[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

I don’t know how many people in the conservative public sphere read George F. Will closely any longer–maybe lots of them do, but as I don’t particularly identify myself with that sphere, I wouldn’t know. Perhaps he’s long since been filed away as predictable, establishment, whatever. But I’m pretty certain there was a time when the pronouncements of Will in his weekly columns carried a good deal of weight. They certainly did with me. Back in the 1980s, as a smart little Republican, I devoured the man’s writings. I had collections of all his old columns, never missed his bimonthly missive on the back page of Newsweek, and imitated his style whenever I could. I watched “This Week with David Brinkley” whenever I could, because Will was on there; when he showed up on “Donahue” or “Late Nate with David Letterman” (yes, he actually appeared on that show), I caught that too. Here’s how much of Republican intellectual dork I was back then: in my senior picture in our high school yearbook, I’m visibly clutching a copy of Will’s Statecraft as Soucraft: What Government Does, which remains his best book.

Unfortunately, also his only good book, and one that I doubt he could write today even if he wanted to, which clearly he doesn’t. (I say unfortunately because it’s a great book; I use it regularly in classes of mine today.) I don’t know when Will’s weekly pontifications lost their appeal to me; perhaps during the first Bush administration, when his irrational dislike for George Herbert Walker Bush came through in his arguments almost palpably. In any case, by the 1990s my evolution towards the left end of the political spectrum was well underway, and there came a time when running across a Will column would remind me that I hadn’t checked out his writings for years. I wonder how much that remains the case for conservative activists today. Certainly, from what I can tell, most of those on the left don’t even bother attacking his by-now exceedingly predictable, however erudite and intellectually sophisticated arguments any more; by the Clinton years Will was, with all his eloquence, still just another pretty reliable straight-laced Republican voice, and despite occasionally expressing some dislike of different elements of this or that aspect of the second Bush administration’s policies, for the past 15 years he’s remained that way.

It’s been interesting, then, to see Will’s recent attack on Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who helped design the Obama administration’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and has just announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate, receive such a thorough trashing in different parts of the mainstream media. Response from E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, or Bill Galston in The New Republic perhaps aren’t surprising, but for Rod Dreher to spend not one but two of his posts on the American Conservative website addressing the weakness of Will’s argument against Warren has to raise at least a couple of eyebrows. I don’t see a need to rehash all of this; suffice to say that Will’s attacks on Warren as a closeted collectivist, seeking to promote a government which will “socialize–i.e., conscript–whatever portion [of people’s wealth] it considers its share,” thereby “intimat[ing] the impossibility” of an individual being able “to govern oneself,” are frankly stupid. If Warren genuinely was an advocate of some kind of democratic state socialization, with an agenda to subject financial institutions like banks to nationalization, and to raise redistributive tax rates to those which exist in Sweden, that would be genuinely interesting. But of course, that’s not the case. Instead, what we have is an apparently quite smart but nonetheless standard technocratic liberal making exactly the sort of populist noises that us on the left have been wondering why Obama hasn’t been making for years. For Will to claim that Warren is part of a continuing movement to undermine the traditional liberal basics of the social contract, he has his work cut out for him.

So what’s most interesting here isn’t Warren, but Will. Because the man who wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft made it very clear that he wasn’t particularly enamored with the “traditional liberal basics” of the social contract either; on the contrary, he consistently pursued, in that book and through his columns and other writings, a much more classically republican or Tory position. Galston touches on this, reminding Will of his often-quoted Burkean argument that the social contract is much more than just protecting whatever wealth an individual has been able to accumulate (there are, for example, generations past and generations yet to come to consider…); and Dionne brings up the book itself, quoting Will on the fact that a reflexive anti-government attitude leaves us with a sense of community that is pretty thin. But the real decline of Will from a fairly unique (at least amongst the mainstream media) exponent of an “Oxford Movement”-style conservatism (the label which Will said in that book best describes his own views) to a position today which is perhaps only a step or two above the socialist-mongering common amongst the contemporary Republican party…well, it’s a little tragic to behold.

In Statecraft as Soulcraft, he thoughtfully argued:

Common sense, reason and history all teach that “strong government conservatism” is not a contradiction in terms….I will do many things for my country, but I will not pretend that the careers of, say, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences. Reagan’s fierce and ideological liberalism of the Manchester school and F.D.R.’s mild and improvised social-democratic program are both honorable persuasions….They are versions of the basic program of the liberal-democratic impulse that was born with Machiavelli and Hobbes. Near the core of the philosophy of modern liberalism, as it descends from those two men, is an inadequacy that is becoming glaring. [Anti-government] conservatism is an impotent critic of liberalism because it too is a participant in the modern [liberal] political enterprise (p. 23).

In other words, as many writers at Front Porch Republic have noted, American conservatism is simply a variation upon a particular, rather individualistic take, on the idea of the social contract which is common to the United States, both left and right. Will, at one time, could have made a criticism of Warren, and President Obama as well, from that basis–but perhaps too many years on the inside of the Republican party has shifted him towards a default libertarianism, in which the individual’s prerogatives, at least insofar as the entirety of their property is concerned, are to be privileged at the outset, a shift which allows him to characterize any discussion about taxation and regulation as “collectivism.” He used to know better than that.

[I]t is a non sequitur to say that because the state has a monopoly on legitimate coercion, its essence is [therefore] coercion….Proper conservatives proclaim, as Burke did, the gentling function of government. Proper conservatism teaches that…government exists to frame arrangements in order that they may, over time, become matters of trust. The enlargement of the realm of social trust does not presage the withering away of the state. But it does conduce to an increasingly comfortable fit between [government] institutions and the public, which, like a flowing river, is both a shaper of and shaped by the institutional “banks” between which it flows….[A] river without banks is incomprehensible; it is a contradiction in terms (pp. 95-96).

What about the argument that those banks have grown too large and are crowding us, that the political agenda of people like Warren and Obama are preventing individuals from building up those intermediate and democratic institutions which are the sort of banks real conservatives ought to praise? Today, it seems likely that Will might say exactly that; 30 years ago, he was willing to say something a little different:

[I]nstitutions that once were most directly responsible for tempering individuals–family, church, voluntary associations, town governments–with collective concerns [imagine: “collectivism”!] have come to seem more peripheral. Using [the central] government discriminatingly but energetically to strengthen these institutions is part of the natural program of conservatives. Far from being a rationale for statism, the political orientation I praise envisions prophylactic doses of government. It involves the use of government to prevent statism by enhancing the social competence of citizens….One way the government strengthens such institutions is by not usurping their functions. But that is not the only way. Government can plan positive inducements to vigor (pp. 151-152).

Now what we see here is the outlines of genuinely interesting argument, an argument between an American-style Tory and a progressive American liberal: is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–or, for that matter, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, or any kind of social insurance or income redistribution program, whether Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or the Veteran’s Administration or just about anything else–a government program capable of “strengthening” citizens in their ability to contribute positively, through various local institutions, to the development of their communities (including the American community), or is it an instance of individual responsibility or local organizations being “usurped,” thus contributing to the degradation of the citizenry? Presumably, the answer would differ in each case, because in each case we would be looking at a distinct government program with a distinct agenda serving a distinct population and funded through a distinct system of taxation. The Tory conservatism which Will used to endorse (and–who knows?–perhaps still does, behind the closed doors of his columns’ words) would have quickly acknowledged this kind of prudential judgment. But today, to admit, much less to intelligently engage, in that kind of argument requires one to acknowledge that there is more going on in contemporary politics than those who want to defend the One and Only True individualistic take on the social contract, and those who hate individual freedom and thus want to change the contract. Politics isn’t that tidy, and we shouldn’t pretend it can be.

Will ended Statecraft as Soulcraft with warning: that if conservatives were going to be able to add anything to this kind of argument over the balancing of various prudential demands and needs, they needed to face up to the fact “that government, although of human manufacture, is ‘natural’…as natural to man as clothes and shelter because it serves needs that are natural to man” (p. 160). There is an argument going on this country, to be sure, and it is an important one–but those who take the Tory side are few and far between. That’s a loss, and not just for a columnist who used to regularly have interesting ideas to go along with his very pretty words.

[Note: I just noticed that Scott Galupo made this same argument, months ago–though as a self-identified conservative, he may be able to make it much better than I. Check his take on Will’s decline out here.]

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  1. I stopped reading him a long time ago also – I’ve been assuming he made a career move, but maybe it was a philosophical sea-change. He’s a smart guy, and must have realized he was speaking for an increasing empty landscape – standing on the Maldives, so to speak, getting saltwater on those expensive leather shoes.
    Unfortunate, but not by any means the only one who choose to save the shoes.

  2. Russell, I had to smile as I read this, since I have “Statecraft as Soulcraft” on my bookshelf, along with several other Will collections. I used to think he was the smartest man in Washington, and he probably was. But it seems to me he has become a rather dour ideologue. When Elizabeth Warren says that “no one became rich by themselves,” she provides an antidote to the reigning liberal individualism that too often gets labeled “conservatism.” In fact, I’ll be speaking on this topic tomorrow in New Yawk.

  3. Well said, Dr. Fox, especially with Elizabeth Warren in view, who is one of the few individuals the corporate lobbyists actually feared because her record shows she would have actually done her job and done it well.

  4. An elegy for Mr. Will……not so fast buster, everyone is a bozo on this chartered bus. Finally, we have reached a benighted age that really can talk about “the Good Old Days” with confidence because they rilly rilly was much more gooder.

    The GOP was once characterized by several erudite litterateur. No longer, we are the slap happy recipients of Fox News and its vapid culotteers de la coiffeur, interviewing dingbats like Lindsay Graham….. off on another errand for our War Party, frothing at the mouth over one of the more preposterous alleged assassination plots in recent memory. One should always hold the breathless testimony of a DEA informant/agent at arms length. But it makes for serviceable distraction of course. This cockamamie dog and pony show is a conclusive demonstration that the bipartisan flaks in charge of this prison barge have no respect for either their opponent or their own citizens. But then, respect seems to have lost its lustre now aint it?

    Meanwhile, fear not gentle GAO, we have full employment in front of the boob toob.

    At least Mr. Will is a fine baseball fan with demonstrated credentials .

    One should never celebrate the decline of one’s opponents because it generally rebounds upon one’s own projection. We have now amply demonstrated that the race to the bottom of our earnestly striving political parties is turning the world’s longest running democracy into the world’s longest running farce.

  5. I think that it is possible to discern a continuum between Will the Tory, and Will the Libertarian. Men espouse political philosophies to further the interests of the collectives to which they belong, and to which they attach the highest value. As circumstances alter, the philosophy which better serves one’s primary interests alter in tandem. Add the fact that ones stated principles may not necessarily reflect one’s true priorities or allegiances, and the possibilities for confusion abound.

    Will’s (apparent) peripateticism can be explained with reference to; class, ethnicity and social status. His adherence to these dictates a change of tack with regards to his stated principles, and his change in philosophy is guaranteed by his constancy with regard to his highest and truest loyalties.

  6. Having studiously not read George Will for years, Professor Russell Arben Fox reports in garrulous detail about the old man’s decline over those very same years. Of Elizabeth Warren, whose reasoning is sluicing new banking regulations through the federal policy mill, the well ordered professor says not much.
    But if Mr. Will is wrong for calling out the collectivist elements of Ms. Warren’s thinking, what’s right about her vision for government management of the consumer banking industry?
    Perhaps that is our homework assignment from the professor.
    We know this much. Not only did Professor Fox stop reading Will but his fellow left-sphere travelers hardly bothered to criticize Will, so predictably erudite, sophisticated, eloquent, and (cover the children’s ears) straight-laced had he become.
    And what of the woman whose criticism defines Will’s decline? It would seem that Elizabeth Warren is a consumer advocate the way Lyndon Johnson was an advocate of the poor, whose communities and honorable strivings he carpet bombed with Great Society programs that propagated dependency, unemployment, crime and bastardy. She would wield Dodd-Frank’s Consumer Protection Act to fight usury the way Jimmy Carter wielded the Community Reinvestment Act to fight red-lining, only to launch a 30-year assault on mortgage lending standards such that bureaucrats at Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and their connected friends bobbed up as multi-millionaires in a tsunami of federally coerced funding that swept away the real estate market, investors in mortgage-backed securities, and unqualified home-buyers like so much flotsam and jetsom.
    Now Dodd-Frank is setting off an avalanche of regulation that will bury small community banks and raise operating costs that larger banks will endure until they can recover those costs plus some from the markets of their defunct smaller competitors.
    I’ll crib the rest of the homework assignment from Joseph Smith at American Spectator, http://www.americanthinker.com/2011/10/dodd-frank_disaster.html.
    Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, regulators have released a draft of the so-called Volker Rule, which runs some 298 pages, with 381 footnotes and 350 questions for public comment.
    The rule would limit bank risk in trading for their own accounts, but American Bank Association President Frank Keating, quoted at Forbes.com, asks how “such a simple idea could become so complex”:
    Regulators’ own estimates indicate banks will have to spend nearly 6.6 million hours to implement the rule, of which more than 1.8 million hours would be required every year in perpetuity. That translates into 3,292 years, or more than 3,000 bank employees whose sole job will be complying with this rule. They will be transferred to a role that provides no customer service, generates zero revenue and does nothing for the economy.
    The cost burden may sink smaller banks.
    Firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which converted to bank holding companies during the bailout era, may consider dropping their bank status to avoid dealing with the Volker Rule.
    Former Securities and Exchange Chairman Arthur Levitt, quoted at Bloomberg, observes that “this is going to be a long slog, and much of that rule that you see today is going to go up in smoke.”
    What you see is a massive exercise in bureaucratic wheel-spinning.
    The Volker rule is the result of just one of more than 500 sections in the 849-page Dodd-Frank bill. The Wall Street Journal has reported that there are 387 sets of rules imposed by the act, and the New York Times further reported last month that “regulators have missed deadlines for 77 percent of the rules so far.” And that was fourteen months after the July 2010 passage of Dodd-Frank.
    The Journal observes:
    The Dodd-Frank law has 849 pages, compared with 66 pages in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a 2002 law that overhauled accounting rules following the Enron scandal. The landmark Glass-Steagall Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and barriers between commercial and investment banking during the Depression, was a slim 34 pages.
    An industry insider calls Dodd-Frank a “full-employment act,” as the New York Times reports on the “legions of corporate accountants, financial consultants, risk management advisers, turnaround artists and technology vendors all vying for their cut.”
    The Times account, appropriately titled “Feasting on Paperwork,” notes that “the Dodd-Frank Act is quickly becoming such a gold mine that even Wall Street bankers, never ones to undercharge, are complaining that the costs are running amok.”
    Another Dodd-Frank mandate, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB … is an “independent bureau” within the Federal Reserve System, with the director appointed to a five-year term by the president and removable only for neglect or malfeasance. The Dodd-Frank law spells out the unchecked nature of the Bureau in Section 1012 (c) (2) and (3):
    …the Board of Governors may not… intervene in any matter or proceeding before the Director… No rule or order of the Bureau shall be subject to approval or review by the Board of Governors. The Board of Governors may not delay or prevent the issuance of any rule or order of the Bureau.
    While the CFPB director is required to appear periodically before Congress, there is no congressional oversight on funding. The director simply obtains funds from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors as needed, per Section 1017 (a) (1):
    … the Board of Governors shall transfer to the Bureau from the combined earnings of the Federal Reserve System, the amount determined by the Director to be reasonably necessary to carry out the authorities of the Bureau[.]
    A U.S. Chamber of Commerce officer, quoted by the LA Times, highlights the lack of accountability:
    It is neither good public policy nor common sense to suggest no changes to a structure that allows a single, irremovable individual to dictate terms or even ban consumer financial products, have access to more than half a billion dollars in funding per year outside the budget process, and make decisions that could undermine safety and soundness of financial institutions.

  7. The Death of Center-Leftism and the Decline of the Democratic Party

    By Jett Davis, BA Journalism/working on MS in Psychology

    In the midst of all the hoopla and hype over the debt ceiling and the federal budget, my mom asked me what did I think was driving Obama? My mom initially supported him. She even bought a porcelain plaque with his picture on it and put it up in the kitchen where I had to look at it every time I went to visit. Even though she didn’t go out to vote in 2008, her support was emotionally apparent. All of that changed, however, the longer she listened to him and became more engaged with the issues. Now she can’t stand him. She’s actually become a fan of Michelle Bachman and has even warmed up to Sarah Palin (though she still doesn’t think she’s experienced enough to be president). The fact that her view of Obama has evolved the more objectively–and factually–she looked at the issues provides a measure of hope for those of us who are trying to figure out how to break the anointed one’s spell over the populace before the 2012 election.

    I have the same issue with some of my liberal friends–especially the black ones. Their support of all things Democratic is reflexive. A vote for a conservative Republican is tantamount to racial treason. They view the world through the emotional prism of race and historical racial prejudice that all African-Americans (a term I hate because Africa is a very diverse continent, not a country) are indoctrinated into from birth. They then succumb to the same liberal emotional conditioning that all Americans are subject to from the two main institutions that carry out that process: the K-12 public school system and the media (both entertainment and news). Since I woke up in 2000 and moved toward a libertarian-conservative perspective (my evolution to that position over a fifteen year period will be enunciated and explicated in a book I’m working on) all of my left wing friends have turned their back on me. I’m persona non grata. Even my former best friend has cut the communication cord between us.

    A few years ago I asked him where he was at politically. He told me that although there were some conservative things he believed in (he didn’t get specific) he was still basically center-left. Of course, with American blacks their aversion to the more nuanced worldview of Republicanism (there are at least four, if not more, different kinds) is somewhat, if not exclusively, based on a whole host of historical fallacies and inaccuracies, not to mention the one key fact that most are either loathe to admit or completely ignorant of–that the Republican Party was founded as an anti-slavery (at least in the new territories) party. No, they weren’t abolitionists (initially), but they clearly didn’t want to see this evil system spread any further (beyond the Mississippi river) than it already had. The Democrats at the time were the party and the power of the South and of slavery. Indeed, it was their insistence on increasing their political dominance by proxy that led to the passage of the three fifths clause in the constitution. But that Democratic Party evolved and finally bought off the black community with a grab bag of affirmative action, quotas, minority set-asides, misinformation, public housing (ghetto-ization), welfare state dependency, and pop culture trinkets (and its attendant faux status).

    What I never said to my former best friend at the time of that conversation is what I’m going to say now: there is no such thing as center-left. The center-left perspective (as it were) died with the disintegration of the Lyndon Johnson administration. The anti-war riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 sparked the rise of the New Left which effectively put an end to Cold War liberalism and replaced it with a creeping Euro-style democratic socialism that has now completely taken over the once more pragmatic and common sense (under John F. Kennedy) Democratic Party. From the evolution of the McGovern wing of the party, to the rise and subsequent decline of the Carter Doctrine, to the ’80s rainbow campaigns of Jesse Jackson, to the triangulation of baby boomer Bill (Clinton, who graduated from Georgetown in ’68), and, finally, to the “hope and change” theme of Barrack Hussein Obama, the Democrats have clearly moved towards the only position open to them: further to the left and closer to a Gramscian (or Fabian, if you will) style socialism. Essentially, what we have in America right now are three political ideologies: the far left of the MoveOn.org (think George Soros) driven Democrats with their Hollywood activist mouthpieces, the status quo mushy middle of faux liberals and RINOs, and, lastly, the principled populist conservatism of the Tea Party (and Republican Study Committee).

    This historical process then begs the question: what happened to center-left Kennedyesque liberalism? For the most part, it succeeded. The Voting Rights & Civil Rights Acts passed. Jim Crow died. Roe v. Wade triumphed. Virtually every law that could be passed to defend the “rights” of protected classes of people has been passed. There is nowhere else for liberalism and the Democratic Party to go but further towards implementing full blown Marxist-informed socialism. Hence, the embrace of illegal immigrant rights and amnesty, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, socialized universal healthcare insurance, and the piece de resistance: an ever-expanding government (state and federal) that is now attempting to co-opt the middle class by providing dependency-inducing entitlements and will ultimately become 50% plus of the GDP (it’s currently ballooned to 36% after a historical high of 27% during the Great Society years). The GOP, on the other hand, wants a balanced budget amendment within which federal spending will be limited to 18% of GDP. And that’s what’s driving the Obama agenda–a dogged determination culled from his own reading of radical progressivism (again, socialism) to increase spending and expand the power of the party of government (the Democrats) in order to create a permanent governing majority for the left. And, in the process of expanding government, if your rights or property or freedoms are trampled on you will have no recourse because the internal logic of this new system will be the supremacy of the collective state over the individual.

    This is why there is no more center-left in America today. The evolution of the political spectrum has made it irrelevant. You can’t embrace a philosophy that no longer has a base or a reason for being (which is why the mushy middle mentioned above is scorned and rejected by both sides of the spectrum). The bottom line is that the Obamanistas know full well that a balanced budget amendment, spending cuts, and a cap on federal spending as a specific percentage of GDP (all contained in the House passed “Cut, Cap & Balance” bill) will permanently derail the continued implementation of the ever-expanding government philosophy and, possibly, give the Republicans a majority for decades to come. So when you hear Nancy Pelosi say that the Democrats are fighting to “save the world from the Republican budget,” and “to save life on this planet as we know it today,” you know the world she’s talking about is the inside-the-beltway world of Democratic politicians and the lives she’s speaking of are the political lives of those same Democrats; for without big government, they’ll all dry up and wither away–ironically, just like Karl Marx said the capitalist state ultimately would.

    July 30, 2011 @ 12:15 am

    To comment or reply: jettdavis@comcast.net

  8. I used to read what he would say until one day he as much as came out and said he was a social darwinist. I haven’t taken him seriously since then.

  9. George Will is wonderful and always has been — one of few columnists who is almost always informative. I’m not sure I’d think he was so wonderful if he thought he was a social darwinist, but he doesn’t talk like one. It seems that he and I both agree with the words that Elizabeth Warren said, and also oppose her real agenda and the left’s in general, which has very little relation to those words. The purpose for taxing the rich Obama-style has nothing to do with fair share, and everything to do with softening up the populace for taxes on everyone else, and for destroying any bit of individualism and community that threatens the socio-economic hegemony of the left, which means they will not stop short of destroying all means by which individuals and social communities can make consequential choices. Conservatives who think President Obama is waging class-warfare on the rich are barking up the wrong tree. They ought to be paying more attention to the fact that the leftDemocrats consistently join with establishment Republicans to enact tax and regulatory policies that destroy individualism and community, and which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. The crony capitalism of DOE grants to the likes of Solyndra is just one example among thousands. Warren’s brand of “consumer protection” would be another. Earl Bohn’s comment touches on several others.

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