Huston: The Evolvement of George Will

December 27, 2015

GEORGE WILL has been evolving over the past 40 years as a public intellectual and pundit. The fellow who wrote this column bears no resemblance to the author of the 1983 conservative best seller, “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” In the preface to that book, Will wrote: “I am often asked: ‘Why do you call yourself a conservative if you believe’ this or that? The question usually pertains to my belief in strong government, including the essentials of the welfare state.”

Having evolved, no one bothers asking such questions of him today.

After years of deep thinking, Will has managed to reconcile in one cluttered soul the claims of atheism, relativism, historicism and social Darwinism, and in generating the product of such muddled thinking, he has slowly drifted into the role of a crank working hard to earn a promotion to crackpot.

Among the remarkable claims in this essay, Will denies that in any realm there is such a thing as a “mastermind” or a controlling authority. In this, he effectively dismisses out of hand not merely the teachings of Scripture but the lessons of agency in history. While pleading the authority of Hayek, he misstates Leonard Reed’s central point in “I, Pencil” by claiming that the mystery of the pencil is the inability of any one person to know how to make one. This is obviously absurd. A manufacturer of a pencil knows how to make the product he sells. He knows what materials are required, he knows where to acquire them, and he knows how to assemble them into a finished product for which there is a demand in the marketplace at the right price. The mystery is that those who produce the products the pencil manufacturer requires had no foreknowledge of this particular market demand and thus no plan for the ultimate production of a pencil. Fortunately for them, this particular consumer of their products would it uneconomic if not impossible to produce for his own account the wood, rubber, graphite and other materials required to produce a pencil, and fortunately for him, he does not have to do such a thing. The message here is not that there is no God or no mastermind who invented and controls the pencil market, but that no one person can foresee all the twist and turns of the marketplace and it is by virtue of the exchange of information as reflected in prices that trade develops and prospers thereby freeing man from dependency on the fruits of his own production.

Which is not to say that sound markets are self-regulating, and is certainly not a credible explanation for elements of the market central to its function as to which pricing models do not apply. For example, while it is true that the Anglo-American common law is product of a thousand years of individual cases being weighed by judges and juries, the legal structure required for markets is not limited to evolutionary law. It also requires intervention by the law-making authority to meet the needs of commerce such as was the case in the adoption by 49 states of the Uniform Commercial Code which establishes the rules of the road for commerce in the United States (exclusive of Louisiana). Moreover, the common law tradition prevails only in nations where once flew the Union Jack, and not in all of them. In Europe (and Louisiana), the Napoleonic Code governs commercial transactions, and the Code is solely the function of a law-giving mastermind.

What say you on this score of our constitutional order?

Certainly it has evolved thanks to judges with inflated notions of their wisdom and authority, but it is fundamentally a system of choice and not chance. The architectonic features of our particular form of government are the product of discussion and agreement among fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. We have, as Americans, always liked to think of the Framers as being a collective mastermind the wisdom of which is one of the great treasures to be safeguarded by a grateful nation.

Will’s idea of morality as a process of experience and reflection is consistent with the humanist whims of a confirmed atheist but doesn’t survive strict scrutiny. Millions of men and women – professing Christians, Jews and Muslims among them – believe that morality is not simply a ratification of approved conduct by prevailing moral arbiters, but is conduct rooted in divine commands and fleshed out by religious teachers through the application of reason to the teachings of revelation. An evolutionary morality arising from market choices is all foliage and no roots. It has no binding force because it has no authoritative source.

No one rides a high horse with greater aplomb than George Will. Donald Trump is not the first great affront to his finely attuned, always evolving sense of what it means to be a legitimate American conservative. Creationists and other rubes skeptical of the claims of Charles Darwin have long been in his sights; in his view they make conservatism “repulsive to temperate people.” He has over time continued to up the ante as he expands the reach of his evolutionary theories of social and economic progress. In the process, he has moved far afield from the conservatism of “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” but perhaps not so far as one might suppose in terms of realizing his original objective. “My aim,” he wrote in the preface, “is to recast conservatism in a form compatible with the broad popular imperatives of the day, but also to change somewhat the agenda and even the vocabulary of contemporary politics.” For those who take him seriously as a conservative thinker, he has certainly realized that objective.

— Tom Charles Huston


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