The George Will We’ve Lost
The Washington Post columnist has transformed from a subtle and thoughtful conservative to a bog-standard free marketeer—a great loss.
On Friday in Toronto, the British commentator Ash Sarkar and I faced off against George Will and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, M.P., for a debate on classical liberalism. The motion before the 2,700-strong audience was: Liberalism gets the big questions right. Sarkar and I stood opposed to it, she coming from a leftist perspective and I mounting a Catholic (or Christian-democratic) critique; Will and Rees-Mogg took up the liberal cause.
Spoiler alert: Sarkar and I swayed the audience to our side, making us the winners, per the rules of the Munk Debates, which organized the encounter. A majority of the audience still professed faith in classical liberalism by the end of the discussion. Yet the pro-liberal share had shrunk considerably, to 61 percent, down from 75 percent at the outset, one of the largest ever shifts in before-and-after audience voting in the history of the Munk Debates.
Yet the win tasted bittersweet to me. The whole thing reminded me of the tragedy of George Will’s intellectual decline.
The Washington Post columnist has turned from a common-good conservative, well ahead of his time, into a doctrinaire libertarian, for whom market liberalism is identical with “freedom,” and all alternatives are recipes for totalitarianism; from an advocate for prudent market regulation to a defender of “creative destruction” for its own sake; from a careful expositor of the notion that governments can never ultimately be neutral about the telos of human life to a champion of neutrality and the idea that politics and ultimate meaning can be easily sifted apart.
The old George Will had a supple grasp on political philosophy, ranging confidently from Cicero and Augustine to Burke and Solzhenitsyn. The new one grumbled that parents worried about addictive screens should learn to parent better, and that Operation Warp Speed was a testament to the genius of unfettered capitalism (apparently forgetting that the federal government both sponsored the research and indemnified the Covid vaccine-makers against lawsuits of all kinds).
Here’s how I framed the “big questions” in the motion: What are human beings? And what makes them come together to form political communities? The answers classical liberalism gives to these questions are terribly wrong, I argued, and they’ve yielded societies defined by eye-watering inequality, profound alienation, and the tyranny of the selfish.
The George Will of old would have agreed with me. For a very long time, he once wrote, “the core consensus of the Western political tradition” was that human beings are “naturally social.” Political community comes naturally to the human animal, who yearns for the common good, which is also his or her own good as an individual part of the whole. In this older telling, Will said, “freedom is not only the absence of external restraints”—it’s about freeing ourselves from selfish passions, with politics and law guiding us to fulfill our social natures and thus to become more fully human.
Liberal ideology trashed this “core consensus.” Human beings, for liberalism, are little more than self-interested brutes, thrown into a brutish world and naturally at war with their fellows. We form the political community because we fear each other. The best politics can achieve, then, is to let everyone maximize their self-interest, and hope the public good emerges “spontaneously” out of this ceaseless clash of human atoms.
As a younger thinker, Will wasn’t very fond of the liberal answer. He doubted that people motivated solely “by anxiety about their physical safety and the security of their property” could build humane, decent communities. The common good, he worried, is bound to get lost “in societies founded” upon “individual self-interestedness.”
The George Will of 1983—the year he published his masterpiece, Statecraft as Soulcraft—was a withering critic of the sort of “conservatism” espoused by the George Will of 2023.
In 1983, Will ridiculed the idea that “governments should be neutral in major conflicts about social values,” which, he said, “is only slightly more peculiar than the idea that governments can be neutral” (my emphasis). Even insignificant policy questions, he noted then, invariably rest on some idea of what human beings are and how they flourish best. All governments take moral and metaphysical stances, even and especially those that disavow such judgments. This recognition, Will moreover insisted, is nothing novel, but goes back to Aristotle. It was the liberal idea of neutrality that represented a rupture with the “core consensus” of the Western tradition.
In 1983, Will argued for an energetic government that paid close attention to how the forces of law and economics shape, or misshape, the character of citizens. He took notice of how too many fellow conservatives fret about “the moral makeup of ‘society.’” This, even as they “believe that the public interest is produced by spontaneous cooperation of individuals making arrangements in free markets”—a conviction based not on “empirical” findings, but quasi-religious zeal.
In 1983, Will argued that there “can be no such thing as purely private moral choices.” Market-based exploitation, the production and abuse of porn and other addictive technologies, abortion and euthanasia—all such supposedly “private” behaviors have “large and intolerable consequences,” and couldn’t be left to pure individual consent without grave cost. Conservatives who press the contrary view, Will noted, are at odds with the near-unanimous voice of the West’s greatest sages going back to Plato.
In 1983, Will insisted on the modern salience of the old-fashioned term political economy. After all, he averred, “it is folly to try to seal off all arguments about ‘economic choices’ from political, meaning moral, choices.” Wrote Will:
Today’s conservatives are apt to insist that the great virtue of their economic doctrine [libertarianism or neoliberalism] is that it separates politics and the economy. But if economic policy is not politics — the authoritative assignment of social values — then what is? Today’s conservatives have a remarkably bifurcated view of the world. As a result, they often seem like startled innocents, alarmed at the social consequences of the economic doctrine that serves as their political philosophy, unaware that ‘social issues’ and ‘economic policy’ are inseparable facets of ‘the political.’
In 1983, George Will lamented that a trait that “used to be considered a defect, self-interestedness,” had become the pillar of Western society. He was right. Human beings are more than selfish atoms in competition. True freedom is about more than taking advantage of the other guy up to the limit of the law. And politics is about ensuring that our common life befits the social creatures we are, not nurturing our anti-social passions.
Why the author and columnist has decided to play a sort of intellectual Benjamin Button, regressing from wisdom into political immaturity, is one of the great mysteries of American letters. It is unspeakably tragic.