The Conservative of Convenience

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Gottfried-ConSensibility-02_102019

In a Washington Post review of George F. Will’s The Conservative Sensibility, Catholic political thinker Patrick Deneen offers the following observation: This book is not so much a brief for conservatism as it is a learned and lengthy defense of liberalism: the philosophy of John Locke and America’s Founding Fathers; the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman; and the theological skepticism of Lucretius and Charles Darwin. His is a rousing defense of a distinctly American form of “conservatism,” one that embraces a political, social, and economic system that encourages novelty, dynamism, and constant, unpredictable change. Thus, American conservatism—or classical liberalism—Will acknowledges, does not, and does not wish to, conserve very much.

Deneen is to be commended for having extracted from Will’s latest book a core philosophy. Unlike him, I couldn’t find in that sprawling text any such coherent teaching, though I did encounter lots of recollections about what influential people in Washington told Will, together with his not-very-original thoughts about Locke, Hayek, Darwin, and other thinkers who make guest appearances in Conservative Sensibility. From this work of more than 600 pages, it would seem Will considers himself a “conservative,” although it’s open to question what he means by that term.

Toward the end of his book, he devotes about 10 pages to what “conservatives” believe but does not explain why their beliefs are what he says they are. Apparently “conservatives” believe in “restraint” when they interpret the Constitution but “are implacably hostile to the idea that human nature has a history.” Moreover, the same folks are hostile to the notion that we are shaped by history:

because that idea is subversive of government based on respect for natural rights. If human nature has a history, then there really is no such thing as human nature, understood as something the essence of which is unchanging.

Will is not really putting down what he seems to be criticizing. Believing the opposite of that view, according to him, would be even more dangerous since “modern tyrannies” are animated by the idea “that human nature has a history” and “that human beings have only a malleable nature shaped by their time and place.”

Contrary to Will’s assertions, authentic conservatives here and in Europe have always believed in both a constant human nature and historical rights. These are positions drawn from Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Richard Weaver, and other conservative authorities who were taken seriously in the conservative movement—at least until Will’s neoconservative companions took over that movement 30 years ago. Not surprisingly, he cites Irving Kristol in order to help us understand the conservative worldview.

Will also ignores that there is no easy fit between human or natural rights concepts and what philosophy before the early modern period understood as human nature. The fact that humans show a constant nature does not mean that each individual is born with Lockean rights to life, liberty, and property. Although one may be able to demonstrate a connection between these two positions, Will has no interest in pursuing that philosophical task.

Conservative Sensibility includes discussions of bestselling nonfiction together with subdued praise for Hayek and Friedman, appreciative references to Clarence Thomas, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and what for me were some remarkably sensible comments about Nazi brutality. Here Will cites Christopher Browning’s rebuttal of Daniel Goldhagen’s contention that German Christians happily supported Nazi genocide because of centuries of instilled anti-Semitic prejudice. Browning pointed out that modern genocides have not required centuries of educational and cultural preparation. As in Cambodia, they happen because of modern totalitarian regimes.

Will enjoys several professional advantages as a Washington insider for many decades, including a longtime connection to National Review, a onetime close relationship to Bea and Irving Kristol, and regular appearances as the authorized conservative mouthpiece on network TV and in The Washington Post. These credentials should indicate Will’s fitness to represent what the media approve of as “conservative.”

A longtime columnist, Will has also displayed a genius for triangulation, a useful skill that has come to determine conservative success in the media. Will usually offers a whiff of something that a GOP audience might enjoy savoring. For example, in this book, he references American exceptionalism, praises Thomas’s attempt to bring commissions and agencies that are technically subordinate to Congress under responsible control, and favorably references a capitalist welfare state. But these gestures are balanced against Will’s equally calculated tilts toward the left, such as extolling the civil rights revolution, the New Deal, and American social progress. To his credit and my surprise, Will does keep his extravagant attacks on President Trump during and after the last presidential campaign out of this volume.

Despite his appearance of stuffy aloofness, Will has been remarkably flexible in going with the media flow. In his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, the then-incipient neoconservative held up Aristotle, Burke, and Otto von Bismarck as the forerunners of a “conservative welfare state.” From a feature piece for National Review done for this year’s Fourth of July, it would appear that Will has “grown.” Here he characterizes Martin Luther King, Jr., as America’s “final Founder,” after explaining that the American Constitution, properly understood, has to be interpreted through the “All men are created equal” passage in the Declaration of Independence. D’autres temps, d’autres moeurs, as the French say, and as American conservatives take as their guiding principle. After all, for celebrity conservatives like Will, resisting the march toward the left could have dire consequences—such as falling off the gravy train.

Far from being the “rousing defense” that Deneen too-generously calls it, Conservative Sensibility reads like a potboiler. It seems to have been stitched together out of book sketches and random perceptions; it may even be possible that the rumor I’ve heard—that Will’s assistants put this book together for him—might be true. Some of the discussions look antiquated, e.g., Moynihan’s analysis of the disintegration of the black family that goes back to the 1960s, and comments on Charles Darwin that feel lifted from Gertrude Himmelfarb’s biography of the father of evolutionary theory. Shades of columns past haunt this volume. The question that occurred to me as I trudged through this tome is whether it would have been published if a lesser celebrity produced it, with or without assiduous assistants. What would have happened if an obscure professor at a small college had submitted this massive, rambling text to a major commercial press? Should we guess?

Lest we end without saying something nice about the book discussed, let me note two merits it undoubtedly possesses. The work is carefully written and well-edited. Will’s helpers and/or Hachette Books’ employees deserve high grades for this achievement. Even more important, there is little in this book, including the references to Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa on page 13, which need cause indigestion to an independent-minded member of the right. Will’s latest book is remarkably free of cloying overtures to neoconservatives and the left, a practice that he has presented elsewhere as expressive of his “conservatism.” Although Conservative Sensibility is neither particularly edifying nor fun to read, it contains, as far as I can tell, no glaring factual errors. Finally, I would recommend this “rousing” work to insomniacs who have tried other means to deal with their problem. 

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