George F. Will’s The Conservative Sensibility (2019) is a gigantic book that makes a case for why American conservatives should commit to defending right-wing liberalism. It is also intended to seal up the cracks in red-state America between those committed to an older, more genteel, more libertarian conservatism and those adhering to Trump-style populism and illiberal quasi-democracy. It is easily the best defence of right-wing American liberalism in recent memory: erudite, analytically deep, powerfully literary—and much more sophisticated and engaging than other recent post-Reaganite books on similar topics. Even those who disagree with Will’s overall view can enjoy his insights and learning. Nevertheless, in both its hagiography of past glories and its proposal for a brighter future, The Conservative Sensibility is unconvincing and unappealing.
Government Is the Problem: George F. Will’s Defence of Right-Wing Liberalism
Politics is usually driven by competing worries. Today, conservatives are more radically worried than are progressives concerning conditions in America’s government and culture. Conservatives worry about the relationships they think they discern between government and culture. Progressives still express their worries in an essentially 1930s vocabulary of distributive justice understood in economic, meaning material, terms. This assumes a reassuringly mundane politics of splitable differences—how much concrete to pour, how many crops to subsidize by how much, which factions shall get what. Conservatives worry in a more contemporary vocabulary, questioning the power and ambitions of the post-New Deal state, and finding a causal connection between those ambitions and the fraying of the culture. Many of today’s conservatives believe, or say they do (their actions in office often say otherwise), that the nation needs to rethink the proper scope and actual competence of government.—George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility
Although modern conservatism is often associated with tradition and constancy, it is one of the hardest doctrines to define. Conservative parties and intellectuals have endorsed a startlingly broad range of philosophies and policies. For every Jonah Goldberg who sees the essence of conservatism as individualism, there is a Yoram Hazony or a Sohrab Ahmari who condemns individualism as the catalyst of modern social decay. Whereas Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher claimed that “government is the problem,” many other right-wingers, such as Otto von Bismarck and members of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, have pushed for the significant expansion of government-sponsored social welfare programmes. And, although many conservatives consider themselves defenders of individual liberty, Roger Scruton, in The Meaning of Conservatism, defines a conservative as someone who consciously submits to traditionally legitimated authority.
Some commentators, such as Russell Kirk, have tried to explain this heterogeneity by arguing that conservatism is a disposition or an attitude, rather than a set of principles or policies. But that explanation makes conservatism seem unprincipled and internally contradictory, and suggests that conservatives are primarily driven by motivated reasoning, prone to making any argument that enables them to reach their preferred conclusions.
Other commentators, such as T. S. Eliot and Leo Strauss, argue that conservative politics should centre on the recognition of eternally relevant principles. But this approach relies on the assumption that such principles exist, and leaves conservatives open to the suspicion that they are simply dressing up their preferences in the language of eternal principles. Will’s book largely cuts through most of this ambiguity; he simply makes his case for the kind of conservatism he finds attractive. In his view,
American conservatism has a clear mission: it is to conserve, by articulating, and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking. The price of accuracy might be confusion, but this point must be made: American conservatives are the custodians of the classical liberal tradition.
The clarity of this definition is a strength of the book, but it is also a weakness: if Will’s take on American conservatism were more even-handed, or took the history of conservatism more into account, he would not be able to ignore its competing strands or gloss over its uglier manifestations. For example, the book barely touches on Christian evangelism, Southern conservatism, segregationist populism (in the style of George Wallace), postmodern Trumpist conservatism or McCarthyite anti-communism. And fusionism and neoconservatism make only cameo appearances. Yet these movements have been crucial ingredients in the stew of American conservatism, and many still are today. Will’s book would have benefited from spending more time discussing them—and exploring the possibility that the classical liberal project he cherishes might, ironically, have helped empower them.
On the other hand, Will’s summary of classical liberalism—in the tradition of John Locke and James Madison—is generally impressive. He argues that its primary innovation was to combine a keen understanding of human nature and of the imperfectability of humankind with a doctrine of universal natural rights—a combination that remains influential and compelling to this day. According to Will, the classical liberal state’s primary duty is to “secure natural rights” through “limited government”—defined as a government that maintains a deep sense of humility about what it can accomplish, and that divides its powers among its respective branches.
The role of these branches, he says, is to cooperate with each other in order to secure the conditions necessary for the protection of natural rights and for the emergence of a market economy—and to provide a few basic services to the citizenry. He also makes the case that there would be some benefits to a federal structure that is more respectful of states’ rights than the current US system. While he acknowledges that too much emphasis on states’ rights has historically led to injustices such as the perpetuation of Jim Crow laws, he argues that, when a central government becomes too strong, and its members too ambitious and conceited—while at the same time depleted of “energy, intelligence and money”—it can become dangerous, in which case the answer may well be to strengthen localist ideals.
Will acknowledges that, for many on the left (and not a few on the right) a limited federal government may seem unappealing and even unjust. He notes that, since the early and mid-twentieth century, American progressives, including presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, have dreamed of a government that would improve society by actively managing many spheres of life (especially the economic sphere)—and that, today, many conservatives also think that government should actively manage many spheres of life—for example by helping to enforce virtuous behaviour and to preserve a unified national identity (by limiting ethnic heterogeneity through nativist policies). And he argues that the left and the far right have something else in common as well: the conceit that political power can be exercised by the well-meaning to perfect humanity. Both groups adhere to anti-modern doctrines—and both are committed to what libertarians call collectivism, which holds that the government has a right to violate individuals’ natural rights or take their property in order to serve the interests of the government or of a sufficient majority of the people.
Will asserts that both groups’ ideas about human nature are misguided. He argues that it was the American Founders’ genius to recognize that nothing straight could be forced out of the crooked timber of humanity—and that this recognition inspired them to create a republic with limited power, where individuals were left to pursue their visions of the good life in their own ways: to rise or fall depending on their merits and efforts.
Idealising the Founders of the United States
Will tends to see himself as unsentimentally recognizing human nature for what it is, and yet he clearly sentimentalizes his heroes. For example, he argues that the Founders are the most admirable men in history, even though most of them were slaveholders. He dismisses contemporary historians’ focus on their moral failings, rather than acknowledging that this focus gives us a more realistic portrait of the world. After all, history is made by human beings collectively and impacts different people in different ways. And focusing on the influence of the masses is an ordinary part of historiography, long appreciated by writers (such as Tolstoy), philosophers (such as Hegel) and historians (such as Eric Hobsbawm). Those who have a large impact on history only have it because others decide to follow and work with them. For example, thousands of people fought for the principles that the Founders articulated—and many, unlike the Founders, were killed in furtherance of that effort. Attention to the importance of those thousands and their experiences is overdue.
For Will to persuade readers otherwise, he would need to marshal hard evidence, rather than simply complaining that focusing on the bigger picture leads us to devalue his heroes. Perhaps the reason that he wants us to idealise the American Founders—and those who inspired them, such as John Locke—is that he hopes this will lead us to admire his own preferred politics. He would have done better to acknowledge that, even in the eighteenth century, it was hypocritical for the Founders to declare that liberty for all is a natural right, while most of them were slaveholders. Frederick Douglass captures this hypocrisy well in his classic 1852 piece, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisies—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Despite Will’s idealization of the Founders, he does not shirk from the problems that this part of American history poses to his outlook, and, unlike many other conservative commentators, he doesn’t try to downplay the effects that centuries of racial oppression have had. He acknowledges that many people in the United States today are negatively impacted by the legacy of racism and other forms of prejudice, he praises the civil rights movement for its activism on that front and even suggests that more needs to be done. However, he seems ambivalent about what “more” should be done: he implies that the federal government might have a role to play in ameliorating the impact of ongoing racism and inequality, but castigates progressives for enacting ameliorative programmes, arguing that they have resulted in many able-bodied adults becoming, in effect, wards of the state. His ambivalence reflects a deeper philosophical tension within his work as a whole.
The Problem with the Idea of Natural Rights
One of the weaknesses of Will’s book is that, while he defends the doctrine of natural rights on the grounds that it flows from Locke’s correct discernment of human nature, he neither describes Locke’s account of human nature in sufficient depth, nor addresses the many criticisms of it that have been raised over the centuries—from even such generally sympathetic commentators as Immanuel Kant. This is a serious problem: if Locke’s view of human nature is false, it can’t support his argument for natural rights. And even if Locke’s view is correct (which I don’t think it is), it is still necessary to show how the theory of natural rights flows from that view.
To start with, there is the basic problem that one cannot simply infer the existence of human rights from the facts of human nature—to do so would be to rely on the naturalistic fallacy (that because something is, therefore it ought to be.) But beyond that, Locke’s reasoning about natural rights includes some speculative leaps. For example, one of Locke’s natural rights is the right to own property. But, as Kant famously pointed out, a property right can emerge only in a civic context, in which a community has reached a consensus—that possessing or creating an object confers a right to its exclusive control; that everyone must respect that right or face punishment; that the community has a right to use coercion to enforce that property right; and that the community is willing to use that coercion to enforce that right. On Kant’s reading, what Locke calls a natural right to property, flowing from human nature, is instead very much a project of statist artifice.
Will also seems unsure how to reconcile his commitment to a market-based economy that operates without government interference with the fact that social systems tend to unfairly discriminate against or disadvantage some people. One of the selling points of Locke’s viewpoint is its premise that, if people have equal opportunity under the law, they can become wealthy and influential through their own efforts, and that they can freely will how much effort to make. If this premise is true, then unequal outcomes are not unjust (because they are effectively chosen by the individual); collectivist policies are misguided; people who become wealthy and influential through their own efforts are to be admired; and those who are poor have no one to blame but themselves. Thus, accepting Locke’s premise leads to admiration of wealthy and powerful individuals and disdain for the less successful. (Ironically, by contrast, aristocracies arguably confer more dignity on the poor, since poverty is regarded as a natural state and—from a religious point of view—may even be considered a noble one.) The internalization of these sentiments of disdain and failure, and the resentments they breed, explain a great deal more about the shrill nature of today’s politics than Will might be comfortable with.
Although Will has been very critical of Trump, and has seen Trumpism as a break with conservatism, Trump’s view of society as consisting of a few winners and many losers is a cultural extension of Locke’s ideology, self-contradictions and all. Many increasingly see the state as primarily promoting the interests of the propertied, much as Locke thought it should. Some would prefer a smaller state—but not always. When the wealthy and large corporations can exploit state power for their benefit, they will undoubtedly do so, since they are committed to their own interests, not to Adam Smith’s philosophy. As C. B. Macpherson rightly observes in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: “it is not a question of the more individualism, the less collectivism; rather the more thoroughgoing the individualism, the more complete the collectivism.” The more expansive a conception of property rights you want to enforce, and the higher the inequalities that result, the more expansive a state you will wind up getting.
Locke’s premise that, given equal opportunity, anyone can become wealthy by freely choosing to make enough effort, is simply false. In reality, no one makes it on her own. At times, Will seems to acknowledge this, albeit uncomfortably. Just as property rights don’t exist without a government to enforce them, so too we are all dependent on social institutions and cultural practices to help us develop our natural talents. And we cannot create anything that the public thinks is worth buying without the cooperative hard work of creative forebears, current supervisors, colleagues and employees. Furthermore, even with all that support, many of us can be held back through circumstances beyond our control, such as invidious prejudice (for example, racism, misogyny or homophobia), ill health or just plain bad luck.
When you consider all the external influences that enable or constrain success or failure, an individual’s own contribution stops looking heroic and starts looking more like the outcome of a complex, unpredictable and not fully controllable set of social and personal conditions. For that reason, I think it is long past time we abandon the self-flattering conceits of Lockean possessive individualism—with its proto-Romantic view of heroic individuals who rise above the morass through their own efforts. We should instead embrace the more sobering Tolstoyan view that our life outcomes are interdependent and somewhat arbitrary. This view invites us to embrace a Rawlsian politics that focuses on enabling human flourishing—and to avoid being distracted by questions about who is deserving, who is undeserving—who should be idolized, and who despised.
All that being said, Will has nevertheless written easily the best contemporary defence of right-wing American liberalism that I’ve encountered. Even though it runs to nearly 600 pages, the time I spent reading it seemed to fly by. I spent many happy hours debating his ideas—and thoroughly enjoyed his prose. I still disagree with him deeply—but the political right would be better off with more people like George F. Will.