This One View submission is sympathetically prompted by a column in Wednesday Journal last March by Ken Trainor titled, “George Will and his comfort zone.”
Under no illusion that the conservative political critic, Mr. Will (Ivy League PhD in Political Science), can be unsettled (certainly not by me), the effort is nevertheless potentially useful and clarifying. Besides constraining democracy in perverse ways, conservatives also revel in sowing ideological confusion.
George Will has been wrong on major public policy issues during his lifetime, including (along with the onetime overt racist, William F. Buckley Jr.) the righteousness of the Civil Rights Movement (which Will has acknowledged), global warming, the free market’s capacity to deliver health care, and the merits of the U.S. automobile industry bailout during the Obama administration. (Will was, however, a stern critic of Mitch McConnell’s handling of the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland and he has been a true never-Trumper from the outset; referring, appropriately, to the supporters of that buffoonish gangster as “Vichy Republicans.”)
But the target of this “One View” submission is Will’s conservatism itself, as a defensible ideology. The argument is that conservatism is inferior to liberalism because it is less harmonious with balanced human nature.
But first, “liberalism” is understood here from the standpoint of favoring a more equitable distribution of this country’s material riches among its citizens and residents as best illustrated by (1) the welfare state agendas of presidents FDR and LBJ, and (2) the theoretical grounding offered by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. (This contemporary liberalism contrasts with classic European “liberalism” and its emphasis on inviolate private property rights as the cornerstone of “freedom.”)
Liberalism seeks greater equality. Not the pure material equality under socialism, but a level of substantially greater equality that acknowledges this is not the land of equal opportunity, that individuals are not the true masters of their own destiny (“luck” is the primary variable, weakening the smugly asserted private property-right claim), and that the rich, being the greater benefactors, owe, through taxes, far more than the disposessed for the maintenance of our social arrangements.
In contrast, conservatism seeks maximum inequality that is the inevitable product of unrestrained, unmitigated capitalism; hence, conservatism’s natural affinity with racism and the other unprovoked bigotries that engender further inequality and a temptation toward anti-American authoritarianism that is inherently hostile to the central ethos of this country: that we are “all … equal …endowed … with … unalienable Rights” (Declaration of Independence) “secure[d]” by our federal government (U.S. Constitution).
An ideology that is most in harmony with balanced human nature is, self-evidently, the theoretical design most efficacious.
Starting with the identification of the features of human nature that are politically salient, apart from fear of death, there are the competing impulses of “self-regard” (hyper-individualism) and “other-regard” (empathy).
Drawing bright lines, the agenda of liberalism balances “self-regard” with “other-regard,” recognizing both tendencies in the balanced personality. In contrast, socialism discards “self-regard” entirely (humans as angels). Conservatism discards “other-regard” (humans as reptilian primates).
Now, as it turns out, the matching of these ideological differences with personality traits is perfectly captured in George Will’s useful three-word formulation of what liberals seek: “capitalism without casualties.” From that, one can further observe that the socialist strikes “capitalism” from the formula (humans are angelically selfless), while conservatives strike “without casualties” (humans are exclusively selfish). In this way liberals stand against the “right” and the true “left.” Senator Elizabeth Warren, for example, is a centrist (so screw you, Karl Rove and Frank Luntz).
While Will’s three-word description is a useful wide angle view of our political divisions, it doesn’t cover everything (e.g., abortion, gun rights, and foreign policy). But it addresses the primary one that has existed throughout this country’s history, in its darkest and noblest moments. George Will is to be commended for intellectual coherence, but condemned for political misjudgment.
Gregg Mumm is an Oak Park resident.