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George Will on conservatism, capitalism, and our elites’ ‘unblemished record of failure’

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, who has been a leading conservative commentator and intellectual for more than 50 years. 

His latest book, American Happiness and its Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020, contains dozens of his columns and essays over the eventful past fifteen years. The compilation provides powerful insights into major trends over the period, including debates about capitalism, the judiciary, and the intellectual climate on university campuses. 

American Happiness and its Discontents follows the 2020 release of Will’s intellectual treatise, The Conservative Sensibility, which outlines a vision of Anglo-American conservatism that stands in stark contrast to the populism of the present moment. It calls on conservatives to embrace dynamism and progress and live comfortably in the “spontaneous order of a free society.”

SEAN SPEER: As a long-time reader and fan, it is a great honour for me to sit down and talk to you about your intellectual evolution, the current state of conservative politics, and the potential for the Toronto Blue Jays to compete for next year’s World Series. 

Thank you for joining me.

GEORGE WILL: I am glad to be with you. 

SEAN SPEER: While your 1984 book Statecraft as Soulcraft outlines a role for the state to inculcate certain values in society, your more recent writings—including American Happiness and its Discontents—envision a much more circumscribed role for government. Most people start off as libertarians and become conservatives as they age. You’ve done the opposite. Why?

GEORGE WILL: Excellent question. My book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, which was the Godkin lectures at Harvard turned into a book, had as its subtitle “What Government Does”—not what government should do but what government cannot help but do. My point was that by the structure of the laws, by the economic system that the laws frame, and by other means, government cannot help but affirm a set of values that cannot help but influence the souls of the citizens. Now, I really haven’t changed my view on that. It’s still what government cannot help but do. 

I have however become more libertarian, in the sense that being 50 years and counting now at the centre of American government in Washington has made me wary of the capture of the government by rent-seekers. That’s an economist term for those who try to bend public power to private advantage, either to confer favours on themselves or impediments on competitors. 

Furthermore, when I wrote Statecraft as Soulcraft, I was not as cognizant as I am now of the beneficial effects of free-market capitalism. I believe that capitalism doesn’t just make us better off, which it manifestly does, but also it makes us better. It makes for a polite, cooperative, and trusting society that is respectful of individuals pursuing their private interests and groups of individuals contracting together to collaboratively pursue their interests. 

So, I’m somewhat more libertarian and somewhat more, as you correctly said, suspicious about government. But I have not changed the fundamental structure of my thinking in Statecraft as Soulcraft. It’s still what government does. 

SEAN SPEER: One major change in your thinking over the years is substituting what you describe as “judicial engagement” for “judicial restraint” in the name of protecting against majoritarian infringements of minority rights. Can you please elaborate on how and why your thinking has shifted and, in so doing, speak to the risks of giving a permission structure to left-wing judicial activism?

GEORGE WILL: When I came to Washington in 1970 from the University of Toronto, where I had been teaching, I was like most conservatives at the time: in somewhat of a recoil against the freewheeling creation of rights by the Warren Court, and therefore adhered to the conservative rhetoric of judicial restraint. In 50-some years as a public commentator the biggest change in my thinking, as you have accurately noted, is a 180-degree turn. 

I’m going to going to give a little bit of a long answer here. I grew up in central Illinois—Lincoln country—in Champaign County. According to local lore, it was in the Champaign County courthouse that Abraham Lincoln, then a prosperous railroad lawyer, learned in 1854 that Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas had succeeded in passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The point of which was to solve the problem of what to do about the question of slavery in the territories—those regions that were not yet states but were trying to become states. 

Could slaves be taken there? Could they have a legal regime supporting slavery? Douglas’ answer was popular sovereignty: vote slavery up or vote slavery down, it’s a matter of moral indifference. The morally important thing was that majority rule prevails. 

Lincoln’s ascent to greatness was in his recoil against this. Lincoln said America is not about a process—majority rule; it’s about a condition—liberty. It’s taken me some while to get there, but that’s my view also. 

I actually began getting there at Princeton, when I was doing my doctoral dissertation, the title of which was “Beyond the Reach of Majorities.” In 1939, the Supreme Court had said that the state of Pennsylvania could require Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of every school day because national unity is a valuable thing that the majority can insist upon. This was understandable. The opinion was written by Felix Frankfurter, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, where, as a student, he had seen what happened when children were sorted out and treated differently because of their religion. And war clouds were lowering over the world in 1939. 

But just four years later, in 1943, the Supreme Court reversed itself, saying you cannot compel people to do this, even if the majority wants to. Justice Jackson, who was an attorney general and then Supreme Court Justice, and later led the American delegation at the Nuremberg war crimes trial, said, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to place certain things beyond the reach of majorities—above the vicissitudes of politics.” 

My view is that the worst outcome of politics is tyranny. The form of tyranny to which democracies are prey is the tyranny of the majority. I’m with John Stuart Mill in worrying about this. I’m with James Madison in worrying about this. 

Furthermore, I believe that if we’re to have a meaningful separation of powers, we cannot count on the Congress of the United States to superintend its own powers. We cannot count on the President to superintend his excesses. We cannot even count on Congress to superintend the excesses of the executive, because Congress in recent years has been devoted to shedding its powers, conferring legislative discretion on executive agencies. 

So, if we’re going to have protection against majority tyranny, and if we’re going to have a meaningful separation of powers, we need an actively engaged judiciary. That’s a long answer but it’s a big question. 

My view is that the worst outcome of politics is tyranny. The form of tyranny to which democracies are prey is the tyranny of the majority.

SEAN SPEER: I take so seriously your thinking and writing that when you outlined this argument in The Conservative Sensibility, it kind of shook me, because, for the same reasons you describe, I grew up in an intellectual milieu predisposed to judicial restraint. 

One way I’ve come to think about it is the extent to which it may be a function of contingency. The success of the Federalist Society and the conservative intellectual movement in the U.S., which I’m afraid that we don’t really have in Canada, has been so successful at imbuing judicial thinking and practice in the United States with an instinct towards restraint that there’s now a need to adjust in the name of judicial engagement. 

I’m afraid that we’re not quite there in Canada. The major risk is not judicial deference; it remains judicial activism in the name of finding new rights within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

I wonder therefore if it’s not so much that your thinking has evolved, but it’s the case that the contingent circumstances have changed and the nature of the risk from the bench has changed, and in turn, you’ve had to adjust how to balance these different trade-offs.

GEORGE WILL: That is partly true. There are trade-offs involved, and there are risks in judicial engagement. That it will become willy-nilly, unprincipled, untethered judicial activism. I get that. 

One of the things I said in Statecraft as Soulcraft is life is lived on a slippery slope. Taxation can become confiscation. Police can become Gestapo. Engaged judiciary can become untethered and unhinged judicial activism. There’s no safety in politics. 

So, what we choose is the least risk, and at this point in my life and in the life of the United States, and I strongly suspect eventually in Canada, the least risky will be a judiciary looking after our rights against majorities.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve argued that the anti-elitism of the present political moment fails to recognize that one of the basic functions of liberal democracy is to decide which elites ought to govern. Yet in the past 15 or 20 years, we’ve seen a series of spectacular elite failure—from the failed strategy on China, to the Iraq War, to the messy response to the pandemic. 

How can we cultivate better elites? And what institutions are failing us in this regard?

GEORGE WILL: Excellent question. Cultivating elites, and winning majority assent to worthy elites, is the great question of democracy. Always has been, always will be. 

The elites have an almost unblemished record of failure in the last few decades, for all the items you mentioned and I could add a dozen more. That doesn’t change the fact that necessarily elites are going to rule because when you rule, you’re in the elite. So, attention must be paid to the furnishing forth of better elites. 

The primary institution for this is education, particularly higher education. To me, the most ominous development in the United States—I don’t know the condition in Canada any longer—is that we are not furnishing elites that believe in the country. Elites that say that the country, however flawed it is and however meandering its past to the present, is still a noble enterprise. 

It has taken 800 years for the Western world to evolve, through thickets of ecclesiastical and political interference, the great universities of the world which are, in my judgement, the finest ornaments of Western civilization. It takes about a generation—two at the most—to kick all that away, to squander the reputation that was hard-earned by these great universities. And it’s happening now. 

A lot of 1960s radicals went to earth in the university, got tenure, and have reproduced themselves ever since. To the point at which we now have intellectually monochrome institutions of higher education that are, frankly, enemies of what educational institutions exist for, which is the transmission of the great patrimony of Western civilization. So, we have to begin with the universities.

The elites have an almost unblemished record of failure in the last few decades.

SEAN SPEER: One of the tensions within the world of conservatism for some time, dating back to the advent of National Review and your involvement over the years with the magazine, was whether the goal of the conservative movement, broadly defined, ought to be to infiltrate mainstream institutions and shape those institutions in a centre-right direction or to build an alternative ecosystem that sits outside of mainstream institutions. Of course, the rise of populism is the extreme version of that alternative. 

At this point in the realm of politics and culture, should conservatives generally, and the American conservative movement in particular, recommit itself to the goal of trying to infiltrate and shape mainstream institutions? And to what extent does the Federalist Society show that that model can be ultimately successful? 

GEORGE WILL: It does show that it can be successful. It has been a resounding success. There’s no more vivid example of the power of a little platoon to become a major regiment. 

Forty or so years ago at Yale University, students said, “We’re tired of the intellectually homogenous state of Yale Law School,” and they started something that now exists wherever there are law students. Frankly, the federal judiciary has been remade, largely because of the agitation, organization, and scholarship of the Federalist Society. 

I do not believe that conservatives should succumb to the temptation to think of themselves as an embattled minority in an unconverted world and that they should pull up the drawbridge, fill the moat with crocodiles, and say, “We’re going to be pure, but isolated.” 

I think what happened in the United States was it became apparent to conservatives that academia, the media, and Hollywood and the entertainment industry were all inhospitable to conservatism. So they said, “We’re going to develop our own intellectual infrastructure”—such as the great think tanks like Cato, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, and, at the state level, numerous others—in order to recapture, if you will, society by participating fully in the competition of ideas. And I think it works because conservative ideas work. Conservatism has the truth on its side, which, more often than not, helps.

SEAN SPEER: As you mentioned, you spent time at the University of Toronto before heading to Washington D.C. to work in the Senate, then joining National Review, and then ultimately the Washington Post. What do you remember about your time in Toronto?

GEORGE WILL: I had a wonderful time there. I was in the Department of Political Economy, which I think every university should have, and very few do have. 

Economics should be studied not just as a science, but as an enterprise of politics. Politics is about how we should live together, and economics is about that too. It’s about what we value, and how we should allocate wealth and opportunity. These are inherently political questions. 

It’s been well said that the first rule of economics is that scarcity is real. Choices have to be made; you can’t have everything at once. Scarcity is real. The first rule of politics is to ignore the first rule of economics. So, for politics to be responsible, it ought to cohabitate with economics.

SEAN SPEER: Just one final question which I know is near and dear to your heart. Do you think the Blue Jays can win the AL East next season?

GEORGE WILL: Yes. You’ve got a core of young talent; you’ve got a tremendous fan base; you got a country to yourself, so far—though I think that’s apt to change. I think Montreal is going to be back in the big leagues sooner rather than later. But any team with Semien, Guerrero, and Bichette is a standing threat to play deep into October.

SEAN SPEER: Well, sir, this has just been a tremendous honour. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. The book is American Happiness and its Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008 to 2020. I’m sure most of our readers have already purchased it. And if they haven’t, after today’s conversation, I’m sure they will. Thank you. 

GEORGE WILL: I enjoyed it. Let’s do it again.