The Conservative Sensibility
by George Will
Hachette Books, 2019
The American Revolution was neither moderate nor conservative, as the concept is usually understood. It was radical in the violence of the war and radial for its libertarian goals. Yet, what may be the most important libertarian book in recent memory, with the expressed intent of being an “unapologetic presentation to unbelievers, who are a majority of contemporary Americans, of reasons why they should recur to the wisdom of the nation’s founding,” has been titled The Conservative Sensibility.
George Will, the American political commentator and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, is accentuating his career with one of the greatest ruminations on the idea of America. Understanding the book’s title will take us a long way to understanding its premises.
Beginning with the adjective, Will intends his conservatism to be understood as uniquely American, as opposed to European, and liberal in the old sense. He tells us that “The proper question for conservatives is: What do you seek to conserve? The proper answer is concise but deceptively simple: We seek to conserve the American Founding.” Additionally, we are informed that the ideas of the American founding were “translated into constitutional institutions and processes” which would mean that “properly understood, conservatism is the Madisonian persuasion.”
Bearing this Madisonian persuasion, contrasted with European “throne-and-altar conservatism,” Will begins by building his case for secular natural law and individual rights that pre-exist government in a world that is unfriendly. Government is created to secure these rights, but must be limited because the world “is often equally or more unfriendly when bad governments are unlimited and unleashed to work their wills upon subjects who are subject to whatever their government wills.”
That Will really means libertarian is clear when he contrasts American conservatism with the rigidities of the European variant. He tells us that whereas European conservatism is generally about the preservation of “institutions and practices, such as social hierarchies and established churches, that were produced by the slow working of historical processes spanning many centuries. American conservatism seeks…to conserve or establish institutions and practices conducive to a social dynamism that dissolved impediments to social mobility and fluidity. So American conservatism is not only different from, it is at bottom antagonistic to British and continental European conservatism.” That is, as opposed to conservatives such as Roger Scruton who reluctantly support the market but are wary of its disruptions, Will cheerfully embraces a society spontaneously ordered in the tradition of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.
The prudence of using the term conservatism in this way is questionable, but as the reader moves through the next it does begin to feel natural. Moreover, Libertarianism is often seen as splitting the difference between conservatives and liberals rather than something distinct and with its own history; liberal is now too associated with progressive politics; classical liberal is clunky; and Whig is archaic. Given the lack of a satisfying alternative, and the persuasive case for its use in this book, there is little to object about Will’s rebranding of the term.
Turning to the noun, Will says that “a sensibility is more than an attitude but less than an agenda, less than a pragmatic response to the challenge of comprehensively reforming society in general.” It is especially important because “few people have systems of ideas that can be properly called political philosophies. most people have political sensibilities.” It is usually obvious what Will is getting at when he employs the term, but with its imprecise definition this isn’t always the case. For example, we are given the opaque statement:
The conservative sensibility, especially, is best defined by its reasoning about concrete matters in particular societies. The American conservative sensibility, as explained in this volume, is a perpetually unfolding response to real situations that require statesmanship – the application of general principles to untidy realities. Conservatism does not float above all times and places. The conservative sensibility is relevant to all times and places, but it is lived and revealed locally, in the conversation of a specific polity. The American sensibility is situated here; it is a national expression of reasoning, revealed in practices.
Plenty of meaning can be inferred here, but the reader leaves with more questions than answers. Furthermore, the term is perhaps too pliable. At times it leans more heavily toward being an agenda, at others it appears to be more of an attitude. For example, In the chapter Conservatism Without Theism we are told:
There is such a thing as a religious temperament. It involves the will to believe in order to assuage an ache. It reject, it recoils from, the sense that contingency is everywhere and everything, that there is nothing beyond it. . .There is, however, a conservative sensibility that finds flux exhilarating, that is delighted rather than depressed by the idea that there is no beyond and that everything is contingent.
But this sensibility, and likewise its use in his chapter on political economy, does not seem to be very much more than a sprightly disposition in the face of uncertainty. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that for Will the sensibility is what’s important for how people think about political realities.
If there is a story to The Conservative Sensibility, it’s that what was created by one Princetonian, Madison, was assaulted by another, Woodrow Wilson, with the “implacable determination to recast America’s political premises.” In fact, the progressive criticism and erosion of these premises, as well the new right’s discovery that they too enjoy wielding state power, is so successful one wonders if there is anything else for Will to conserve.
Socially, the attempt to erase the line between public and private affairs in reaching for national harmony is not consistent with freedom. As Will notes, “Erasing such a line, however, means the annihilation of the inviolable zone of individual sovereignty that is indispensable to – indeed, is – freedom.”
Institutionally, “the nation’s constitutional architecture has become ramshackle, incoherent, and incapable of protecting representative government, the rule of law, and liberty.” And the despite The Founders planning for constitutional conflict out of jealousy, “today this no longer is, if it ever was, a fair fight. They are not equal in the competition for control of the modern state. The playing field tilts more and more against the legislative branch.”
With a presidency that has eclipsed Congress, in a “context conditioned by decades of Congressional sloth and carelessness in forfeiting policy-making powers,” a bureaucratic administrative state, and judicial deference, not only does there seem to be few ideas from the American founding to conserve, their embodied “constitutional institutions and processes” appear to have, in short, failed.
Will’s answer to how exactly we revert back to the ideas of the founding seems to be in any way and every way possible. For example, In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, he argues for judicial activism to secure liberty and preserve the Founder’s ideas instantiated in the Constitution. Or in another case, and more comically, “the way to stop off-loading its [Congress’s] powers onto the executive branch is to stop.”
The idea that the government will change its behavior on its own is, to put it mildly, unlikely. However, referencing another hero of the book, Will invokes Lincoln’s understanding that “in a democracy everything depends, ultimately, on public opinion, and public opinion is shiftable sand.” It is also true that, as Will notes, “Americans cannot regain what they do not recognize they have lost.” And so, if we are to preserve an event that is almost 250 years old, to “get back, not to the conditions in which we started, but to the premises with which we started,” it will start by using the language of, and recalling the ideas embodied in, the conservative sensibility. This is why The Conservative Sensibility is not just one of the best ruminations, but one of the most important books on the American idea.
Will ends his book with gentle equanimity and characteristic eloquence. Calling upon and paraphrasing Fitzgerald’s wisdom that we cannot shake our upbringing, Will ends his masterpiece telling us:
We cannot escape the challenge of living by the exacting principles of our Founding, so we should beat on, boats against many modern currents, borne back ceaselessly toward a still-useable past.
—David Murphy holds a Masters of Finance from the University of Minnesota.