George Will’s Tepid Defense of Freedom
The Conservative Sensibility
by George F. Will
Hachette Books, 2019
xxxix 600 pp.
The well-known Washington columnist George Will was long ago a libertarian, but he soon changed his mind, adopting instead a statist variety of conservatism. In The Conservative Sensibility, he returns to his libertarian roots, but the return is incomplete, and he ends up with a confused position that, in trying to do justice to competing goods, as he sees it, ends up in intellectual sloppiness.
The great historian Ralph Raico, who knew Will in the late 1950s, tells the story of his early political beliefs:
As it happened, at Princeton Bruce [Goldberg] also came to know another grad student, this time in political science, named George Will. Will was another run of the mill member of the American intelligentsia, a “liberal” in the mold of his father, a well thought of professor of philosophy at Champaign/Urbana. Bruce, then the dynamic, genial propagator of our ideas, converted Will as well. Temporarily. Will left to study at Oxford, where he was seduced by the tradition of Tory paternalism he discovered there. Cecil Rhodes would have been pleased.
George Will went on to compose Tory-statist pieces like those collected in his truly embarrassing book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, the title reminiscent of the Stalinist definition of Party intellectuals as “engineers of the soul.” When Nozick and I were still in touch, Bob once remarked of Will with a laugh that…[his] “idea of politics was to remake everyone in his own boring image.”
I would add to Ralph’s characteristically excellent account that George Will’s father, Frederick Will, was an outstanding philosopher, in my view one of the best American philosophers of his time. (He wrote about, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology, not politics.) If only his son had his talent and wisdom!
A good place to begin our investigation is with the “truly embarrassing book.” Will says that he has changed his position. People need to be educated in virtue, as he argued in Statecraft as Soulcraft, but he was wrong to think that this is, in the main, the
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