George Will Still Believes in Classical Liberalism 

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Three years ago, George Will, America’s foremost conservative newspaper columnist, officially quit the GOP over its acquiescence to Donald Trump. “This is not my party,” he said then. It’s even less so now.

Yet the erudite author and television commentator is not ready to give up on conservatism just yet. In his career-punctuating new book The Conservative Sensibility (Hachette Books), Will makes the forceful argument that the natural rights–based classical liberalism of James Madison is the antidote to authoritarianism found on both the Trumpian right and the progressive left.

In June, Reason‘s Matt Welch spoke with Will about the importance of rehabilitating America’s withered constitutional architecture.

Q: Why, in 2019, do we need to be talking about the ideological battle between the legacies of James Madison and Woodrow Wilson?

A: Madison said that natural rights come first and government comes second, and that government’s role is to protect natural rights. Woodrow Wilson said Madison’s constitutional architecture, with its Newtonian equilibrium between the branches of government, was fine when there were 4 million of us and 80 percent of us lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater. But he said we have reached a point of enlightenment and scientific knowledge that we don’t need to worry about factions anymore. So when Wilson said we needed “more nimble government,” one that can act with a force that is simply impossible under Madison’s architecture, it flowed from that that we had to have presidential government.

Q: People have come to think you can jettison the nasty parts of Wilson’s Progressive model and keep just the good stuff. 

A: Alexis de Tocqueville said that historical amnesia is a systemic problem of democracies, which are forward-looking at all times. We decided, as you say, to keep the good parts of Progressivism, but the good parts of Progressivism bear a family resemblance to the bad parts, which is a sort of overbearingness.

Q: Your book talks about a lot of heroes of libertarianism, but it’s called The Conservative Sensibility. Why is that?

A: Because American conservatism, rightly understood, is the legatee of classical liberalism. American liberals turned on their own legacy of limited government and resistance to authority, and conservatives like Barry Goldwater took that over by giving us a kind of American West conservatism. Conservatives who say they want to “make America great again” have imported European conservatism: blood and soil, throne and altar, ethnicity and language. European conservatism is about preserving hierarchies. American conservatism is about reconciling people to constant churning and the radical openness of spontaneous order.

Q: This sounds a lot like what Virginia Postrel calls dynamism

A: She said the most wonderful thing: The Bible reduced to once sentence is “God created man and woman, and then lost control of things.” The conservative sensibility says, “Good! We don’t want control. That’s the whole point.” The anti-conservative sensibility says, “Oh, that’s dangerous. It’s tiring. It’s worrisome.” This anti-conservative hostility toward the constant churning of a free society is about to produce what I call “the big flinch.” It’s leading people to say, “Enough. We’ve had it. We’re going to hunker down.”

The problem is that the American people, whether they know it or not, have already made a choice. When they decided to have an entitlement state, they made enormous demands on their future productivity. And when you do that, you better attend to your future productivity. So they are wedded to economic dynamism whether they know it or not.

Q: Are you trying to make the argument that Ronald Reagan made to Reason in 1976, when he said that the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism? 

A: Classical liberalism was born in response to established churches and entrenched hierarchies. It defines itself in reaction against oppressive institutions. There is that liberty gene in American conservatism.

Q: You hate the phrase Flight 93 election. Why is that? 

A: Because it bandies about the idea that we’re in a crisis. We’re not in a crisis. Things are messy. We’ve had one constitutional crisis, and that was in 1861. Watergate was not a crisis; it was misbehavior.

Q: Is there something in the economic triumphalism of the last 30 years that missed a big problem that nationalists are eager to fix?

A: Some people have been casualties of the very process that has enriched the majority of us. And they are resentful, which is understandable, and they should be helped as much as possible. But there is another critique of classical liberalism that is profoundly dangerous, which is that it doesn’t give us meaning in life. “Politics doesn’t intoxicate me and fill me with a sense of worth, identity, and mission.” Good! We’ve had quite enough of politics that promised those things. A new Soviet man. A new Aryan man. Politics shouldn’t be that important.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillepsie.

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