February 18, 2020

A Liberal Defense of Conservatism

“An old saying goes that people become more conservative as they age. George Will’s new book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” shows that the opposite can be true. This book is not so much a brief for conservatism as it is a learned and lengthy defense of liberalism: the philosophy of John Locke and America’s Founding Fathers; the economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman; and the theological skepticism of Lucretius and Charles Darwin. His is a rousing defense of a distinctly American form of “conservatism,” one that embraces a political, social and economic system that encourages novelty, dynamism and constant, unpredictable change. Thus, American conservatism — or classical liberalism — Will acknowledges, does not, and does not wish to, conserve very much.

Government is always and everywhere the nemesis in Will’s new book. The rise and growth of government thwart humans’ natural sociability, produce unintended consequences that pervert the beneficial logic of market forces, and undermine the health of civil society. Will looks to the wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers — especially the natural-rights philosophy of individual liberty embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the principles of limited government animating the Constitution — as the lodestars of his vision of a rebirth of American conservatism. Animated by a conservative skepticism of the belief in sufficient human knowledge to control circumstance, and a pessimism about the capacity of human beings to consistently act from noble intentions (or that such noble intentions are likely to lead to noble ends), Will calls for a minimalist state allowing for maximal expression of “spontaneous order.”

Will credits one Princetonian, James Madison, as the visionary who crafted the classical liberal political frame of individual liberty, economic dynamism and a constitutional mechanism that presumed human self-interest without counting on public virtue. He blames a second Princetonian, Woodrow Wilson, for contriving a second form of liberalism, grounded in a belief not in individual liberty but in the ability of government to fashion an equitable economy, make human beings more social in orientation and remake the world into a global liberal democracy. The growth of a sclerotic administrative state has been a consequence, leading to a decrease in individual economic liberty, manifold perversions of the markets by government intervention and bipartisan Wilsonian overconfidence in America’s ability to remake the world through liberal imperialism. A strength of libertarian analysis is the recognition of the perverse consequences and often opposite results of “do-gooder-ism,” and these constitute some of the strongest parts of Will’s book, including a welcome critique of the overweening confidence leading to the war in Iraq.”

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