14, and are examined retrospectively at great length by Tocqueville.
What is distressing about Will's reliance on Burke is his inference that Burke saw the need to cultivate civic virtue, whereas none of the American Founders did. To Will, Burke's thought is a "gloriously bright but isolated flaring of a vanishing tradition" (p. 28). The thought of the Founders, in contrast, Will sees as an almost undiluted version of the most ignoble strains of modern political thought. The United States, as a liberal democracy, was "founded with explicit and exclusive reference to individual self-interestedness" (p. 31, emphasis added). Whatever classical elements are present in the American Founding, Will attributes not to the intentions of the Founders but rather their confusion.
It is a mystery why Will insists on seeing the American Founding as a base endeavor, Federalists 10 and 51, which he quotes at length, are by no means the final word on the sort of polity the Founders wished to establish. Then, too, their prescriptions are defensible on prudential grounds, so long as one recognizes that the Founders regarded the various checks and balances as auxiliary precautions: As Federalist 51 itself acknowledges, a dependence on the people (i.e., their vigilance issuing from sound character) would remain the primary control on governmental excess.
Above all, the Founders hoped to devise a system in which the virtue and self-interest of citizens would reinforce one another. Not for a minute did they believe the country could perpetuate itself in the complete absence of virtue, nor were they so naive as to create a system which could endure only if a large majority of the citizens were exceedingly virtuous. By confounding public and private interests, the Founders hoped to create, as Jefferson suggested in his First Inaugural, "the strongest government on earth." Wrote Jefferson: "I believe it is the only one where every man, at the call of the laws, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern."
In asserting that Americans would come quickly to the defense of their country, Jefferson presumed the existence of statesmen who would both alert the public to the approaching danger and delineate measures to combat it. Without statesmen to marshall public support, the nation would be ill-equipped to respond, except feebly, to crises amenable to only the boldest actions. With the interests of the people uppermost in mind, Jefferson therefore strove to foster the development of what he called the "natural aristocracy," a leadership class drawn from the ablest, as opposed to the most privileged, members of society.
By calling for rule by "elites of character," George Will merely echoes Jefferson's call for the cultivation of a ruling class; thus, to regard his proposal as contrary to the American political tradition, or adverse to the interests of the people, is highly unfair. His Tory rhetoric notwithstanding, Will is no more an advocate of a "pseudo aristocracy" based on wealth and birth than was Jefferson. Will's ideal statesman-Lincoln-is hardly emblematic of the corruption of the ancien regime. Then, too, Will's elites, like Jefferson's, would be held to account by frequent elections. Were they to stray from a reasonable course, they would, of course, be susceptible to being driven from power. Will's steadfast opposition to the sort of elites Teti objects to surely proves that he is not indifferent to the nature and composition of prevailing elites. And given that someelite must rule, Will is hardly to be faulted for preferring rule by the ablest ones.
And let us be frank: some national problems simply will not be resolved by a conservative populism. It is inescapable that leaders must on occasion be prepared to "inflict pain and get away with it," as Will puts it. The United States is currently saddled with a deficit approaching $200 billion. Barring the outbreak of an altogether unprecedented level of economic growth, it can be substantially reduced only by raising taxes or cutting government spending. A statesman attempting to pursue either course will inevitably inflict pain upon, and hence anger, sizable portions of the population. The health of the nation's economy requires, however, that he take some action; his own political future in turn requires that he be able to get away with it.
It is imprudent and, hence, unconservative to favor conservative populism over rule by elites (even if it were possible to eliminate elites). The people, though often right, have occasionally been dangerously shortsighted. It is well to remember, as Will has elsewhere noted, that the American people were slow to confront the menace of Hitler, and no sooner than they successfully had done so, they called for the immediate demobilization of America's armed forces, thus encouraging communist belligerence in the early days of the Cold War. To avert similar results in the future, American statesmen, unlike the ancient Roman tribunes, must do more than merely give vent to popular displeasure and frustration. Conservatives who insist that the people undirected are entirely reliable and that leaders need never trouble themselves asking their constituents to make sacrifices are hardly worthy of the name, and forget that the greatest statesman of the twentieth century entered office, admittedly during wartime, offering not untroubled bliss but, in the short run at least, "blood, toil, tears, and sweat."