Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

George Will joins the party

In his characteristically elegant and incisive way, Will limns the differences between liberals and conservatives. Here’s the core of his argument:

Steadily enlarging dependence on government accords with liberalism’s ethic of common provision, and with the liberal party’s interest in pleasing its most powerful faction -- public employees and their unions. Conservatism’s rejoinder should be that the argument about whether there ought to be a welfare state is over. Today’s proper debate is about the modalities by which entitlements are delivered. Modalities matter, because some encourage and others discourage attributes and attitudes -- a future orientation, self-reliance, individual responsibility for healthy living -- that are essential for dignified living in an economically vibrant society that a welfare state, ravenous for revenue in an aging society, requires.

Social issues, he says, should be left to "moral federalism," and in international affairs, conservatives should [eschew]... the fatal conceit that has been liberalism’s undoing domestically -- hubris about controlling what cannot, and should not, be controlled."

One question I would pose to him concerns whether he thinks we have a "civil society" sufficiently healthy to cultivate and sustain the attitudes necessary for "dignified living in an economically vibrant society." Connected with that is another question: to what degree does the "economically vibrant society" undermine some of the attitudes necessary for its own sustenance? Some conservatives aren’t necessarily as willing to embrace and celebrate the market as GFW is.

Discussions - 11 Comments

Yea, well, so he's a quasi-Libertarian. Tell me something I didn't know.

to what degree does the "economically vibrant society" undermine some of the attitudes necessary for its own sustenance?

That's a question that neither liberals nor conservatives have satisfactorily answered, and that should engage all sides.

"Conservatism’s rejoinder should be that the argument about whether there ought to be a welfare state is over. Today’s proper debate is about the modalities by which entitlements are delivered."



This kind of stuff drives me absolutely insane. So in other words conservatives should just declare defeat. There is a difference between accepting something as a reality that is not likely to change anytime soon, and conceding its legitimacy. A conservative can arguably do the former. They should never do the later.

to what degree does the "economically vibrant society" undermine some of the attitudes necessary for its own sustenance?



That's a question that neither liberals nor conservatives have satisfactorily answered, and that should engage all sides.



The Agrarians answered it emphatically "no." As did the Belloc style distributionists. As did arguably the Catholic Church. I tend to agree for reasons closest to the Agrarians. The question is what to do about it.

Again, John, your answers are stereotypically libertarian. Everything is always government's fault.

Nonsense. Sure, the government has undermined some aspects of civil society, but it has done so in the name of CIVIL RIGHTS. Can't have religion in public spaces...civil rights. Can't employ who you want to...civil rights. Can't have exclusive clubs/convenants...civil rights. Can't use your land the way you want to...civil rights.

When will libertarians understand that they hold self-contradicting tenets? Their radically-individualistic worldview REQUIRES state activism, and yet they condemn such activism as impigning on individual rights. Yea, it does, but such rights aren't even possible without the apparatus of government...and we aren't talking minimalist government here, but large, activist government.

"Again, John,..."



dain, who are you addressing?

John (Moser) must have erased his post on how government was eroding civil society. Odd...his comment was a bit "from the hip," but not an "erasable moment," I wouldn't think.

Two responses to the "moral federalism" point. First, the federal government is too big for this to be applied consistently. There is a Department of Education, and it ain't going away. Likewise with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and federal aid to universities. Social issues come up in all these areas. Conservatives can advocate an end to federal involvement in these areas, but until it happens, they must also advocate a moral approach -- one that's either socially conservative or socially liberal. The same applies to the U.S. military. My second beef with Will's recommendation is that it won't work for lower levels of government. Will concedes, rightly, that states and communities can legislate on moral matters. What would he recommend to conservative candidates who are running for state and local offices?

Let me remind everyone that George Will is the author of THE PURSUIT OF VIRTUE AND OTHER TORY NOTIONS and STATECRAFT AS SOULCRAFT. While he is less openly "Tory" these days, he still has an acute sense of the myriad ways in which politics shapes human character for good or for ill. He is thus no libertarian. But his no doubt sincere endorsement of "moral federalism" has gone hand in hand with a growing latitudinarianism about questions that really are a matter of moral first principles. The Will of old was, for example, a eloquent and forceful critic of abortion on demand.
He now has no time of day for those preoccupied with "social issues" that make one less than respectable within the confines of polite Washington society.

Thanks, Dan, for making much more effectively the point about Will that I would have made. There's still a little soulcraft and less Tory virtue left, but not nearly as much as there once was. What's left is basically "the responsibility society," which owes as much to Locke as to anyone else.

Well said, Dan, well seconded, Joe. We probably should point in the direction of Will's less-than-honorable private life to get some purchase on reasons for the shift/shrinking of moral concern. On the other hand, isn't it somewhat understandable that someon who had too high a notion of what politics can do might be setting himself up for a fall and a swinging to an opposite (albeit mildly so) extreme? As Peter says: discuss.

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