I’m heartened to see that Peter Wehner has noticed the rather stark divide between young George Will and present-day George Will. He concludes, wistfully:
I hope Will—one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers—directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.
I’ve been on this beat for some while now. For those inclined to care, I have a few possible theories about why Will ditched his old Tory views, which he held not just circa 1983, but into the early 1990s.
The Claremont Institute. I’m of the mind that if you want to characterize Woodrow Wilson as a fascist, you should do so because he presided over a virtual police state that rounded up radicals and socialists—not because of his war-socialist economic policies, which he actually hated. But the influential folks at the Claremont Institute markedly disagree, finding in Wilson, and Progressivism more broadly, the seeds of the smiley-faced tyranny that afflicts us today. My best guess is that, like many conservatives, Will has assimilated this doctrine and sincerely concluded it’s the truth. No shame in that.
Decadence. I could imagine Will explaining that when he wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft, in 1983, the size of the federal government was a lot smaller than it is in 2013. That is: “I never imagined it would get this big. Or try to do this much.” In a recent column, Will counts the moral costs of the modern welfare state:
Deficit spending once was largely for investments — building infrastructure, winning wars — which benefited future generations, so government borrowing appropriately shared the burden with those generations. Now, however, continuous borrowing burdens future generations in order to finance current consumption.
I find Will’s judgment here to be somewhat unfair. “Current consumption,” full stop, doesn’t tell the real story, which is that the spike in entitlement-driven deficits is largely a function of the cost of healthcare, which is rising because of the unique dysfunctionality of our system, but also for reasons that Will identified way back in 1986:
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.
It is very hard for me to read those paragraphs and conclude that Will has “grown up,” become more world-weary, gloomy, and pessimistic. If anything, Will has gotten more idealistic as he’s grown older, more intolerant of the difficult tradeoffs of governing a (one of his favorite old phrases) complex urban society.
Religion. Will has become more open about his agnosticism than ever before. Careful readers could suss that Will was a deist at best—especially in his columns around the holiday season. But to my knowledge, the first time he ever publicly declared it was during his appearance on The Colbert Report. Hence, maybe Will has migrated toward libertarianism because it’s a more comfortable home for his secularism. Then again, the religious right, if anything, has grown less powerful than it was in the 1980s, and in the “Religion in Politics” lecture that Wehner links to, Will asserts that the faithful should themselves prefer a modest government that seeks to secure our natural rights and then call it a day.
The Iraq War. This might not seem like an obvious explanation, and I myself think it’s a lousy one, comparatively speaking. But here goes, anyway: Will, to his eternal credit, was one of the earliest mainstream conservative critics of the war. And so maybe Will was spooked by the disastrous human consequences of a policy—a radical democratism purportedly born of compassion—that was hatched by an administration that itself embraced the sort of strong-government conservatism that he once did. I’ve argued this before, but I’ll repeat it here: the best analogue for compassionate conservatism abroad isn’t the Iraq war, but rather programs like PEPFAR.
These are my theories, anyway.
Will could tell me to save my breath and do us all the enormous favor of explaining his evolution. I’d love to hear it, as I wager that his reasoning would be just as interesting as the evolution itself.