This week, George F. Will publishes a new book, The Conservative Sensibility. I have done a Q&A with him, here. His book is a blockbuster — if a book so thoughtful and learned and graceful can be called a “blockbuster” (and I think it can).
For some 45 years, Will has been a leading conservative. In my presence, Bill Buckley once greeted Will as “my leader.” That’s high praise, baby.
In this Q&A, I ask Will whether his book is a summa, a Ce que je crois, a sort of last will and testament (last Will and testament)? Yes, he says. Indeed, he thought of calling the book “Closing Argument,” but decided against, because he has a lot more writing to do.
What about the word “sensibility” in “The Conservative Sensibility”? Will means “more than an attitude and less than an agenda.” He is talking about “a way of experiencing the flux and turmoil of life and responding to it.”
For 50-plus years, WFB traveled the country, giving talks, which included questions from the audience. The most frequently asked question, he said, was “What is conservatism? What’s a conservative? Can you give me a definition?” WFB never came up with something that satisfied him.
In our podcast, George Will suggests that you start by asking, “What do conservatives want to conserve?” And the answer, he says, is the American Founding. (He is talking about American conservatives, let me stress. Conservatives elsewhere are a different story.) The Founders believed in natural rights, and, according to this belief, rights come first, government second.
The most important word in the Declaration of Independence, says Will, is “secure.” Here is a refresher (for me, as much as for anybody else): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men …”
That was in 1776. “In 2019,” says Will, “the conservative agenda, the conservative mission, is to restore the vision of the Founders by rolling back the very forthright and very successful progressive revolution against it.”
He has been thinking about these things for a long time. He began as a columnist in 1973. He started grad school in 1964 (Princeton). His dissertation is called “Beyond the Reach of Majorities: Closed Questions in the Open Society.” (The phrase “beyond the reach of majorities” comes from Justice Jackson, in the famous case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.)
In truth, however, George Will began thinking about all this before grad school, and before college — when he was growing up in central Illinois. Born in 1941, he had his formative years in the 1950s. And, in that area of the country, you were “marinated in the spirit and reality of Abraham Lincoln.” In Will’s estimation, Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics.”
More about that president in a moment.
In the course of our podcast, I ask Will about some important isms, besides conservatism: nationalism, populism, libertarianism … Here is some of what he says about populism:
It is “first of all founded in resentment, and the resentment is often a form of envy, and envy is, as the great Robert Nisbet said, really the most unpleasant of all the human vices because it’s out to injure and lower others without doing oneself any good. Someone else once said that envy is the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that doesn’t give the sinner even momentary pleasure.”
Will then says, “I’ll pause now so you can go down the list.”
Libertarianism? There is a “soft” kind and a “strict” kind, Will says. “Soft libertarianism, which I subscribe to, is simply this: Before the state interferes with the freedom of the individual, or of two or more individuals freely contracting together, the state ought to have a good reason, and to say what it is and be prepared to defend it.” A soft libertarian, says Will, is “perfectly open to good defenses of government action.”
The problem with strict libertarianism, says Will, is that it “often tiptoes perilously close to anarchy — ‘There’s no good use for the state.’ Frankly, the state is tremendously useful.” For one thing, paradoxical as it may sound, a free market is a government creation. It depends on contract law and other laws; courts and adjudication; etc. “So freedom requires the structure of government,” says Will.
In a discussion of politics in today’s America, Will says the following: “A great many people have been injured by globalization and economic dynamism, and one of the great threats to our country is what I would call The Big Flinch — that Americans will say, ‘Freedom is just too much trouble, it’s too worrisome, and it’s frightening. Therefore, we want to put up tariff barriers and all the rest and have a kind of Fortress America and not have to go through the stresses and churning and uncertainties of economic dynamism.’”
To this kind of thinking, Will has two responses. First, America has no choice — for this reason: We have promised these entitlements, and they depend on economic growth, and growth depends on openness to all the elements of dynamism. “Sorry, that’s just the way it is,” says Will.
But second, Americans, especially conservatives, “should welcome the spontaneous order of society, in Hayek’s phrase. The tremendous fecundity of a free society that America demonstrates ought to be embraced, not reluctantly, not simply because we have to have it, painful though it is, but because it’s exhilarating, and we should want to live with that permanent exhilaration.”
Above, I mentioned that American conservatives are different — or have been — from conservatives elsewhere. Here is Will on us versus the Continent: “European conservatism traces back to blood and soil, throne and altar, hierarchical societies, a conservatism that exists to preserve ancient structures and ranks in society. That is not American conservatism. American conservatism is about equipping people for, and reconciling them to, the vicissitudes of a free society, which is much more complicated, but much more gratifying.”
As we talk, I ask Will to give me some paradigmatic conservatives. He names, and explains, Burke, and touches on John Marshall, William Howard Taft (yes), and Ronald Reagan. But …
“My great conservative is Lincoln. Lincoln’s great virtue was prudence, and prudence is the signal conservative virtue … Lincoln had a polestar, namely the Declaration of Independence. He wanted to make it real in a country that had not lived up to it. But it was his incremental approach, his canny maneuvering in the terrible coming-apart of the country between 1854 and 1861, that marks him, in my judgment, as the exemplary conservative.”
In some quarters, there is nostalgia for the Confederacy, and I’m willing to bet that Will has no patience with it. Yup. “It seems to me that the Confederates tried to destroy my country … They waged an extraordinarily bloody war in behalf of the worst possible cause: the right of some human beings to own other human beings. No, I have no patience for it whatever.”
George Will has always been one of my favorite writers, and thinkers, about abortion. (Indeed, he influenced me on the subject early on, when I was figuring things out, or trying to.) I wonder whether he thinks that, in the future, people might look back on a regime of abortion-on-demand as shameful.
He says, “Is it possible that abortion will look 70 years from now the way segregated buses look today? I think it’s possible. I don’t think we will ever go back to a regime of banning abortions. I do think, however, that the technologists who have produced the wonderful sonograms and ultrasounds that have made real the abstraction of fetal life — once you see the beating heart and the moving fingers and the lips of a ten-week-old pre-born child, the argument changes.”
Will continues, “Young couples, who fancy themselves pro-choice on the abortion question, are expecting a child. They get their first sonogram, and they take the picture home and put it up on their refrigerator, and they name the coming baby ‘Ralph’ or ‘Susie’ — it changes you, it just does. You cannot any longer speak of ‘fetal material,’ and you no longer speak of abortion as ‘fetal material undergoing demise’ …”
There is much more to our conversation, but I have written enough. Again, that Q&A is here. About Will’s Conservative Sensibility, I will say what I said about Charles Krauthammer’s posthumous collection, The Point of It All: Some of us will cling to it as to guns and religion …
Let me close this post with a memory — a light one. For years, Sam Donaldson, the ABC Newsman, worked with George Will on Sunday mornings. On The Tonight Show, I heard Sam tell Johnny Carson something like this:
“For a long while, I went around saying George Will was the smartest person I knew. Then, one day, someone said to me, ‘But Sam, you disagree with him on everything. What does that say about you?’ So I stopped saying it …”