In “The Conservative Sensibility,” George Will posits that taming the administrative state and restoring the principles of the American Founding is the great American political project of the 21st century. But is the country up to the task?

The Conservative Sensibility, by George F. Will (640 pages, Hachette Books, 2019)

If prudence is a virtue for George Will, and it surely is, then reticence is as well. After all, his new book on the “conservative sensibility” might just as well have been titled “this conservative’s sensibility.” But no matter the title, Dr. Will is still very much a conservative, although in the age of President Trump he is no longer a card-carrying Republican Party conservative.

In fact, nowhere in these many pages does the word “trump” appear—at least not with a capital “T.” For that matter, another “t” word is missing as well. That would be “tea,” as in Tea Party. Let this much be stipulated right away: Dr. Will’s conservative sensibility is not a populist sensibility. More on that both sooner and later.

So just what is his conservative sensibility? In the first place, it is much more a libertarian conservative sensibility than, say, the George Will of a few decades ago or the George Will of Statecraft as Soulcraft. Still, Dr. Will has long been—and remains—a conservative. He may have opted to read himself out of the Republican Party, but he is not about to abandon either conservatism or his take on the conservative sensibility.

At the heart of that sensibility is an attitude and a reverence. The attitude is one of caution and, yes, prudence when it comes to political change, and the reverence is for the American Founding. That reverence includes reverence for those political leaders who have shared his reverence, Lincoln most prominently among them.

Lincoln also had reverence for the common man. But by Dr. Will’s reckoning Lincoln was not a populist of any stripe. That’s a plus for Lincoln, since George Will has no time for populists, whether of the left or right wing variety. Populists tend to be neither cautious nor prudent, but they do tend to be impatient. Therefore, populists, by Dr. Will’s reckoning, are not likely to either express reverence for or be mindful of the principles of the American Founding. Immediate exertions of power are more important to populists, especially to leaders of populist movements, than are power-inhibiting and patience-inducing separations of power.

The book is not an open and unabashed attack on populism. But this is George Will’s implicit judgment on a movement that he fears threatens to engulf the West, not to mention a movement that clearly runs against this conservative’s sensibility.

To be sure, the Founders sought to create a government that would impede mass movements. But they also sought to limit the power and reach of the governors. While Dr. Will’s dual concern is similar to that of the Founders, his current conservative sensibility may hint at his having become too much a part of the Washington establishment and too removed from the concerns of today’s common folks.

A Princeton Ph.D. in political philosophy, Dr. Will embraces one fellow Princeton graduate and takes issue with another. A Madisonian to the core, Dr. Will is highly critical of Woodrow Wilson. That would primarily be Wilson, the domestic progressive. He is somewhat less critical of Wilsonian foreign policy, the missionary impulse being part of the American DNA, but an impulse that he hopes will only be deployed sparingly and prudently.

By Dr. Will’s estimate, Wilson was the first American president to challenge, and even dissent from, the Declaration of Independence. By his further estimate, the Declaration and the Constitution should be viewed as complementary documents. The key word in the former is “secure,” as in the role of government, according to the Founders (which Will invariably capitalizes), is to secure the natural rights of the individual. Government should not progressively create rights; it should only secure them. Natural rights, after all, precede the existence of government.

Here Dr. Will is at his sensibly conservative best. Here he makes a compelling case against the entire progressive project of Woodrow Wilson, not to mention both Roosevelts and their progressive successors in our time. Here he aligns himself with those who contend that the country took a fundamentally wrong turn better than a century ago with the ascendancy of the progressive project and the accompanying rise of the administrative state.

Is that ascendancy permanent? Is the dominance of the administrative state equally perpetual? These are two key questions that demand to be addressed, and Dr. Will does address them in depth. Taming that state and restoring the principles of the American Founding is the great American political project of the 21st century. But is the country up to the task? That truly is THE question. While no one can know the answer, George Will does know that the attempt to reverse recent history must be made.

As the book concludes, Dr. Will borrows from yet another Princetonian and his work. That would be F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. At the end of a novel “suffused with melancholy and regret,” Nick Carraway wonders aloud about the moment when Dutch sailors first looked upon the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” Nick then begins to speculate about Gatsby’s “wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”

Fitzgerald tells us that “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further. . . . And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Princetonian Will then picks up where Princetonian Fitzgerald leaves off. For him—and for us—the “American Founding was a luminous moment, a hinge on which world history turned . . .”

Today things are much less luminous: “The fact that the nation had a uniquely inspiring creation has become dispiriting.” Then Dr. Will asks, “can we get back, not to the conditions in which we started, but to the premises with which we started?” And, yes, it is “we” for both Dr. Will and Fitzgerald, not to mention all the rest of us. Dr. Will then concludes: “We cannot escape the challenge of living by the exacting principles of our Founding, so we should beat on, boats against many modern currents, borne back ceaselessly toward a still useable past.”

Fair enough. But can we meet the challenge? Now zeroing in on 80, George Will has given us a very useable book. But along the way he gives us plenty of reasons to doubt our prospects. This is both because of what he has chosen to emphasize and what he has chosen to ignore.

He details the sorry state of American education without really coming to terms with how sorry the state really is. This is especially so when it comes to the teaching of the American Founding.

Having observed the most representative body among our separated powers gradually cede much too much of its legislative authority to the administrative state, Dr. Will calls for action on the part of the most unrepresentative body. Specifically, he calls upon the Supreme Court to both “supervise” democracy and rein in the administrative state.

By “supervise,” Dr. Will seeks a Supreme Court that will protect individual rights from the potential and actual tyranny of Tocquevillian majorities. He also wants the court to force Congress to return to doing its legislative duty, rather than pass that responsibility along to the rule makers and regulators of the federal bureaucracy.

This will be easier said than done, for Dr. Will also provides ample evidence of the power of Hayek’s “fatal conceit” to seduce both the experts of the administrative state and those they would rule. That conceit is the conceit of economic planners of all varieties. It is a conceit that presumes that these so-called experts have knowledge that is impossible to have. The political order of a free society and its accompanying sometimes helter-skelter, yet basically rational, market economy are best able to avoid much of that conceit, because one of its most important attributes is “knowing what is not—what cannot—be known.”

Advocates of the living Constitution contend that the complexity of modern economic life requires playing fast and loose with the original document. Dr. Will properly argues that that very complexity demands even closer adherence to the original structure of the Constitution, its processes, and its separation of powers.

And yet Dr. Will is himself, paradoxically, an advocate of planning. Borrowing from economic historian Karl Polanyi, Dr. Will concedes that a market economy is, in one sense, a planned economy. After all, “markets freed from government control are a creature of government.”

Throughout this book Dr. Will borrows liberally from innumerable conservative historians, philosophers, and economists. The result is a learned work, but one that remains Vintage George Will.

That vintage includes George Will, the “amiable, low-voltage atheist.” In a chapter whimsically titled “Welcoming Whirl,” Dr. Will becomes less the political philosopher than an autobiographer. In the process, he lays bare a conservative sensibility which sparingly details his thoroughly secular upbringing before grounding (?) itself in whirl and the welcoming of it.

In so doing Dr. Will takes issue with the likes of Whittaker Chambers, who held that a “man without mysticism is a monster.” He also lines up against Russell Kirk, who held that those untethered by—and not sharing in—“some common faith (will) prey upon one another.”

Will’s more serious quarrel seems to be with Chambers, whom he harshly accuses of “excommunicating” unbelievers from the “human community.” More than that, Chambers’ judgment reveals to Will someone “capable of monstrous thoughts and, perhaps, monstrous deeds.”

Before further provoking a conservative civil war, let it be stipulated that neither Whittaker Chambers nor George Will is a monster of any sort. Taking his cue from William F. Buckley (who thought that a “real conservative” need not be religious, but could not be hostile to religion), Dr. Will explains that “having no religious affiliation is . . . not the same as having no affinity” for religion and its role in the life of a good society.

Dr. Will clearly appreciates that role. He also appreciates the Founders’ appreciation of that role (even as he seems to be of the belief that many of the key Founders were less than thoroughgoing religious believers themselves).

Fair enough. And yet it is also fair to wonder where the welcoming of whirl will take an increasingly secular America. Dr. Will seems all too sanguine about our prospects. But should he be? His amiable atheism has long been giving way to much higher voltage varieties throughout the land. And real conservatives of the George Will sort (as defined by Buckley) may not always be on hand. Meanwhile, real liberals and real leftists grow increasingly and openly hostile to religion, not to mention increasingly powerful as well.

Lastly, Dr. Will seems to think—or at least hope—that a return to the principles of the Founding can somehow be accomplished from the top down and without a lot of messiness. To be sure, it will require leaders, and no doubt it would be nice if those leaders proved to be more Lincolnian than Trumpian. (It would also have been nice if Will had deigned to give at least a passing nod to a certain unnamed president who has been fighting “modern currents” in the name of a “still useable past.”)

This fight will also require the efforts of Lincoln’s common folks and, yes, President Trump’s common folks. Hillary Clinton may find the latter deplorable, but the George Wills of today and tomorrow had better not. After all, it will remain very important to have reverence for more than our Founding. That would include reverence for both things unseen and for Lincoln’s common folks, meaning those whom our sixteenth president somehow knew that God loved because he made so many of them.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of a photograph of George F. Will and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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