In June, an announcer on CBS observed, “George Will is essentially unchanged from the way he looked forty years ago.” He still wears Brooks Brothers. He still parts his hair on the left. And in politics, while lesser men have compromised with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, Will has stayed true to his convictions: “His politics, like his appearance, are essentially unchanged.”
Not quite. Though Will still claims to be a conservative, he has radically changed what he means by that term. In 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft, Will argued that government inevitably does legislate morality, and indeed “should do so more often.” He rejected “the idea that governments should be neutral in major conflicts about social values.” He denied that “the public interest is produced by the spontaneous cooperation of individuals making arrangements in free markets.” He confessed his “deviation from laissez-faire orthodoxy,” and announced, “It is time to come up from individualism.”
In 2019’s The Conservative Sensibility, Will employs the same gentlemanly prose—to opposite ends. He states that government should refrain from “imposing its opinions about what happiness the citizens should choose to pursue.” He maintains that men should be “free to maximize their satisfactions according to their own hierarchy of preference.” He concludes that the public interest can, after all, be achieved “in the spontaneous order of a lightly governed society.” He frets over the fact that the poor pay no income tax, and describes the rich and corporations as “unpopular minorities.” He champions “individualism and the rights of the individual.”
Despite his complete ideological reversal, Will has remained remarkably consistent in his self-styling. In 1983, he lamented that America contained “almost no conservatives, properly understood.” Today, he again calls conservatism “a persuasion without a party.” His positions have changed, but his pose has not. He is still the lone True Conservative.
Most liberal newspapers and magazines publish at least one True Conservative columnist. This pundit claims the mantle of conservatism while condemning the mass of actual conservatives. Though he writes for prominent outlets, the True Con projects an air of noble isolation and heroic suffering. He is willing to suffer for principle, unlike those vulgar and craven “conservatives” with less prestigious appointments.
Will writes more elegantly than most True Cons do, and he has shown a courage most True Cons lack, by denouncing the systematic killing of infants with Down syndrome. But like most of the rest, he has grown markedly more liberal with time. Are the True Cons committed to principle, or to the appearance of being principled? When the high tone proves more consistent than the high ideals, it is hard to take the act seriously.
Will’s ideological transformation can perhaps be explained by the one common element in these otherwise irreconcilable books. In both, America is conflated with liberal individualism. In Statecraft as Soulcraft, Will therefore concludes that America was “ill founded.” In The Conservative Sensibility, he instead celebrates the founding as the first inbreaking of Hayek’s transcendent philosophy. In both cases, America is not so much a nation as an idea. This is Will’s one fixed point—and his fundamental error.
Our foundations are broader and deeper than a single “founding” moment, tendentiously identified with the views of a few deistic slavers. William Bradford was one of our founders. So was Lord Baltimore. These men were communalists, not individualists; Christians, not liberals. For Will, they might as well not exist. He has spent his otherwise incoherent career propounding what Barry Shain, a professor of political science at Colgate University, calls “the myth of American individualism”—a myth that cannot survive contact with reality. Shain notes that the overwhelming majority of Americans at the time of the founding considered the individual “radically incomplete living outside an enveloping and ethically intensive community.” They believed that “the common or public good enjoyed preeminence over the immediate interests of individuals.”
These Americans believed that property was not an absolute right, but a trust received from God to be used for all. The Vermont Declaration of Rights stated that “private property ought to be subservient to public use.” Benjamin Franklin, the most commercial of the framers, believed men had a natural right to whatever property was necessary “for the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species.” But he also believed that “all property superfluous to such services is property of the public, who by their laws have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it.”
Will is hostile to such views, as he is hostile to the Christian beliefs that underlie them. Whenever religion comes up, his professorial demeanor breaks down. He speaks of the “immaculate conception” of Jesus, apparently unaware that the dogma refers to Mary. He is outraged by Whittaker Chambers’s quip that man without mysticism becomes a monster, and claims that Chambers thereby “excommunicat[ed] atheists, agnostics, and skeptics . . . from the human community.” On the contrary: When Chambers first came to believe this maxim, in 1937, he was not even sure that he believed in God.
Will presses the same charge against Russell Kirk, even though Kirk was well aware that (in his words) “Not all religious people are conservatives; and not all conservatives are religious people.” Will also criticizes Kirk for writing in praise of European-style aristocrats “bred in a place of estimation.” Will might have a point if these were Kirk’s words, but in fact they are Edmund Burke’s. Though Kirk sometimes quoted them, he always identified Burke as their author. On one occasion, he quoted them precisely to make the point that Revolutionary America had a natural aristocracy to rival that of any nation.
Will labors to discredit Chambers and Kirk because they challenge his claim that America is univocally liberal and ultimately secular. Like many other True Cons, he has chosen to ignore or disparage what Shain calls the “enduring, democratic, Christian, and communal” tradition of America. This tradition is far from perfect, but it can be built upon and improved.
It is striking, but it should not be surprising, that Will’s youthful posturing against a caricatured America gave way to an embrace of that very caricature. It is a hard thing for a man to stand against his country. No matter how much he dislikes a philosophy, he will have trouble rejecting it if it is the exclusive tradition of the land he loves. This is what Will wrongly took liberalism to be. Countless Americans have known that individuality and community, liberty and Christianity, go together and should not be opposed. But Will ignored this chorus. That was his fatal error. The later embrace of liberalism was its predictable after-effect.
Will's praise of liberalism would be more convincing if he did not claim for it the virtues of other things. He opens his book by describing the Battle of Princeton as an “illustration of the history-making role of individual agency.” The selfless deaths of American patriots are thus enlisted for the ideology of self-interest. He evokes the aristocratic aesthetics of Princeton—on his way to enthusing about social flux. He says that the universe itself is a testament to the godless miracle of spontaneous order, thereby giving his economic ideas an unearned religious sheen. He questions tradition, hierarchy, and religion, but seeks to drape their prestige around his cold and barren philosophy. Such arrogations are typical of liberal apologetics. Rule of law, free exchange, and religious toleration all predated liberalism and presumably will outlast it. But the liberal speaks as if they were his exclusive property.
The beauty of liberalism is always borrowed. It is like that of Kunigunde, the legendary crone who persuaded the world of her beauty, but whose teeth came from Munich and whose hair came from France, whose cheeks gained their rosy glow from powder mined in Hungary, and whose figure was formed not by flesh and bone, but by a corset made of Swedish steel. She attracted countless admirers, but when they sought satisfaction in her, they found only death and decay. Beguiled by her false charms, they could not see the real beauty of a young girl named Catherine.
George Will is drawn to the false charms of liberalism. He now says that conservatives “must accept the task of reconciling people to the disruption and churning that accompanies economic and cultural dynamism.” It would be a remarkable display of economic and cultural dynamism, one Will presumably would be obliged to cheer, if he and the other True Cons were replaced by writers who are not simply liberals. Until then, purported conservatives will continue to praise liberalism for virtues it does not possess, while neglecting the tradition that gives our culture its force and life.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.