That was the sound of a conservative icon's body of work going up in flames.
In his latest column, a positive notice of a book about a key 1905 Supreme Court case on economic rights, George F. Will writes this: "Since the New Deal, courts have stopped defending liberty of contract and other unenumerated rights grounded in America's natural rights tradition."
"What's the big deal?" you may ask. Isn't this just a standard conservative defense of individual rights in the economic sphere?
It is—and that's the problem.
Pardon the tediousness of this subject matter, but I think it's deeply relevant to what I consider the degraded state of our politics right now. It is the fault line of the most pressing questions of political economy. [Read Rick Newman: 5 Economically Illiterate Campaign Themes]
The thing is, George Will didn't used to talk this way. Indeed, he pretty much defined his philosophical identity, his brand of Burkean conservatism, as distinct from and much older than post-Hobbes modernism. The central divide, for the young Will, was not that between "liberal" and "conservative;" it was between ancient and modern.
And by "modern," Will meant not just what we today call "liberalism," that is, left-of-center progressivism; he meant "classical" or "market" liberalism, which wrongheadedly elevated the economic rights of the individual just as destructively (meaning at civil society's expense) as those who championed moral and social permissiveness.
In his 1983 book Statecraft and Soulcraft, Will devoted a chapter to the roots of modernism, which he characterized gravely as "The Defect." The defect was the negative definition of politics: "an enterprise for drawing a protective circle around the individual's sphere of self-interested action."
The defect, Will suggested, permeated even our quasi-sacred constitutional text. Natural law theory, which profoundly influenced the Founders, reduced statecraft to the management of barbarian appetites. It severed political philosophy from its highest Aristotetalian aim, which was to improve the soul and guide the pursuit the public good.
The genius of Madisonian checks and balances, in Will's clever phraseology, was to "use the problem to resolve the problem." It works, but at the long-term price of social cohesion.
Modern liberals reduced politics to the mere relief of pain. In the process, they teach citizens to "blame all social shortcomings on the agency of collective considerations, the government." [Read: Obama Jobs Plan Unlikely to Create Many]
No better were the party Will called "ideological capitalists." "[A] capitalistic economic system, with all the institutions, laws, regulations, dispositions, habits, and skills that make it work, is not part of the constitution of the universe," he wrote. "It does not spring up from the social soil unbidden, like prairie grass. It requires an educational system, banking and currency systems, highly developed laws of commerce and much more."
Provocatively, Will asserted that the doctrine of laissez-faire is an imposition of values; it is no more "neutral" than the pro-abortion activism that led to the jurisprudential monstrosity Roe v. Wade. Will mocked John D. Rockefeller's statement before Congress that "the good Lord gave me my money." Government is a "major investor" in social competence and human capital; it has an undeniable role in the "generation of wealth." And conservatives would betray their roots if they shrank from the social consequences of capitalist dynamism, as it was "two conservatives (Disraeli and Bismarck)" who "pioneered the welfare state, and did so for impeccably conservative reasons: to reconcile the masses to the vicissitudes and hazards of a dynamic and hierarchical industrial economy." [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]
Why should we care what George Will wrote some 30 years ago?
The answer is, he's a highly influential and widely-read public intellectual. It seems clear to me that, over the course of years, he's changed his mind on these matters. But he neglected to explain why to his readers.
It's about time he did.