In June 2016, nationally-syndicated columnist George Will announced that he had quit the Republican Party. “I left for the same reason I joined in 1964 when I voted for Barry Goldwater. I joined it because I was a conservative. But I leave for the same reason, that I am a conservative.”
Sadly, many conservatives who joined the Trump bandwagon shunned Will. Fox News declined to renew his contributor contract in January 2017.
Such treatment was unfair because Will has been for over 40 years a most learned and civil spokesman for conservatism — second only to the late William F. Buckley Jr.
Despite the injustice, good has come out of the controversy: Will has taken the time to do what eluded Buckley. He has written a splendid magnum opus on the meaning of American conservatism that I hope will have a wide audience.
In "The Conservative Sensibility," Will, who earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Princeton, stresses that conservatism for him is about conserving the wisdom of the nation’s founders. “This book,” he writes, “is my attempt [to show] the continuing pertinence of the Founding principles, and by tracing many of our myriad discontents to departures from these principles.”
For the Founders there are pre-existing natural rights by which all manmade rules must be measured. Hence, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founders rejected the view of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) that man does not possess the power of reason to discover natural rights and that man is not a social or moral being and does not naturally form society. Jefferson criticized Hobbes view of man as “a humiliation to human nature.”
Instead the Founders turned to John Locke (1632-1704) for guidance. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that man is naturally social and that a natural law exists that confers rights. Locke wrote: “God, having made man such a creature that in his own judgment it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligation of necessity, convenience, and inclination to drive him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it. The first society was between man and wife, which gave beginning to that between parents and children…”
“The case for limited government,” Will observes, “is grounded in the empirical evidence that human beings have something in common — human nature — but are nevertheless incorrigibly different in capabilities and aspirations.” Because there is universal human nature, the Founders held there “can be universal principles of political organization and action.”
And thanks to the genius of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, a federal government was devised based on a separation of powers, that ensures “self-interests of rival institutions check one another,” and prevents a majority from violating “the natural rights of any person or group of persons.”
Will goes on to contrast the Founders governing philosophy with Progressivism, which is rooted in President Woodrow Wilson’s “managerial liberalism” that rejects Madison’s constitutional architecture.
“The Founders republicanism was based on individual rights; Wilson’s democratic theory made those rights subordinate to collective rights, the community. The rights that is, of majorities, those potentially oppressive collectivities that the Constitution’s Framers tried to improve, tame, leash and circumscribe.”
Wilson rejected the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and longed for the natural rights tradition to be “scrubbed out of American history.” He strived to supplant a “government of persons” with disinterested administrative experts.
To achieve that end, Wilson redefined the Constitution as a “skeleton frame of a living organism” whose purpose was to increase the power of the state by empowering “the passionate beliefs of the efficient majority of the nation.”
This collectivist approach, implemented by enlightened administrators, Wilson believed, would create a nation “where men can live as a single community, cooperative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive.”
That ideology shaped F.D.R.’s New Deal and Second Bill of Rights and L.B.J.’s Great Society and War on Poverty.
As for the impact on America: instead of securing rights that pre-exist government, Will writes, “the word ‘rights’ is coming to be used interchangeably with ‘entitlements.’ Hence the unspoken but unmistakable supposition is that the more entitlements people enjoy the more rights they have — and that rights like entitlements trickle down from government.”
Will calls on conservatives to provide the leadership to temper “government hubris and overreach” and to persuade Americans that “their political appetites are large parts of the problem.”
He concedes the task will be difficult because restoring “the dignity of constitutional government depends on restraints of a sort that do not come easily to conservatives or any other Americans.” But, Will concludes, the restraints requisite for limited government, “will come only from thoughtful reverence from the nation’s founding, a reverence that not only honors the memory of the Founders but is conscientious in understanding their principles.”
"The Conservative Sensibility" is essential reading for Americans interested in understanding our present discontents and in reversing our political fortunes.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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