"The Conservative Sensibility" with George Will

Following is a lightly-edited transcript of an interview with George Will about "The Conservative Sensibility", which aired on WHO Radio on July 3, 2019. Listen to the interview with George Will here.

Brian Gongol: Here with us on WHO Radio...let me just put it up like this: When I was in eighth grade, a teacher of mine noticed that I had some interest in politics. I had an interest in current events and he started handing me some clippings from different newspaper columnists. And I found that there were three of them who always resonated with me: One was William Safire. One was Thomas Sowell. And the third one is now with us here on WHO Radio. George Will, one of the first three columnists who ever made sense to me, thank you very much for making time to be with us here on WHO Radio.

George Will: Glad to be with you.

Brian Gongol: George Will has written a brand-new book. Aside from your voluminous production of newspaper columns, this book is really quite fascinating: "The Conservative Sensibility". I almost see it as sort of an intellectual follow-up to, an expansion of, Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative". Can you help me out with what "the conservative sensibility" is, as opposed to its conscience? What's this book all about?

George Will: The book is dedicated to the memory of Barry Goldwater, for whom in 1964 I cast my first Presidential vote. By "sensibility", I mean more than an attitude, but less than an agenda. The book is not to tell people what to think, but to suggest how to think about complex government problems such as equality of opportunity and the ridiculous expansion of Presidential powers at the expense of -- and with the collaboration of -- Congress. This kind of institutional derangement that I think has Americans rightly worried.

Brian Gongol: It is necessary time for worry, I think, in part because -- and I think you really identify this very early on in the book -- we've sort of lost touch with the whole notion of Madisonianism. If I were to label myself as anything anymore, I feel sometimes uncomfortable saying conservative, but I'm not sure that I'm really a libertarian, so sometimes I punt and say I'm a "Madisonian Federalist".

George Will: Yes, exactly.

Brian Gongol: It sounds like you are too.

George Will: That's exactly what I am. In 1964, when I cast that vote for Goldwater, 77 percent of the American people said they trusted the government to do the right thing all the time or almost all the time. Today, that figure has gone from 77 to 17 percent. That's a 60-point collapse in confidence in government. So I would think not only conservatives should point this out as the consequence of a wrong turn -- that is, getting wrong the proper scope and actual competence of government -- but I would think my progressive friends would be alarmed, too.

The entire progressive agenda depends on strong government, and strong government depends on public confidence in the government. So, if the progressives are going to make any headway with their agenda, they're going to have to come to terms with what I try to demonstrate in the book, which was progressives' criticism of the American founding, which has been remarkably explicit and remarkably successful, beginning with Woodrow Wilson -- the first President to criticize the American founding -- has brought us to a point where progressivism itself is threatened.

Now what I mean by that is: Woodrow Wilson wanted to marginalize Congress, to emancipate the Presidency. And progressives thought, "Well, a progressive will always be in the Presidency: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson." Well, look around you now. It's not a progressive in the Presidency today, and progressives are not happy. And they ought to understand what they did in creating this monster, the modern Presidency.

Brian Gongol: Do we have our hero Teddy Roosevelt to throw under the bus for getting the ball rolling in that direction? Was he too energetic an executive?

George Will: I think we do. He was a wonderful man, and just exactly the guy you'd want to sit next to at dinner, but not perhaps the ideal President, because he had a theory of the Presidency called the "stewardship theory", which was that a President is free to do anything he wants, as long as he's not explicitly forbidden to do so. This gave the President a lot of running room under our Constitutional system.

What the Constitution actually says in Article II is that the basic duty of the President is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. This makes him subordinate to those who make the laws that he is to execute. So, in that sense, Congress -- under both parties, by the way, this is not a partisan complaint -- Congress under both parties has been shedding for 80 years powers to Presidents of both parties to create this disequilibrium we have today in our Madisonian architecture.

Brian Gongol: In essence, this is sort of an abandonment, I think you say in chapter 1, of limited government and the theory that government itself is limited by something, right?

George Will: Well, it's supposed to be limited by the enumeration of powers in Article I, Section 8 that says what Congress may and may not do. Congress and the government itself have long since slipped that leash, and unfortunately, the court system is not prepared to enforce it. But public opinion can enforce it. Rather than relying on judges, I decided to write a book to begin, I hope, a conversation that will help shift public opinion back to a more moderate, restrained, and realistic view of government's role.

Brian Gongol: I do think that those who read this and take the time -- as they well should -- will understand why you're saying that conservatism isn't just a label that gets thrown around like a pejorative. There's actually something we are trying to conserve.

George Will: Precisely. We're trying to consider the most commonly asked questions, and it's a fair one: What do conservatives want to conserve? The answer is: the American founding. The idea that first come rights, then comes government; that natural rights are preceding government. We don't get our rights from government; rather, we institute government to secure those rights as it says in the Declaration.

Brian Gongol: As you go through this, you mentioned something that I guess sometimes I have a bit of trouble with: The language of when people talk about "natural rights". To me, there seem to be some [natural rights], but then there also seem to be people who use that as sort of a crutch or a way around saying that they want it to be theological in nature. And I don't think you resolve to that.

George Will: I do not. In fact, I have a chapter in the book called "Conservatism Without Theism". I'm not a man of faith, but I am a man of great faith in the American Founding. What I mean by "natural rights", and what I think the Founders meant, was these are rights that are essential to the flourishing of creatures of our natures. That's what makes them natural rights.

Now, what those rights are is subject to dispute: Americans are great disputatious people. We like to argue. If you don't like to argue, you picked the wrong country and we'll keep arguing about what should and should not count as "natural rights", but that's the category: What rights are essential to human flourishing.

Brian Gongol: What's so interesting to me about this is -- and, especially, you delve into this in Chapter 2 -- where you talk about the nature of human nature being permanent, even if we change, even if technologies change, and so forth. But human nature itself is essentially what we're reacting to, aren't we?

George Will: Precisely. If you deny a fixed human nature, then you deny natural rights. And you are left with the following: If people have no fixed human nature, if human beings are only creatures that acquire whatever culture they find themselves surrounded by, that gives the government an enormous incentive to say, "Well, we'll manipulate the culture and thereby manipulate human beings to create new, improved human beings" -- and we've seen far too much in the modern age of the mischief and worse that happens when governments undertake to improve human beings.

Brian Gongol: I think one of the best lines that you had was in Chapter 2, speaking of progressivism, "A progressive's work is never done because everything is progressivism's business. This is partly because in political philosophy, epistemology is destiny." That's a lot to throw into two sentences, but I think it really does tell the story.

George Will: Well, I think so, because once you see that our Founders began with an epistemological confidence -- epistemology is the field of philosophy about how we know things -- they said certain truths are "self-evident". By that, they meant evident to minds not clouded by superstition or unreason. And the truths we enunciated and then Lincoln reiterated, particularly at Gettysburg, make us a creedal nation. Margaret Thatcher once said European nations were made by history, and America was made by philosophy. It's the philosophy of the Founders that I'm trying to conserve.

Brian Gongol: Why is it that you think that Wilson, especially -- because you certainly put a target on him as being the one to drive away from that philosophy -- what gave him the confidence to think that they could do better or that they should do better or that he was even authorized to do better?

George Will: Well, he was a he was a scholar and intellectual and academic. And when you wanted an advanced degree in the second half of the 19th Century, Americans went to Germany, because there were very few graduate programs in the United States. In Germany, they absorbed admiration for the Bismarckian state and for the Hegelian philosophy that said the state embodies progress and whatever exists ought to exist and history is unfolding by its own logic. They came back and went to Johns Hopkins University, some of them, which had an early Ph.D. program and taught a young man named Woodrow Wilson who acquired this view that history has its own mechanisms and its own motor and progress consists of getting on -- to use a phrase we hear far too much of in our politics -- "getting on the right side of history". So that's where Woodrow Wilson becomes the fulcrum of American history.

Brian Gongol: He gets this notion that, essentially, collective rights are more important than individual rights. How in the world did he arrive at that conclusion?

George Will: They thought that individualism was not an American achievement, but an American problem. That, indeed, people should think of themselves as part of a great collective. That the fundamental right is the right of majorities to rule and therefore the court should get out of the way -- and everyone should get out of the way -- of majorities having their own way. Well, the American system was designed, of course, to enable majority rule, but also to protect minorities from majorities. That is something that the progressives lost interest in.

Brian Gongol: They also lost interest in the separation between the personal realm and the public realm everything that was maybe a personal problem ultimately becomes a public crisis of some nature, and that seems to authorize them to march right in.

George Will: That's exactly right. When you begin to expand the government such that there is no private sphere of life left, and indeed you begin to define the private sphere of life where people have rights as granted by the government because it thinks these spheres of rights, of autonomy, called rights are in the public interest, then the public sector absorbs the private sector and all the intermediary institutions that mediate between the individual and overbearing government.

Brian Gongol: And this is what ultimately creates, I think, what you lead to in Chapter 3, which is the institutional consequences of all of this. And so now we have the imperial Presidency and everybody just seems to nod their heads and go along with it, even though it's clearly neither working nor is it anything that was written into our Constitutional underpinnings.

George Will: Yes, we wrongly accuse Presidents of usurping Congress's power. If only they had had to do that. In fact, Congress has willingly given away its powers. A president can today -- to just read the headlines -- impose tariffs, which are taxes on Americans, unilaterally. Presidents can declare emergencies and take funds appropriated for one purpose and use it for another, all because these powers have been given not just to this President, but to all Presidents by Congresses that are too busy getting re-elected and too busy legislating to attend to the details.

Brian Gongol: Is part of this because the nature of communication changed, and so it was no longer the President writing a State of the Union address to Congress, but suddenly [they] were being covered by news[papers] and then radio and then television, putting the Presidential agenda forefront, right where everyone can see it?

George Will: You're absolutely right. Until the 20th Century, Presidential rhetoric was written and addressed to Congress. There was very little public speaking by Presidents. Woodrow Wilson, not surprisingly, was the first President to want his his speeches broadcast, to the extent that he could with nascent radio. Teddy Roosevelt was the first person ever to become President having been filmed by a movie camera, but the big change was radio, which was as electrifying in its day as the Internet is in ours.

When Franklin Roosevelt began his first fireside chat to the nation over the radio, he began it with two words: He began it, "My friends." Now, try to imagine George Washington addressing people saying, "My friends." That kind of intimacy? It's unthinkable. It's a good question to me whether we want Presidents to be our friends. I think we want them to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, and get on with it and not bother being our buddies.

Brian Gongol: So you're saying that we here in Iowa shouldn't be inviting all of the candidates over to have a beer -- because apparently that's the new standard?

George Will: I feel so sorry for Iowa. What you people have to put up with is amazing.

Brian Gongol: I'm curious: Is part of this driven by the fact that, in addition to the Presidents going to the people as though they're buddies, is that what leads to this notion that there should be no separation between the public desire and the public hunger for things and government's responsibility to hold back what some of those desires are?

George Will: I think that's exactly right. A government has to have the strength to say no.

Brian Gongol: And speaking of saying no, that gets us to Chapter 4 where you have some very interesting thoughts about the courts. For a long time, I couldn't figure out what my problem was with Antonin Scalia, the [associate] justice of the Supreme Court, because I wanted to like him, but there were times where he just pushed me too far. And I think you explain why.

George Will: Mr. Scalia disliked the doctrine that the Constitution should be read in light of the Declaration of Independence. He thought there was no philosophy in the Constitution. I think the Constitution was written to implement and institutionalize all of the impulses, the philosophic prepositions, of the Declaration.

Brian Gongol: In fact, I think you even call out the fact that there's a reason it's "four score and seven years ago".

George Will: Correct. That's when Lincoln said the nation began; he reminded us, not when the Constitution was ratified, but when the Declaration of Independence was written.

Brian Gongol: So when they did put together the Declaration of Independence, it is a list of grievances, but it's also an expression of why those grievances matter to us and our rights as human beings. So is that really the document that lays the groundwork? If we had to throw something out -- if you had to choose between the two, would you have to toss out the Constitution before you toss out the Declaration of Independence?

George Will: Well, I don't want to get rid of either, but as Lincoln said, the Constitution is the frame of silver for the apple of gold, and the apple of gold is the Declaration -- but let's keep both. Let's bear in mind that Woodrow Wilson -- again, the first President to criticize the American Founding -- urged Americans not to read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration because he said it would just mislead them as only "Fourth of July rhetoric".

Brian Gongol: Well, I guess he's technically right about the Fourth of July part, but the rest of it? It's not just rhetoric. But you say, in fact, that part of this is because of understanding due process and the the position of the courts. This was really eye-opening to me: this whole notion that we're not just saying it's a democratic process, but rather a due process that each of us is is owed and part of that comes from the courts.

George Will: Of course it does, and "due process" means not arbitrary, not capricious, and reasonable.

Brian Gongol: That seems seems to be at odds with those who would want to say, that all the judges that are "activists" should be tossed out. Has that shorthand really poisoned the way that we think about the role of the courts?

George Will: I think it has. I think often when we urge courts to deference to majoritarian institutions, we're really urging courts to a dereliction of their duty -- which is to supervise the excesses of democracy.

Brian Gongol: Those excesses obviously come from time to time and in different waves. We see the worst of them maybe when we look at the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II or things like that, but there are little nibbles of those challenges to minority rights -- and by "minority", we just mean anybody, including the creedal minorities in America too, right?

George Will: Sure. I don't want to get political; you get far too much of that on your plate out there in Iowa anyway, but a good many of our my Democratic friends are campaigning against an unpopular moneyed minority this year. They're trying to arouse the majority against the rich. Now, the rich may not be a particularly sympathetic minority, but they are a minority and we should be aware of the fact that we have people running for President promising to wield majority power against this minority.

Brian Gongol: If we were to substitute other things in there for "millionaires" or "billionaires", as some candidates are wont to say, I imagine you might be looking at hate crimes in some cases.

George Will: That's a thought.

Brian Gongol: So that does lead us though into another question. And I think this one really caught my attention as well. I was an economics major in college one of the reasons that I found it so fascinating was it explained so much of human relationships. You have a theory here that we have mislabeled "economics" and we ought to fix that.

George Will: It ought to be called what it originally was called when Adam Smith invented it in his great book, "The Wealth of Nations" -- which, by the way, was published in the resonant year 1776. It ought to be called "political economy" because any economic system is a government creation. It sounds like a paradox, but laissez-faire, free-market economics is a government creation. It takes laws and courts and judges and rules against fraud and arbitration and the rest, so government has a role to play in equipping people to seize the opportunities of a free society.

Brian Gongol: That was actually one of the lines that I thought was just the best. I put double stars next to this one: "The Founders intended the Constitution to promote a way of life, and they understand that to promote a way of life is to promote a kind of person." What kind of person did the Founders really want us to be?

George Will: Well, there were two particular Founders. They were rivals and they had contrasting visions: Jefferson wanted a large republic, thinly settled by rural yeomen who would be stable, rural people -- rather like Thomas Jefferson. His great adversary, Alexander Hamilton, wanted restless urban enterpreneurial, investing, striving people, rather like Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson gave us our rhetoric, but Alexander Hamilton gave us our country.

Brian Gongol: I guess we should probably thank him for some of that, especially because of the progress that it entails. I mean, I really was fascinated by your test here of being a billionaire in 1916. Can you tell us about that?

George Will: Yes: It's a thought experiment for people when they're feeling sorry for themselves for whatever problems we have in 21st Century America. In 1916, John D. Rockefeller, because of a surge in the value of Standard Oil stock, became America's first billionaire -- and this was a billion 1916 dollars. So it was really serious money.

Here's my thought experiment: Suppose I would allow you to be as rich as Rockefeller in 1916, but you had to live in 1916. Would you take that deal? And I often suggest this to groups I'm addressing, and by the time I'm done explaining it, few people say they would be willing to go back to 1916 -- and do without modern travel, antibiotics, modern dentistry. Don't even think of getting a toothache, by the way, in 1916. And about 1 in 10 Americans had a toothache is any given time in 1916. And don't think you're going to go out to a Chinese or Indian restaurant, because America didn't have any back in those days. By the time people think about all the possibilities they wouldn't have, they say we'll forego being a billionaire and live in the 21st Century and understand how fortunate we are.

Brian Gongol: As rightly we probably should! And that also, I suppose, reflects the fact -- and you mentioned just going out to a different type of restaurant -- that as we have a more interesting, more developed society, it does get more complex. Some people don't like that, but you argue that it's actually very important to the conservative understanding of the world.

George Will: Here's the conservative sensibility in a nutshell: A wise person said that the Bible reduced to one sentence is, "God created man and woman and then lost control of things". The conservative likes things being out of control. The conservative sensibility does not seek control by government or anyone else. The conservative sensibility finds the flux and uncertainty of a free-market society exhilarating and creative.

Brian Gongol: But you also tie that, not just to the enjoyment of those things, but also to a recognition that the world being complicated means we have duties in the world. How do we get those duties pressed into the heads of each generation?

George Will: You learn it in school, in part, and you learn it in families. The biggest problem America has domestically is family disintegration: The fact that 40% of all first births today in America are out of wedlock; the fact that a majority of mothers under 30 are not living with the fathers of their children. That's a stunning statistic. And schools are failing for a lot of reasons, partly because in a society afflicted with family disintegration, schools have to do some of the work of families which they're really not equipped to do. But also because so many of the educating class in the United States has a kind of adversarial stance to American history and American institutions right now.

Brian Gongol: This does seem to be a place where we do have conflicting goods and interests because somebody might say "Shouldn't we just come in and mandate that everybody in all 50 states should have to study the classics and have to study history?" Doesn't that get right into the overreach of government at the national level that we're so worried about?

George Will: Absolutely. The government's overreach became official in the mid-1960s when it passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been re-upped about eight times now, thereby intruding government into the quintessentially state and local responsibility of primary and secondary education.

Brian Gongol: And that is one that we haven't reversed; it's clearly expanded only ever more since then. And yet, I don't think that we see it in results. But this isn't just about what the results are; obviously, if something doesn't produce the right results, you might want to toss it out anyway. But I think you see it and you've explained it as not just a failure in terms of results -- and this includes all progressivism, really -- but also in terms of philosophy, that's just it's built on a bad foundation.

George Will: Precisely. For a long time, everyone agreed that the best predictor of a school's performance was the amount of money you spent on it. Problem is, after the Second World War when the Baby Boom generation began going through the public schools like a pig through a python, we spent money on the schools, teacher salaries went up, class sizes went down, everything got better -- except test scores! And so we've had to rethink our optimism that you could simply improve things by spending money on the schools.

Brian Gongol: Is that something that ultimately is going to be fixed from within? Is it going to take individuals at the community and state levels who say "We want something better" to ride to the rescue? I'm just curious who rides to the rescue in terms of fixing this, considering it is not only so large a problem, but so foundational a problem. Is this something that only gets spurred by local-level intervention; people at the community level, at the state level, riding to the rescue much like Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia?

George Will: There is no question that if it's going to be solved -- and that's a big "if" -- it's going to be done at the local level, because we cannot expect the Department of Education crouched down there in a vast building at the foot of Capitol Hill to fine-tune our school districts across this country. The people of Iowa certainly don't need that.

Brian Gongol: Ultimately, what this sort of drives toward is is what I guess you get to in a bigger theory here, which is that we actually have to be pessimists. It doesn't sound like you're really a pessimist, but you call for a sense of pessimism. What's that about?

George Will: Yes. I say my book is, in one sense, a summons to pessimism, because -- that's not fatalism, by the way, it's not giving up -- it's just wariness because there are so many ways that things can go wrong in a free society. Pessimism is reasonable, but it's not an occasion for despair.

Brian Gongol: It's also something that requires something of us: I liked your line when you said "Conservatism depends on eliciting from citizens public-spirited self-denial". I don't think we're very good at the self-denial part at all.

George Will: Well, the entire ethos of our society is self-expression, self-indulgence, more consumption, more indulgence of our appetites. Some of this is healthy. Much of it is healthy. But it's not sufficient for a healthy society.

Brian Gongol: So this pessimism that you call for, when you say "not fatalistic", we don't think that we're doomed, [but] what we do have to fear that there's always sort of a monster chasing us at all times, right?

George Will: No one's chasing us except our own aspirations. The beauty of being an American is that we had such a glittering founding, with such high aspirations expressed in such ringing and memorable rhetoric, that we tend to feel as though it's been downhill ever since. Well, it hasn't been. We're a big country. We have big problems, but we have enormous achievements.

Brian Gongol: So the Founders might be proud of us, but they might also want to spur us on to a little additional self-denial and a little more virtue, right?

George Will: The founders were great warriors and some of their worries were farsighted.

Brian Gongol: I have to ask one final question here. I noticed that in the print edition of the book you come out to five hundred thirty-eight pages on the final version of the book. Is that just a divine coincidence or was that a nod to the Electoral College?

George Will: I hadn't even noticed that, to tell you the truth -- but I'm a big fan of the Electoral College, so I'll take it.

Brian Gongol: You take whatever mediating events and circumstances can keep us from going off the rails, I suppose.

George Will: Yes.

Brian Gongol: What a magnificent book; again, this is just so thoughtful and intelligent and it is worthwhile. And I have to say I admire so well your ability to not only routinely put words into seven and eight hundred words series to tell us things about what are happening in the current day, but then this book, "The Conservative Sensibility" does not fall into just being a mishmash of newspaper columns. This is completely thought-out. You really must have spent a great deal of time on this.

George Will: I did, but it's such a pleasure to be able to write beyond 750 words.

Brian Gongol: It must be. "The Conservative Sensibility", George Will -- it is a magnificent book strongly recommended to you all and again, thank you so much for making time to be with us here on WHO Radio!

George Will: Thank you for the time. I appreciate it.

Brian Gongol

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