Yearning for the Old, Sane George Will

George Will once supported big government conservatism.

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Just great.

Legendary conservative columnist George F. Will has declared that libertarians are winning the argument about "what should be the nature of the American regime." That's because "government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous."

Actually, while he doesn't explicitly embrace libertarianism here, Will's heavy petting with it has rendered him ludicrous. It's a repudiation of pretty much everything Will once stood for as a young Burkean/Oxford Movement/strong-government Tory-minded conservative

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.].

Prove it, you ask?

Just let the old—I mean young—George do the talking:

From his masterful, full-length argument against Manchester liberalism, Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983):

Common sense, reason and history, all teach that "strong government conservatism" is not a contradiction in terms. My support for popular sovereignty stops short of passively accepting the common usage of the word "conservative" that obscures—indeed, turns inside out—the real nature of conservatism. I will do many things for my country, but I will not pretend that the careers of, say, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences. Reagan's fierce and ideological liberalism of the Manchester school and F.D.R.'s mild and improvised social-democratic program are both honorable persuasions. But they should not march under borrowed banners. They are versions of the basic program of the liberal-democratic political impulse that was born with Machiavelli and Hobbes.

(In a series of friendly jousts with Jonah Goldberg, I made a similar argument about the common roots of progressivism and the kind of libertarian conservatism Will criticizes here.)

Ridiculing supply-side economic theory, in The New Season Soulcraft: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election:

The "new" or "real" Republicans often call themselves supply-siders. Their argument is, at a certain level of generality, indisputable, but jejune... In pristine form, the supply-side argument combines an untoppable promise (a self-financing tax cut) with an ironclad alibi if the promise does not always pan out (always blame the Fed first). If tax cuts are followed by exploding deficits, the Federal Reserve Board can be blamed for not producing a "sufficient" expansion of the money supply. Sufficiency is, by definition, whatever "permits" growth sufficient enough to eliminate deficits...

And never mind that while Reagan has been presiding over the production of more than half of this nation's federal debt, he has not found much to veto on budgeting grounds. This is because Congress has spent about what he has requested. And Congress has enacted only as many balanced budgets as he has submitted.

From a 1975 column praising the Earl of Shaftesbury and defending the existence of the welfare state:

Shaftesbury was one of those Tories—the young Disraeli was another—who were early and vigorous in fighting, for impeccable, conservative reasons, the rawest abuses of the early industrial system. He understood that conservatism is about the conservation of certain values and these values have social prerequisites. He believed that nothing is more subversive of a nation than the existence of a permanent underclass, blocked from upward mobility, and brutalized by conditions destructive of institutions like the family and values like gentleness and lawfulness that are, conservatives know, mainstays of civilization...

Attention paid to Shaftesbury's career might give some American conservatives a quickened interest in the problem of poverty, and in improving—which does not necessarily mean just pruning—the welfare system.

From a 1983 column defending sobriety checkpoints in suburban Maryland over the objections of civil libertarians:

[A]ll government takes place on a slippery slope. Anything can be imagined carried to unreasonable lengths. That is why the most important four words in politics are: up to a point... Sensible government is impossible when the citizenry succumbs to the corrosive suspicion that governors are incapable of reasonable distinctions. It is mindless to insist that any practice that conceivably could be carried to extremes is, for that reason, intolerable even when carefully circumscribed.

From a 1990 column arguing in favor of Hamiltonian, internal-improvements activism:

A crimson thread of consistency connects Lincoln's passion for internal improvements with his later mission of binding the nation together as a land of opportunity. The 9th Republican president, in his exuberance, understood the value of infrastructure abroad: Teddy Roosevelt built the Panama Canal.

Transportation and other infrastructure issues should bring about a strong Hamiltonian streak in American conservatives who too often talk the anachronistic language of Jeffersonian small-government sentimentality, of nostalgia for another America. In the debate now beginning about transportation policy, we shall see if the 18th Republican president is the kind of conservative who understands the need to spend in order to conserve and enlarge the nation's sinews.

From a 1981 column castigating conservatives for employing the same slack populist nonsense they often spout today:

Eisenhower's conservatism ended the conservatives' pretense that the New Deal's steps toward a welfare state were steps along "the road to serfdom," and reversible. Eisenhower knew those steps reflected realities common to all developed nations—broad acceptance of the ethic of common provision, and the majority's desire to purchase things, such as certain pension and health services, collectively...

The problem is not "bigness," it is unreasonable intrusiveness, which is a function of (bad) policy, not size. Besides, inveighing against big government ignores the fact that government is about as small as it ever will be, and obscures the fact that government, though big, is often too weak.

Many conservatives insist that America's great problem is just that government is so strong it is stifling freedom. These people call themselves "libertarian conservatives"—a label a bit like "promiscuous celibates." Real conservatism requires strong government.

I could go on and on. (A Will buff, I have two bookshelves groaning with this stuff.) I won't quite go so far as to say that this version of George Will might have agreed with Paul Krugman that Barack Obama is a "moderate conservative"—but I could.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

In the meantime, have fun slumming with the promiscuous celibates, George.