George Will: Conservative Welfare State Champion

Many moons ago, when I was doing interviews for Reason magazine (with the likes of Bill Buckley, Edward Teller and Milton Friedman), we tried to get one with George Will who had just gotten his lucrative gig with Newsweek magazine (I think it was $75,000 for his weekly column he was just starting to pull down back in the 70s). He would agree, then cancel, agree, then cancel again, usually a day or two before the scheduled event would take place, so we, on our meager budget, simply couldn't keep chasing this erratic celebrity and so gave up.

What intrigued me about Will then, and why I thought it might be interesting to interview him in the fashion I did my other interviews'-not the soft ball type you hear on NPR's Fresh Air or on Larry King'-is his rising stardom as a conservative who was a wholehearted supporter of the welfare state yet also spoke well of the Libertarian Party. True enough, Will had personal reasons for favoring welfarism'-I believe one of his children had been seriously impaired and depended on state support, but I am not sure. His official line, however, was that the welfare state is simply here to stay, so we might as well make the best of it.

Kind of like saying, well robbery, rape, murder and kidnapping are pretty much here to stay'-as are most crimes and human vices-'so why not just get used to them and not throw a fit when they come our way.

It is one of the habits of conservatives that has always made me suspicious about them, starting with Burke, all the way to Russell Kirk and Will. This is that they are probably not much interested in trying to improve themselves and the world around them'-certainly not as a matter of personal and political resolve'-since they harbor deep skepticism about the very possibility of human goodness.

Once you are convinced that people are basically rotten, that it isn't even up to them to improve, maybe even get really good at being human beings, the idea of sticking to demanding moral and political principles has to give way to the alternative of simply compromising with human evil. Not only that'-perhaps evil regimes like the welfare state, which are, after all, better than out and out malicious ones such as a Nazi or Commie totalitarian one, have to be championed.

This is taking to the absurd that pithy insight that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Will and Co. appear to believe that the mediocre is necessary so as to avoid total political degradation. Let's hang in there for the welfare state and that way, perhaps, we will not get ourselves into a draconian tyranny.

I recall that Otto von Bismarck of Germany made the big push for a version of the welfare state on roughly these grounds. Will, a well educated thinker in the school of real politic (with a PhD in politics from Princeton University), would not likely hold out for a genuine free society when we can just settle for the welfare state and spend our energies on gaining power for the conservative side.

This attitude may also explain George W. Bush's own welfare statism, his so called compassionate conservatism, one that has guided him to increase government spending by a greater percentage than has virtually any president's administration in modern history. The less than impressively educated George W. may be taking his clues on how to govern from the erudite George F. Trouble is, neither starts from the right premises. The reason this conservative outlook has serious problems is that human nature is not, pace Burke, Kirk, and Will, undermined by innate viciousness. Yes, people can live lives that are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, just as Hobbes believed we do in the state of nature, but this capacity is not the same thing as an innate propensity. There is nothing inherently wrong with us that would thwart our achieving and functioning well in a truly just free society. We have the choice to do well or badly on all fronts.

What thwarts us in political matters a great deal ' apart from out and out power grabbing by various aspiring dictators, tyrants and despots'-is the thinking and policies of those who believe we cannot attain the best polity and must settle for some corrupted, compromised version instead. Will, his erudition notwithstanding, leads this pack, sadly, and is guilty of hampering justice and freedom in America and around the globe.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.