Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, by George Will. Simon and Schuster. 186 pp.

statecraft as soulcraftSuffused with the thoughts of Burke and Tocqueville, George Will’s slim book is an exhortation demanding political views imaginative and humane. Hobbes and Locke, self-interest and individualism are abhorred by Will; he advocates “conservatism with a kindly face.”

“Liberal democratic societies are ill founded,” Will tells us. The assumptions of the Founding Fathers—or some of those assumptions—will not suffice for our age. By nature, the state is a moral agency; but the doctrine of self-interest, extended from economics to politics, enfeebles us as a people. What we require in our present confused hour is Aristotle’s society of diffused friendship, moved by the moral imagination.

Government, necessary to human existence, should be regarded as a protector, not as an adversary. (Here, Will might have done well to distinguish more clearly between the state, which is permanent, and governments, which are temporary. In Burke’s definition, the state is ordained by divine intent, but governments are creations of human wisdom to supply human wants.) He soundly drubs anarchistic libertarians and all those who fancy that the art of politics is a mere exercise in economics. He is no less wrathful with latter-day liberals:

The fundamental goal of modern liberalism has been equality, and it has given us government that believes in the moral equality of appetites. The result is a government that is big but not strong; fat but flabby; capable of giving but not leading. It is invertebrate government, a servile state that is part cause and part consequence of the degradation of the democratic dogma.

Government’s concern for virtue has been contracting while government’s material activity has been expanding. Will would have us develop a “conservative doctrine of the welfare state”—which state would work for the moral improvement of its citizens, as well as for their creature comforts. The economic policies of any government, including the present administration in the United States, necessarily produces social alterations: Will aspires to a government that will work deliberately, through macroeconomics, to increase the common good in ways that are not merely economic.

It would be helpful if Will had given us a new term to describe the beneficent polity he has in mind. In America, “welfare state” implies a bureaucracy feeding a proletariat; in Britain, it means the postwar creation of Lord Beveridge with its present economic and social distresses. Might “the humane state,” with Wilhelm Roepke’s “humane economy,” be a useful label?

In its emphasis upon a moral order, Statecraft as Soulcraft is akin to T. S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, and in its high disdain for the practical political objectives and the practical politicians of the 20th century, too. Yet, Will mentions Christian doctrine only incidentally. In Christian teaching, it is the church, not the state, which works upon consciences.

Will, recognizing this, remarks that: “The emergence of the Christian Church, which asserted custody over the inner life of Western man, set the stage for the abdication of state responsibility in that sphere.” The state’s abdication of moral authority became total in the 18th century, he continues. Then would Will have us create a kind of Platonic polis of a quarter of a billion people with a civil religion? Presumably not. Actually, his argument about the moral responsibility of the state is meant to remind us of the consequences to society of removing all political restraints upon private license.

“A particular institution charged with the routinized planning of virtue, the way the Federal Highway Administration plans highways, would be ominous and would deserve the ridicule it would receive,” Will writes. Rather, he keeps in mind Burke’s admonition that among the true rights of men in civilized society is the right to be restrained from the consequences of their own passions. There is such a thing as a “licentious toleration.” And (quoting Burke, not Will) “Men of intemperate mind never can be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

How Will expects men of high moral insight to rise to general political authority in this land, he does not instruct us. T. S. Eliot could look in Britain to a church, by law established, and a surviving class of “presumptive virtue;” in this land, a church establishment is forbidden and any element of aristocracy is vestigial.

Will’s chapters being his Godkin Lectures at Harvard, there come to this reviewer’s mind some sentences of E. L. Godkin’s Problems of Modern Democracy (1898):

The state has lost completely, in the eyes of the multitude, the moral and intellectual authority it once possessed. It does not any longer represent God on earth. In democratic countries it represents the party which secured most votes at the last election, and is, in many cases, administered by men whom no one would make guardians of his children or trustees of his property.

Being a popular and able Washington columnist, George Will knows too well the lasting truth of Godkin’s mordant phrases. He aspires to alter this hard reality—or at least to remind us that politics ought to be something nobler. Unafraid of reproaches against his Tory notions, George Will dreams the high dream and gives us a book animated by the high old Roman virtue.

Books by George Will or Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This review was originally published in the Washington Post (June 5th, 1983).

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