First of all, I’m jealous that Reason’s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch got to confront, personally and at considerable length, George Will about his evolution from strong-government Tory conservative to the more libertarian-inclined one we’ve become accustomed to of late. This topic has been a hobbyhorse of mine; earlier this year I proffered a few of my own theories as to why Will had shifted, gradually but markedly, over the course of the last 20 years. The hourlong conversation, embedded above, is fascinating, revealing, and well worth your time.
Will’s explanation is at once reassuring and underwhelming. He either hasn’t changed as much as you or I might think—or he’s just terribly, terribly conflicted.
Almost immediately, Gillespie broaches the startling-sounding claim of Will’s that government can’t help but be in the “soulcraft” business; even a self-styled libertarian government that constitutionally limits itself so as to interfere as little as possible with the voluntary transactions and interactions between its citizens, he asserts, is going to end up cultivating and reinforcing certain norms and patterns of behavior. Will insists he still believes this to be the case—and bluntly tells Gillespie that “I think you do too.”
So, even after all this “libertarian evolution” business, Will hasn’t retreated from the central thesis of Statecraft as Soulcraft—the 1983 evisceration of Manchester liberalism that got Will tagged as a big-government conservative in the first place.
Later, Will sounds not a little like David Brooks, Michael Lind, Jim Pinkerton and others from the Hamiltonian wing of the right. He laments the decrepit state of our public infrastructure. He wants more funding for basic science and research. He says he’d like to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. He misses the old days of Americans’ can-do optimism, of the rigorous pursuit of the public good, as opposed to today’s “sagging” spirit and collective malaise. He rejects the idea of a “severe” nightwatchman state and says, anyway, we’re “never going back” to small government. During this riff, and not for the last time, Will quotes his old pal, the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, the neoconservative turned conventional liberal Democrat.
If this is “libertarian evolution,” well, I guess I’m evolving into a libertarian too.
Speaking of state interference into consensual transactions between citizens, Will proposes a commonsense standard to measure whether it’s advisable: is there a “defensible reason” for doing so, or is it being done at the behest of a persistent faction at the expense of the general good of the public?
This sounds like a conservative pragmatist talking—and quite unlike the George Will who, later in the interview, defends conservative judicial activism in striking down laws that go beyond the enumerated powers of the federal government. Which is it, then: do lawmakers need merely a “defensible reason” to interfere (say, to curb pollution or some other externality)—or do those defensible reasons melt under the exacting heat of the constitutional text?
Will also appears to suffer from the very malady he often attributes to the public: cognitive dissonance. On one hand, Americans are rhetorical Jeffersonians and operational Hamiltonians; they adore abstract talk of balanced budgets and limited government, but in reality they jealously guard our low-tax/high-service big-government-on-the-cheap regime. At one point, Will says, “Everyone is on the take.” (These are assertions I happen to agree with in full.)
But then he lapses into the vulgar libertarian populism of the moment: big government is the handmaiden of the strong; ordinary people feel like the system is stacked against them—and they’re right!
Nope, sorry; the system can’t be stacked against the little guy if “everyone is on the take” and transfer payments, as Will notes despairingly, comprise such an outsize portion of the federal budget.
What clearly bugs Will is a gut-level disdain for the officious pointy-headed technocrats, bureaucrats, and academics who desire to micromanage our lives and, in their social broadmindedness and studied virtues of tolerance, feel good about themselves while doing so. Barack Obama, squire of the other Hyde Park, is Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University, where Will earned his Ph.D., reborn. This is the most deeply felt sentiment of late Will. He was reared in academia and, if not for a chance job opportunity in the U.S. Senate, probably would have continued working in it himself.
Will is a pointy head who loathes pointy heads.
If you substitute “pointy heads” for big government, Will’s intellectual evolution begins to make perfect sense. His newfound libertarianism isn’t theoretical so much as it’s personal. He’s basically the same George Will—just older and crankier.