George Will’s Ideological Switcheroo

This article appeared on Britannica Blog on June 1, 2007.

George Will's column in yesterday's Washington Post ("The Case for Conservatism") was interesting. You might say it demonstrates that George Will has accepted modernity, because his definitions of liberalism and conservatism are thoroughly modern, not historical. Consider:

Today conservatives tend to favor freedom….Liberalism increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.

Traditionally, of course, it was liberals who favored freedom and minimal government. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines liberalism as a "political doctrine that takes the abuse of power, and thus the freedom of the individual, as the central problem of government." Wikipedia is similar: "Liberalism refers to a broad array of related doctrines, ideologies, philosophical views, and political traditions which advocate individual liberty…. Broadly speaking, liberalism emphasizes individual rights."

Conservatism, on the other hand, according to Britannica, is a "political philosophy that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices." In many societies, of course, freedom is not a traditional practice. George Will may be talking strictly about American conservatism, in which case it is plausible to say that a conservative should want to preserve the traditional American institutions and practice of liberty and limited government. I have often wondered: What does it mean to be a conservative in a nation founded in libertarian revolution? If it means preserving the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, then a conservative is a libertarian — or what used to be called a liberal.

But what if one wants to conserve something else? Who's to say that the principles of 1776 are the right things to conserve? What if you wanted to conserve Southern plantation society? Or the rights and privileges of the British monarchy? Or the institutions of the Dark Ages? Or the traditional Indian practice of suttee, in which widows are expected to immolate themselves on their husband's funeral pyre?

That is why Hayek said that he was not a conservative — because conservatism is essentially a philosophy of "opposition to drastic change," but without any fundamental principles of its own other than serving as a brake on change.

But that's not the conservatism that Will describes. In his view conservatism is about freedom and a sober recognition of the limits of power. "Liberalism's core conviction [is] that government's duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Conservatism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths."

If that's the case, then there's been almost a complete switch of the philosophies of liberalism and conservatism. Indeed, it's intriguing to switch the words in Will's article. Try the quotation above with the words reversed:

Conservatism's core conviction [is] that government's duty is not to allow social change but to drive change in the direction the government chooses. Liberalism argues that the essence of constitutional government involves constraining the state in order to allow society ample scope to spontaneously take unplanned paths.

It still works, right? That's the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and F. A. Hayek. And if it's not the conservatism of Maistre or Shelley — who wanted government to resist change, not drive it — it might be the conservatism of those in contemporary society who want government to actively instill virtue in the citizens.

One might alternatively try substituting "liberalism" for "conservatism" in Will's essay, and "illiberalism" for "liberalism." Then we might get, for instance, "liberals tend to favor freedom, and consequently are inclined to be somewhat sanguine about inequalities of outcomes. Illiberals are more concerned with equality, understood, they insist, primarily as equality of opportunity, not of outcome." Or:

This reasoning is congruent with liberalism's argument that excessively benevolent government is not a benefactor, and that capitalism does not merely make people better off, it makes them better. Illiberalism once argued that large corporate entities of industrial capitalism degraded individuals by breeding dependence, passivity and servility. Liberalism challenges illiberalism's blindness about the comparable dangers from the biggest social entity, government.

Liberalism argues, as did the Founders, that self-interestedness is universal among individuals, but the dignity of individuals is bound up with the exercise of self-reliance and personal responsibility in pursuing one's interests. Illiberalism argues that equal dependence on government minimizes social conflicts. Liberalism's rejoinder is that the entitlement culture subverts social peace by the proliferation of rival dependencies. Maybe I'm dreaming of a golden age of liberalism that no longer exists, an age when liberals stood for freedom and limited government. Maybe.

But then maybe George Will is dreaming of a Platonic vision of conservatism, a conservatism committed to freedom and limited government, a conservatism that certainly isn't classical conservatism and isn't the conservatism of the contemporary conservative movement. But it was the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and of Ronald Reagan's speeches, and often of William F. Buckley, Jr. And maybe, just maybe, if George Will and a few of his conservative soulmates prevail, the conservatism of the future.

If I can dream of a liberalism that once again seeks to liberate the individual from the constraints of power, then Will can dream of a conservatism that actually favors freedom.