The left-wing science fiction writer China Miéville has compiled a list of “50 Sci Fi and Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read.” As a longtime reader of speculative and ”weird” fiction and qualified admirer of Miéville’s work, I thought it would be fun to offer a companion list for conservatives.
I’m not suggesting that these books express conservative views as such. But they do raise questions for conservatives or develop ideas from which conservatives can learn.
Partly for reasons of time and partly because I wanted to avoided overlap, my list is considerably shorter than Miéville’s: just ten works. I’ve also avoided the most obvious choices, such as Lord of the Rings. As a result, the list is far from exhaustive. I encourage readers to add their own suggestions.
David Brin, The Postman
Very different from the awful movie starring Kevin Costner. Essentially a meditation on the meaning of survival after the collapse of state order. One vision is represented by neo-pagan “Holnists,” for whom survival means the violent triumph of the individual. Another other is embodied by the drifter Gordon, who puts on a discarded postman’s uniform to keep warm but ends up re-founding civil society by carrying mail between isolated settlements.
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Also very different from the movie (which is in this case excellent). As the title suggests, the themes are the nature of humanity and meaning of stewardship. Human beings in this postapocalyptic scenario have no outlet for empathy except care for animals, so much so that they buy robotic substitutes when they can’t afford the real thing. On the other hand, androids yearn to be human—the only feeling of which they are capable.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine
A revision of Disraeli’s “State of England” novels for the information age. Due to the success of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine or mechanical computer in 1824, traditional social relations are replaced by a Victorian technocracy. This order is more meritocratic than the old regime and prizes economic freedom. On the other hand, it exercises considerably tighter spiritual control than the squirearchy ever could. Read More…
Yes, answer a number of “pro-growth” types (a distinct species often confused with conservatives). In City Journal, Wendell Cox argues that Texas is eating California’s lunch when it comes to jobs. In Forbes, Joel Kotkin points out that long-term demographic, migration, and investment trends all favor the South over the Northeast and Midwest. The raw numbers are clearly on their side: the South is now the country’s most populous region and its largest economic area.
Why has the South overtaken the historic economic leaders? According to Cox and Kotkin, it’s the result of business-friendly policies that contrast favorably with the expensive and restrictive setup Walter Russell Mead has dubbed the blue social model. Michael Lind agrees, but casts those policies in a less favorable light. Where Cox and Kotkin see an open field for growth, Lind sees a race to the bottom:
Northernomics is the high-road strategy of building a flourishing national economy by means of government-business cooperation and government investment in R&D, infrastructure and education. Although this program of Hamiltonianism (named after Washington’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton) has been championed by maverick Southerners as prominent as George Washington, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln (born in Kentucky to a Southern family), the building of a modern, high-tech, high-wage economy has been supported chiefly by political parties based in New England and the Midwest, from the Federalists and the Whigs through the Lincoln Republicans and today’s Northern Democrats.
Southernomics is radically different. The purpose of the age-old economic development strategy of the Southern states has never been to allow them to compete with other states or countries on the basis of superior innovation or living standards. Instead, for generations Southern economic policymakers have sought to secure a lucrative second-tier role for the South in the national and world economies, as a supplier of commodities like cotton and oil and gas and a source of cheap labor for footloose corporations. This strategy of specializing in commodities and cheap labor is intended to enrich the Southern oligarchy. It doesn’t enrich the majority of Southerners, white, black or brown, but it is not intended to.
So who’s right? Actually, both sides have part of the truth. But neither puts the pieces together.
Cox and Kotkin are right to reject stereotypes of the South as backwater good only for resource extraction and the supply of cheap labor. First of all, population growth in the South isn’t driven exclusively by low-skill immigration or monstrous families of slack-jawed yokels. Southern states are also destinations for an increasing number of well-educated. What’s more, the growth sectors are often high-tech. Auto manufacturing and energy aren’t the “dumb” industries they once were. The South is now competitive in business services, as well. Finally, while it’s true that wages are lower in the South, so is the cost of living, particularly housing. So people don’t need to earn as much to achieve a reasonable standard of comfort.
Yet Lind is right to point out the importance of “Whig” policies that promote infrastructure, education, and research. The road networks on which Southern sprawl depends isn’t supported by the free market. They’re built and maintained by the federal government. What’s more, growth in the South is being driven by its cities. And hotspots like Raleigh, Austin, and Houston have flourishing universities and STEM sectors that benefit from generous subsidies. Even the low cost of housing in the South is partly attributable to government intervention. The tax code encourages homebuying, which disfavors regions where much of the housing stock is for rent and encourages construction in areas with lots of land and weak zoning regulations.
So the South is enjoying impressive economic success. But it’s succeeding because its economic model is more “Northern” than it appears. That underlying similarity is also likely to find political expression over the next few decades. Even in the South, educated, well-compensated urbanites tend to vote for Democrats. That’s particularly true when they’ve moved from blue states and carried their political and cultural values with them. Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Nashville, Orlando, and Raleigh all have Democratic mayors. As their population and clout increase, they may lead their states toward more obviously “blue” arrangements.
Northern intellectuals, then, need to get over their snobbery about the South. The Southern model is based on more than beggar-thy-neighbor policies. In any case, it seems to be working. On the other hand, the South’s boosters shouldn’t exaggerate its distinctiveness. Like the North, the South does best when it encourages innovation and high-skill employment. And that takes more than just cutting taxes and regulation.
In sum, there’s more common ground between North and South than meets the eye. It’s just hard to recognize from the anachronistic perspectives that frame so many of our political debates.
Some god-terms that issue from the media, and which I had the misfortune of hearing incessantly as an academic, make me wince as soon as they come out of someone’s mouth. Among these particularly obnoxious terms are “social justice,” “fairness,” and “sensitivity,” all of which drip with righteousness and dishonesty.
The term or concept that lately has been causing me the most visceral pain, however, is “human right.” The pain became excruciating last week, when I heard Fox News commentator Juan Williams insist that gay marriage is a human right. If Williams had his way, the Supreme Court would impose recognition of this arrangement on every hamlet in this country. That’s because he thinks it’s “fair” and in any case required by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. I’ve no idea how the Fourteenth Amendment can require the imposition of a marital practice that differs from how marriage was understood since the beginnings of human societies and up until a few years ago in this country. It is possible to see why the Fourteenth Amendment might be invoked to uphold the right of every American taxpayer, whatever his color, to use the public facilities he or she pays for. But how can it require, except by an act of judicial usurpation, that all Americans be forced to recognize as marriage a cohabitation arrangement between people of the same sex. Supposedly this entails a right that must be equally protected. Right to what? Presumably of anything that those involved decide to call marriage and then oblige everyone else, on pain of punishment, to accept as such.
What happens, however, if those who wish to experiment with new forms of marriage decide that it would be a good idea to practice incest? Does that too become a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment? What about group marriage, a practice that’s already being tried in Holland? Is that too protected by our constitution, according to Juan Williams? The answer is that incest and group marriages may be entitled to legal protection against discriminators, if Williams decides to characterize them as human rights. What the hell—two more rights added to the list really won’t muddle the term “human rights” any more than it’s already been muddled. And in fact the term has now been reduced to a rhetorical trope that is meant to impress the listener with the moral seriousness of the person who pronounces it.
My objection to the term is not based on moral relativism, since I don’t pretend to be a moral agnostic. I could think of at least one right that all people should be entitled to and which government should provide: it’s Thomas Hobbes’s single example of a natural right, which is to be protected by government against violent death. But who believes in what rights is not the point here. I am arguing against the use of human rights bombast whenever some individual, institution, or state wishes to express a political preference or a program of social reconstruction. Just make your arguments and let the listener decide. Further, I don’t object to listening to moral arguments against societies that do horrible things. Mention what the leaders of these societies do and then leave it to others to decide whether your indictment is correct. Saying that what you deplore violates human rights fills space with noise without contributing anything substantive to human knowledge. For example, if someone shows me that the Taliban stones women to death if they’re seen talking to young men to whom they’re not married, that’s a sufficient indictment. In no way would the speaker be strengthening his brief by adding that the Taliban “violates human rights.”
I would also make a traditionalist case against human-rights language. Whereas most of us in the same society up until a few decades ago could have agreed on what actions were right and wrong, human rights are more subject to change than traditional moral verities. Their validity depends on political and cultural winds; and it is foolish to believe that one can bridge the breakdown of moral or social consensus throughout the Western world by resorting to a new universal ethic based on “human rights” or “democratic values.” There are sharp and even growing differences in our society about fundamental behavioral questions, and appeals to supposedly universal rights language will not likely heal these divisions. Significantly, both those who favor and those who oppose the right to abort a fetus shower us equally with human-rights rhetoric. That practice settles nothing of importance, except for allowing the speakers to feel good about their cause and about themselves for upholding it. Read More…
The cult of redemptive violence is one of the darkest currents in the political thought of the last few centuries. Although they were not squeamish, ancient writers on violence such as Thucydides, Xenophon, and Tacitus had no notion of killing as a source of meaning, rather than the means to specific ends.
Even Machiavelli, who condemns princes’ failure to deal decisively with enemies, does not suggest that they should derive any personal satisfaction from “execution”. On the contrary, Machiavelli argues that violence must be governed by reasons of state rather than the whims of a monster.
Machiavelli’s arguments for a rational economy of violence were swept away by the French Revolution. In a world turned upside down, killing and risking death came to be seen as constitutive of the resolute individual, rather than as necessary evils. Hegel’s so-called dialectic of master and slave is the most sophisticated articulation of this idea.
The Romantic understanding of violence as the crucible of the self had advocates on the Right, the Left, and those somewhere in between. In the 19th century, its protagonists included both Maistre and Bakunin. In the first half of the 20th century, mortal danger found its propagandist in Sorel, its philosopher in Heidegger, and its poet in Jünger (and, perhaps, its president in Theodore Roosevelt).
In the decades after World War II, however, the cult of violence found its home on the European Left. In his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre described the anti-colonial terrorist as follows:
…this new man begins his life as a man at the end of it; he considers himself as a potential corpse. He will be killed; not only does he accept this risk, he’s sure of it. This potential dead man has lost his wife and his children; he has seen so many dying men that he prefers victory to survival; others, not he, will have the fruits of victory; he is too weary of it all. But this weariness of the heart is the root of an unbelievable courage. We find our humanity on this side of death and despair; he finds it beyond torture and death. We have sown the wind; he is the whirlwind. The child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity. We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.
Sartre was both revered and reviled for this assertion. So it’s interesting to watch him grapple with its implications just a few years later. In 1974, Sartre made a pilgrimage to Germany, where he visited the imprisoned Andreas Baader, leader of the murderous Red Army Faction. After a brief meeting, Sartre held a press conference at which he denounced the inhumanity of West Germany’s treatment of the martyr. At least in the mainstream press, Sartre’s accusations were widely understood as a confession of moral bankruptcy.
The release of new documents complicate this picture. According to a transcript of the meeting acquired by Der Spiegel, Sartre actually tried to convince Baader to abandon terror. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:
Sartre: The masses — the RAF has undertaken clear actions that the people don’t agree with.
Baader: It’s been established that 20 percent of the population sympathizes with us …
Sartre: I know. The statistics were prepared in Hamburg.
Baader: The situation in Germany is geared to small groups, both in terms of legality and illegality.
Sartre: These actions might be justified for Brazil, but not for Germany.
Sartre: In Brazil independent actions were needed to change the situation. They were necessary preparatory work.
Baader: Why is it any different here?
Sartre: Here there isn’t the same type of proletariat as in Brazil.
What’s happening is that Sartre is trying to put the genie of redemptive violence back into the bottle of rational control. Violence, he argues, can be justified when it contributes to a discernable goal, namely socialist revolution. Yet it is not an end in itself, as if it were just a form of expressive self-assertion.
Even apart from the absurdity of his politics, Sartre had no authority to make this argument. Perhaps more than any other Western intellectual, he had legitimized and even glamorized the use of violence without consideration of its likely results. Moreover, Sartre could not bring himself to condemn Baader’s methods in public. Rather than mourning the victims of the RAF, Sartre complained that Baader was being subjected to ”a torture that leads to psychological disturbance…”
Sartre’s legacy has proved a heavy burden for the European Left, which has never quite shaken its reputation for nihilism. It is a case study in the old conservative slogan that ideas have consequences. But serious conservatives should not make the mistake of assuming that Left alone is susceptible to the cult of violence. The same temptation lurks behind the veneration of soldiers, war, and toughness that deforms the contemporary American Right.
Should conservatives care about cities? The question cropped up yesterday as conservative urbanists took to the web to argue that Republicans need cities, and cities need Republicans. Here at TAC, Samuel Goldman followed up to acknowledge the good that conservative policies could do for American cities but, he concluded, making urban inroads would require the national Republican Party to take measures that would drive out the party’s existing core of socially conservative support. The point is well taken, and not taken often enough by those in the urban bubble.
A richer question, though, is how much conservatives should care about cities in the first place. From Babel and Babylon, after all, the city has been made a symbol of moral decay. The fast-paced ways of big city living have long been decried as the undoing of community and family alike. For traditionalist conservatives in particular, less enamored than many of their compatriots with the upheavals wrought by commercial society, is there any reason not to condemn the whole enterprise as incompatible with the proper aims of life?
Bill McClay took up these questions in an almost lyrical consideration of the city a few years back, and it’s worth revisiting to remind ourselves, beyond the stratagems and calculations, why conservatism cares about cities.
Republican candidates lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. If the GOP is to survive as a national party, it needs to appeal to new constituencies. Could city dwellers be part of the solution? The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser says yes (with an echo from Aaron M. Renn):
The Republicans’ abandonment of the city is good neither for their party nor for urban America. The GOP clearly needs a heftier percentage of the urban vote, but winning it by means of fiscal pandering or redistribution isn’t the way to go—partly because such a strategy would cost rural and suburban votes and partly because it would be wrong. A better approach is to offer the good ideas that cities desperately need. Republicans have plenty.
The ideas Glaeser identifies as especially promising include data-driven policing, school choice, contracting out city services, congestion pricing for driving and parking, and the removal of regulatory obstacles to housing construction. And he’s right that these are appealing reforms. Contrary to what many conservatives believe, urban policy is not necessarily a transfer of wealth from makers to takers. Metropolitan areas are the country’s economic engines–and good policies will make them even more productive.
But there’s little chance that Republicans will seize the opportunity. The most basic reason is historical. The Democratic Party has dominated America’s cities since the Age of Jackson. And while individual Republicans have occasionally succeeded in urban constituencies, they have rarely had much influence on the national party.
Glaeser cites the “Crisis of the Cities” section of the 1968 platform as evidence that the GOP used to care about urban issues. But platforms are notoriously insignificant. The real story for the Republican Party in the ’60s was the capture of the Sunbelt and the rural South. Republican interest in cities during this period had more to do with signalling to suburbanites that it would not allow urban blight to spill over into their communities than with a real electoral strategy.
Moreover, the social conservatism that defines the Republican Party is anathema to urban voters. A party that is loudly opposed to gay marriage and abortion will never be competitive in America’s cities. Glaeser dreams of a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicanism that might win in New York and its inner suburbs. But there aren’t enough votes to make this an appealing strategy on the national level: any gains in metropolitan areas would be wiped out by losses in the so-called base.
The problem for Republicans, then, isn’t that they’re ignoring chances to expand their coalition. It’s that they’re trapped by a dynamic in which serious outreach to new groups alienates existing supporters. As Daniel Larison has argued, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Don’t expect Republicans to take Manhattan any time soon.
The last few weeks have seen a number of events related to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. First, the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to elect any players to the Hall of Fame for 2013, in what was generally understood as a rejection of the 1990s juiceball era. Then, Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah that “I doped during all seven Tour [de France] wins.” Although neither the baseball writers’ rejection of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens nor Armstrong’s mea culpa was much of a surprise, it’s been a pretty dispiriting month for fans.
But why do fans care whether athletes dope? At The New Atlantis, Jeremy Rozansky tries to figure it out. He argues that we object to performance-enhancing drugs because they denature athletics by distancing the athlete from his own achievement:
An athlete builds his body, focuses his mind, and syncs the two by repeatedly practicing the activity he wishes to excel in. Muscles require strengthening; skills require honing; understanding requires study. The very act of athletic training for an activity is intelligible: as the President’s Council on Bioethics put it in its 2003 report Beyond Therapy, “we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result.” The growth of muscles is naturally stimulated by certain hormones and growth factors, including testosterone. The body naturally produces a limited amount of these factors, and increasing their levels pharmacologically — or, in theory, through genetic modification — can contribute to greater-than-natural amounts of muscle growth. The doping athlete is thus partially alienated from his own activity, the activity he hopes to be excellent in. One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when [former MLB pitcher] Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.
This is a subtle argument that reflects the Aristotelian and Christian personalist inclinations of the Council that produced the 2003 report. It’s also unconvincing because its standard of excessive–the solitary development of innate physical and mental resources–has more basis in the movies than in the practices of modern sport.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs may stand out as “unnatural” in comparison an idealized vision of the athlete rising early to hit the track, or taking endless batting practice. The fact is, however, that doping does not replace these practices but only increases their results.
I’ve been thinking a lot about college admissions since the publication of Ron Unz’s blockbuster critique of admissions process at Harvard. I’m convinced by Unz’s argument that Harvard’s standards are not strictly meritocratic, and systematically disfavor Asian-American applicants. I’m less convinced that college admissions should be strictly meritocratic–or even that we can imagine what that would mean.
The trouble is that “merit” can plausibly be understood in a number of ways, including past academic achievement, raw cognitive ability, talent in a particular field, unusual determination or work ethic, and chance to make it big after graduating. These qualities don’t necessarily overlap and are sometimes opposed. In my experience, for example, the most intellectually curious high school students often shine in their areas of interest, but just scrape by in other fields. On the other hand, class-president types can accumulate impressive resumes while remaining deadly dull.
So I have more sympathy for admissions officers than most of their conservative critics. Even if we ignore non-academic interests in admitting trombone players, long-distance runners, and so on, the job of selecting the “best” 2000 or so applicants from a pool of over 30,000 is a thankless and probably impossible task. That’s why I’ve defended proposals for a lottery-based system, in which every student who meets a certain standard of competence is entered into a drawing for the appropriate number of winners. Over time, partly-randomized admissions should generate the diversity of abilities and interests that American colleges want while avoiding controversial judgments of merit.
But a lottery system won’t happen any time soon, partly because it threatens the myth that graduates of a fancy college who go on to run things deserve their success. In the meantime, is there any way to reduce the subjectivity involved in taking “soft” factors into account?
Responsibility is a familiar theme of conservative rhetoric. While progressives expect the state to take care of people, conservatives argue that people should take care of themselves. In his infamous “47 percent” remark, Mitt Romney applied a version of this distinction to the American people. As he put it:
47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect… my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney’s remark was a political disaster because it took no account of the challenges that poor and lower-middle class people face in caring for themselves. We can assume that most of them want dignified, independent lives. But it’s almost impossible to do that if you lack not only money, but also the resources of trust, cooperation, and support that sociologists call social capital.
Romney, in other words, called struggling Americans to exercise individual responsibility. But individual responsibility is not enough. In order to make their way, individuals need to be embedded in groups of persons who help care for each other.
The political theorist Peter Lawler explores this important distinction between individual and personal responsibility in The American Interest. Ostensibly an essay in TV criticism, Lawler’s subtle piece makes the case for personal responsibility by comparing the popular shows “Girls” and “Friday Night Lights”.
“Girls”, Lawler suggests, is a kind of parody of individual responsibility. Although its characters are economically and educationally privileged, they’re socially impoverished. Cut off from the given relationships of family and place, the “girls” are incapable either of forging serious relationships or of creating meaning from their own resources. They’re proud of their sexual and intellectual independence, but can’t see how these forms of individualism prevent them from enjoying other human goods.
“Friday Nights Lights”, by contrast, focuses on the 47 percent, who lack the “girls’” advantages but better understand their insufficiency as individuals. Although they can’t articulate the reasons, they know that no one makes it alone. In order to be fulfilled as persons, we need to be members of a family, a community, a church, a team. As the show’s excellent football sequences show, members of a team take personal responsibility for doing their jobs. But none of them can succeed by his efforts alone.
Encouragements to responsibility, including Romney’s, fail when they mistake personal responsibility bounded by relations of interdependence for rugged individualism. Even though they’re directed against the self-indulgence on vivid display in “Girls”, these arguments accept the characters’ narcissistic assumption that living well is a solo endeavor rather than a team sport.
The struggling Texans of “Friday Night Lights” don’t want to be wards of the state. But they do need help building the economic and social resources that would allow them to play together effectively off the field. Although Romney appropriated the slogan of the show’s centerpiece team, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”, we didn’t hear much about that in the presidential campaign. As Lawler suggests, then, maybe Republicans should watch more TV.
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.