The Conservative Sensibility

George Will proved to me that he is much more erudite than I am, but he might have used his intelligence to write a shorter book. It seems to me that he was trying to pack in everything he knew. Sometimes he lost the theme, or maybe I did. As I said, he is more erudite than I am. With that in mind, I am not going to even try to include all the parts, but rather will concentrate on what I thought best.

Will starts out with a simple definition of American conservatism. American conservatives are similar but not the same as English conservatives. They are not much like conservatives in continental Europe. The reason is that conservatives conserve and their characters depend on what they are conserving. In parts of Europe, they are conserving (or maybe trying to revive) past aristocratic, royalist or authoritarian structures. We never had these in America, so American conservatives don’t conserve those things.

American conservatives, according to Will, are conserving the ideas of the American founding. American founding was based on classical liberal principles, so – confusingly – American conservatives are conserving the liberal tradition. Will did not originate this idea, BTW. I learned about this concept way back in the 1970s, when I was at University of Wisconsin.

Liberalism split in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Conservatives kept the liberal tradition, while those who called themselves liberals or progressives put more faith in centralized authority and government activity.

I don’t think that you can call Woodrow Wilson the villain of the book, but Will thinks Wilson was responsible for, or at least articulated much of the progressive ideas. Wilson is pushed the idea that government should have the power to address your needs. In this he built on what Theodore Roosevelt had done, creating the cult of the presidency.

World War I greatly advanced progressive effectiveness. Let’s think about those times for a minute. Restrictions on free speech, prohibition, scientific management, income taxes and concentration of power in the hands of “experts” were all progressive enterprises. The red scare that persecuted immigrants was carried out by progressives. Eugenics was a progressive idea and “scientific” racism was developed by progressive thinkers. In a remarkable feat of intellectual jujitsu, progressive have managed to get most people to associate the negatives with conservatives.

What does it mean to be a conservative in the USA?
First let’s stipulate that few politicians are conservative, even if they call themselves that. Progressives have natural advantages in politics, since they can promise people stuff and pretend to offer solutions and conservatives who want to get elected need to do that too. In what When there is a problem, government official ask HOW they will address, not whether government is appropriate. Conservatives and progressive struck an implicit bargain. Politicians on left and right provide more services than people would be willing to pay for and run up the debt.

Conservatives in America conserve the founding. That means we believe in limited government, dispersal of power, modest goals, personal responsibility and generally prudent leadership. If something NEED not be done it need NOT be done. Just say no.
The personal responsibility part is something Will covers at length and I generally agree. He talks about Obama and Elizabeth Warren talking about communal nature of society – the famous “you didn’t build that” idea. Will says that this is a straw man. Everybody knows that no individual is self-made, but that does not mean that individuals have no agency. If you have a successful firm, you did indeed depend on the general society, but you also built it. The two are no mutually exclusive.

Will sees that as a fundamental difference between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives believe that individual initiative matters. They know that history is contingent and has no direction that individuals do not give it. Things can have worked out very differently.

The government’s job is to create and maintain conditions so that individuals can prosper, not take care of people or create prosperity. Individual citizens, often working in voluntary cooperation, creates wealth, not government.

It is a good book. Takes a long time to get though and there is a lot of diverse information, but it is certainly worth it.3