More George Will Flip Flops

The conservative columnist accused Obama of increasing government controls over environment, but in 1986, Will sang a different tune.


Andrew Sullivan joins in on this week’s fun, flagging the latest laugher from George F. Will:

By affirming liberalism’s lodestar—the principle that government’s grasp on national resources must constantly increase—Obama made himself a spectator in a Washington more conservative than it was during the Reagan presidency.

The principle that government’s grasp on national resources must constantly increase: What liberal principle is this, exactly? Who ever espoused it?

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Regardless, there was a time when George Will would have looked down his nose at such imprecision and mindless conservative tribalism.

Here’s the more objective Will, in 1986, echoing a lecture that his beloved Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan had recently given. The column is worth quoting at length, so at odds is it with today’s Will:

Why does government grow? In August 1986, Reagan at the Illinois State Fair boasted—yes, boasted: “No area of the budget, including defense, has grown as fast as our support of agriculture.” He added that “this year alone we’ll spend more on farm support programs ... than the total amount the last administration provided in all its four years.” The farmers interrupted his 11-minute speech with applause 15 times.

As Moynihan says, growth of government is a natural, inevitable product of the political bargaining process among interest groups that favor government outlays that benefit them. This process occurs under all administrations [emphasis mine]. What is different today—so different in degree that it is different in kind—is the radical discontinuity between conservative rhetoric and results. ...

There are many facets of the modern world that explain why the civic religion of small government is unconstraining. Knowledge, says Moynihan, is a form of capital, and much of it is formed because of government interest in education. Our knowledge-based society is based on a big-government provision [emphasis mine].

Also, knowledge begets government. An “information-rich” society by its own dynamic learns about matters that make government goods and services either economically rational, as in government support for scientific agriculture, or morally mandatory, as in medicine.

Not long ago, most American workers were farmers. Today about 3 percent are, and they feed all of us and many more around the world. The most important cause of this revolution was knowledge generated and disseminated by government [emphasis mine].

The social sciences and medical science have produced knowledge that has, in turn, driven government in the direction of activism. Antipoverty programs became a moral choice only after we learned how to measure poverty. Time was, Moynihan notes, when the biggest hospital expense was clean linen. Now we have knowledge of kidney dialysis, and numerous other technologies. We can choose to keep people alive, and so we do, and it costs money.

As society’s wealth has increased, so have demands on government. There are limited amounts of clean air and water. But a “people of plenty” accept fewer limits than a society of scarcity. They make the collective purchase of environmental improvements.

I doubt I’ll be able to elicit a response from the man himself. But I challenge any conservative fan of Will’s to reckon with all this.

I will await a defense—or a retroactive excommunication from the movement of Will the Younger.