When I was young, George Will was one of my heroes (I was an odd child). I admired his writing, his erudition, and his conservatism. In time, I even liked his bow ties. It has therefore been disappointing to watch him abandon conservatism for a dogmatic libertarian (or classical liberal, if you prefer) ideology.
He has been forthright about changing his mind, from denouncing those he once praised, such as Whittaker Chambers, to repudiating the ideas of his classic book, “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” His new dogmas have induced him to accuse those amalgamating under the “national conservatism” banner of being socialists. He also attempted to read a libertarian parable about the dignity of going “west seeking work” into John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”—a novel interpretation that reveals more about Will than the (overrated) book.
On the National Review website, Will’s syndicated column against “national conservatism” recently appeared next to a Kevin Williamson’s article entitled “Job Security Is Not Coming Back”—and these columns ought to be read alongside each other. Williamson diagnoses what Will ignores: the technological and economic developments that gave us the iPhone and Uber have “upset longstanding social arrangements and put longstanding status relationships up for renegotiation.” According to this analysis, the economic policies that conservatives have promoted have undermined the social and cultural order that conservatism sought to preserve.
Williamson is not on team “national conservatism” nor impressed by their proposals, but he acknowledges the legitimacy of their complaint that today’s technologically driven global capitalism is not conservative; it liquidates traditions and communities, rather than protecting and renewing them. As he puts it, “An economy that rewards geographic mobility, professional flexibility, and financial risk-taking brings unintended social consequences with it, from undermining local relationships and civil society to encouraging norms of delayed marriage and parenthood.”
If this is correct, then conservatives must reckon with the ways the current economic system acts as a solvent upon the sources and supports of family, faith, and community. Both birthrates and marriage rates are declining. Individuals are still responsible for their choices, but market forces demanding detachment from their communities and the assumption of college debt to get a start in life, for example, can make it more difficult for ordinary people to settle down, get married, and raise a family.
How to respond to the social pressures technology and the market exert against family formation and stability is the central question facing conservatives. It is easy for conservatives to criticize the latest excesses of government or leftist ideology or political correctness. And we should. But we must also consider how to balance the benefits of technological innovation and global trade with the downsides.
Conservatives know how to resist the bad ideas of the left. We are less sure how to restrain or mitigate the harm that markets and new technologies can do to social cohesion and communities.
Thus, the task of conservatism is not to defend free-market orthodoxy at all costs, but to enable ordinary men and women to flourish and lead fulfilling lives This begins by protecting the primal community of mother, father, and child, then extending out through family and community relationships.
Conservatism is not about expanding overall human wealth as rapidly as possible, for conservatives know that human well-being is not just a matter of material wealth and physical gratification, but is dependent upon relationships. The material plenitude and plethora of easy entertainments available in our culture are insufficient for full human flourishing, and are being provided through an economy that erodes the stability that family and community require.
Government cannot restore the bonds of community, faith, and family; they develop in ways that cannot be replicated by a government edict. And conservatives must bear in mind the finitude and fallibility of human knowledge, and the imperfection of human motivations. Government power is a dangerous tool, and some of the national conservatives seem too sanguine about their ability to wield it.
Nonetheless, the state can help establish conditions (including economic ones) that are conducive to their restoration, so conservatives should consider the effects of government economic policies on society, as well as on the gross domestic product. Will once agreed with this sort of conservatism—that he has changed his mind does not make it socialism.
Economic policy choices are political choices that should be made with their likely social consequences in mind. Otherwise, as Will put it in “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” “conservatives…often seem like startled innocents, alarmed at the social consequences of the economic doctrine that serves as their political philosophy, and unaware that ‘social issues’ and ‘economic policy’ are inseparable faces of ‘the political.’” Conservatives, he argued, should not be bound by economic dogmas.
Economics is a science of individualism, true conservatives have a soft spot in their hearts for organic collectivity. It is small wonder that there is no truly conservative economic doctrine. True conservatives think people spend too much time thinking and acting ‘economically.’ …in the United States, which has always encouraged individualism, ambition and mobility at the expense of stability and community, real conservatism has been a marginal and primarily cultural school of criticism. Having hollowed out their political philosophy to make room for an economic doctrine—a doctrine that recommends capitalism for its unsleeping dynamism—contemporary American conservatives are in a singularly weak position to preform the traditional conservative function of judging and editing the social transformation that comes with the dissolution of old forms and modes of action. Traditional conservatism has not been, and proper conservatism cannot be, merely a defense of industrialism and individualistic ‘free market’ economics.
The market, Will argued, exists to satisfy the short-term interests and desires of the people. In contrast, “Government must take the long view. Government, unlike an economic market, has responsibilities. It has a duty to look down the road and consider the interests and needs of citizens yet unborn.”
How this is best to be done in the age of broadband and shipping containers is a difficult question. Williamson does not think there is much to be done; the tide of trade and technology cannot be turned back. He may be right, but at least he is considering the problem, whereas those who ignore it are certain to fail. And that failure will have dire consequences.
An inability by conservatives to balance the competing demands of economic freedom and social stability will do far more to ensure the triumph of real socialism than the national conservatism Will fears ever could. A populace of rootless gig workers with attenuated family ties and no permanent community is ripe for radical ideologies, or even revolution.