If there is anyone on Earth who can rationally explain the conservative movement in the USA, it is George Will. Highly principled, extraordinarily erudite and calmly eloquent, Will has taken on this job/love in The Conservative Sensibility. There is an enormous amount of thought and analysis here. Will deconstructs sentences, picks out individual words for scrutiny, and when necessary, looks at greater context. Numerous paragraphs revolve around a single word from something someone said or wrote. In some ways, it resembles the universe; both barely perceptible particles and also gigantic conceptions. Will loves things and people to be properly organized and labeled. Every player in the book seems to have his or (rarely) her label, mostly progressive (bad) or conservative (good). Liberal swings both ways and needs further elaboration. It is a monumental work if only because it keeps the reader’s interest for 500 pages.
The central point of it all is that the Founders decided there were a number of natural rights that needed embedding in the Constitution. Government was to be forever inferior to individual rights. And if we today could only appreciate that they already understood everything back then, and if we would simply stick with them, it would be a happier, wealthier, better country. His thoughts on it cover most everything: religion, speech, education, the universe, capitalism, the New Deal, the Great Society, war and imperialism, even briefly touching on race.
In the red corner, Will has (Founder) James Madison; in the blue corner, Woodrow Wilson. For Will, Wilson was the first Progressive corruption of Madison’s pure thoughts on liberty and government. But Woodrow Wilson was a garden variety racist, whose first book studied the governments of the Aryan races, of which there were none. He does not represent anyone’s views, and his actions are suspect.
Nonetheless, Will scores lots of points. The Constitution does not list what government will do for you, but what it cannot do to you, he points out. He cites Randy Barnett, a Constitutional lawyer, that there are two Constitutions, the Democratic Constitution and the Republican Constitution. The Democrat thinks “We the people” means government comes before individual rights and the Republican puts individual rights before government, despite the “we”. It’s a constant battle. Will enjoys the jousting: “Americans who find perpetual arguing stressful or otherwise unsatisfying should find another country,” he says in the lightest moment in the book.
But then the fault lines start cracking open. Without recognizing the irony, Will states bluntly that the most destructive social problem facing the USA is the disintegration of the family. “No one understands what opaque tangle of factors has caused this,” he claims. He says in the 1950s, 4% were born out of wedlock, while today 40% are - and no one knows why. Similarly, no one has any solutions. This is the only thing Will says he is unsure of, and he repeats it. The irony comes when he acknowledges it even applies to black families, which have long suffered this way.
In a word: poverty. Over and over, endlessly, poverty, both absolute and relative has been shown to reduce brain function, language manipulation, school achievements, parenting and family values. There is far more involvement with the justice system, and more family breakups. It’s what blacks have suffered since the Civil War. But Will insists no one knows. He even cites studies that show it clearly and unambiguously, but he uses them instead to show that public (government) schools don’t fix the problem. Precarity plays no role. Discrimination plays no role. Personal debt plays no role.
This is so absurd as to be laughable. The precarity of the workforce leads to less marriage, fewer homes purchased, and more abandonment. That working class kids graduate school in massive debt sets the stage. That 40% of jobs are minimum wage or less, with no job security or benefits cements it in place. That 30% of car payments are 90 days late raises tensions. Individual natural rights are meaningless in resolving these issues or creating any level of satisfaction, let alone the pursuit of happiness. Will shows himself such an elitist he cannot place himself in anyone’s shoes who is not a multimillionaire. It remains a mystery.
On racism, he says “America then was often barbaric. It is not anymore. “ He completely ignores the hundreds of blacks killed for no reason by both police and civilians, and used as slave labor in prisons for the crime of being unable to make bail on trivial crimes whites don’t get nailed for. He glowingly cites Founder John Adams claiming America was “not a conquered, but a discovered country,” totally ignoring the fifty million natives who lived there.
There follows an insane analysis of income taxes that is totally divorced from reality. Will says the reason the poor don’t save money is that they pay no tax. It discourages them from saving. Overbearing government is the reason we need taxes; government is in competition with the rich for wealth, so it raises taxes. Government actually wants to supplant markets for itself. Progressive taxation, like free public education, has wormed its way into the economy and become accepted, when it is clearly distorting natural rights in the Constitution. The poor and middle classes are jealous of the rich, and that drives the imposition of progressive taxation. The experts he quotes validate these positions with sarcasm. It is the absolutely typical irrational American hatred of the poor on display.
From there, Will decides that racist idiotic Supreme Court decisions somehow represent the will of the tyrannical progressive majority, while fair decisions represent Republican values. The conservative sensibility unravels.
He spends a lot of time on human nature, arguing that if human nature were mutable, society would collapse and government would be impossible. But it won’t change, ever. That is why these natural rights are forever needed and sacrosanct. On the other hand, it is precisely because human nature is unchanging that we need regulation to control its excesses. But Will doesn’t admit to that.
On education, he says we are too forward looking. We need to look backward, starting right at birth, inculcating the history of the USA and its enumerated Constitutional rights. For higher education, he says we need to teach three things: “how to praise“ (and that most things are not praiseworthy), “a lively sense of historical contingencies,” and a “talent for pessimism.” Pessimism, it transpires, is the mark of a true conservative, who lives in lifelong fear his rights are disappearing, if only because nothing lasts forever. “Most new ideas are false; hence most ‘improvements’ make things worse,” is his mantra.
He decries multiculturalism in universities. He hates that everything has become interpretation and facts have become fungible. Well guess what: that is a function of the free market. If there is demand for feminist studies, or for black studies, the market will force the sellers of those services to adapt or be bypassed. When the student is the customer, focusing on the constitutional history of the USA loses its domination. Be careful what you wish for.
He keeps coming back to trust in government, that Americans used to appreciate and trust government. Since the Reagan era, that trust has steadily eroded to where it is at its lowest point, and is still falling. Will attributes this to the ever-growing size of government, and how Americans hate that. But it’s not true at all. What Americans hate is that government doesn’t work, because lawmakers keep chopping funding, making mandated functions impossible. Crippling lawful programs and agencies cannot possibly result in higher public satisfaction. It has nothing to do with progressives; it is intellectual dishonesty. This is straight out of the Republican playbook. First, lower taxes. Second, run a huge deficit because of smaller receipts. Third, cut back programs so the deficit isn’t as unwieldy. Fourth, repeat. “Conservatives hunt for a governmental cause for every problem,“ he cites journalist Jonathan Rauch saying.
He also harps on majority rule. He says in modern democracies, where majorities rule…. But nowhere does the majority rule. If it did, the USA would not keep starting new wars. Tax cuts would not go to the rich, healthcare would be a right, not a privilege of the rich. Legislatures would not pass laws the electorate despises.
He uses the large OECD figure of American men 25-54 outside the labor force (ahead only of Italy in last place) to show that government spending has made American men lazy. But, he acknowledges, all the other OECD countries are far more progressive and interventionist than the USA, with more male participation. So what has he proven?
The conservative sensibility that Will espouses is black or white. There is no gray. If you don’t like his stance, you are for overbearing government and against the Constitution. There’s no wiggle room for those who disagree. It is either natural rights or tyrannical majority rule. There is no possibility, say, of having health benefits or preferring that the country stop trying to spread democracy by war, while also believing in individual rights.
Stunningly absent is any discussion of the 2nd amendment in the Bill of Rights. Gun-lovers say it is their God-given Constitutional right. But not a word from George Will. And nothing on the Trump administration.
The Conservative Sensibility is a wonderful challenge to read, but it’s camouflage for faulty reasoning.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
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