George Will and the Neoconservatives

George Will's February 1st, 2004 column struck me as rather remarkable. From my point of view, Will is himself a fascinating figure, in that I find it wonderfully entrancing to watch him turn toward the service of neoconservatism, the unusual mix of Unitarian and other principles with which he grew up. But perhaps not everyone shares my interest in the particular religious origins of neoconservatives' thought. Luckily, the Feb. 1st column seems not merely interesting biographically, but further seems to shed a lot of light on the general character of the neoconservative movement.

Neoconservatives must justify the need for government to move beyond the task of protecting negative rights, while at the same time arguing that the government ought not be used to secure an equal set of robust positive rights for each citizen. It isn't easy to do this. Neither is it easy to develop criteria for explaining just what the government ought to do beyond protecting basic rights, if social equality or a u201Cbasic needs” approach is not the goal.1 So I am willing to be sympathetic to the neoconservative intellectual plight. Be this as it may, neoconservatives such as Will disappoint. What they point to time and again is the issue of “the practical,” as in, well, a libertarian society be wonderful, but it's just not practical, because the poor would never go for it; or because of the War on Terror; or because society needs government-enforced cohesion; or because people are just evil.

Thus neoconservatives are reduced to designing principles that simultaneously treat the public as being defective and thus in need of government control, and also as being defective and thus in need of governmental deference to their frightening, media-driven wants. What they come up with is two-fold. First, neoconservatives favor “national unity” under a military-espionage aegis, with the jettisoning of any cultural elements not deemed necessary for this goal, such as loyalty to particularist ethnic or religious currents that fall below the level of “Western civilization.” Second, neoconservatives favor the pacification of the lower classes through government welfare. (Here they sometimes draw explicitly from Bismarck.)

Will's column works on this second point: Bush's spending spree makes sense, Will claims, because Republicans can spend in a way that is better than Democrats can. But to do this, they certainly have to spend. And, apparently, spend, and spend, and spend….

Will writes: “Today “strong government conservatism” – “strong” is not synonymous with “big” – is the only conservatism palatable to a public that expects government to assuage three of life’s largest fears: illness, old age and educational deficits that prevent social mobility…. Republican strong-government conservatism contracts the dependency culture and expands the sphere of choices, thereby enhancing the individual’s competence and responsibility. This validates Republicans’ claims to power ….”

Will's analysis rests on two key assumptions. First, there is the assumption that a majority of Americans do not believe that it would be better if the federal government largely removed itself from the tasks of providing for healthcare, retirement, and education; where it is not reasonable to expect that a majority of Americans could be convinced otherwise. Second, there is the assumption that Republicans will tax, borrow, and spend in ways that are better for Americans than Democrat methods would be.

Neither of these assumptions are at all credible. It is true that Bush is unwilling to cut spending. But (as with immigration) Bush is here totally out of step with his GOP base, which believes in overturning FDR and Great Society expansions of government, not simply transforming such expansions to “contract dependency culture and expand the sphere of choice.” Will's assumption that one could not add to this base to achieve a majority in favor of limited government is not sustainable. If the GOP leadership was pushing for limited government, but a majority would not follow, then we might be able to speak of real evidence for Will's claim. But we have nothing to talk about until the GOP leadership enunciates a strong vision of limited government to the American people. This vision would have to include the gradual phasing out of Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Education, et al, over a multi-decade period. Until such a vision is offered, we have no way of distinguishing true majority preference from simple accession to the political reality of neoconservative dominance.

As to this idea that the GOP could somehow refrain from limiting government, but still make government spending less damaging than it would be under Democrat rule – well, I suppose here much depends on one's perspective about what it is important not to damage. Let us assume that one's major concerns are preserving an economy that allows the flourishing of a wealthy, jet-set group bleached of all strong cultural connections with any historically-viable society. If such were the case, well, then I say, vote Bush till the cows come home! However, if one is actually concerned about the life-prospects of the majority of Americans, one might very well argue that Democrat-managed spending on education and healthcare would be preferable to GOP spending on NASA, wars fought under false public pretences, and the corruption of private education. In any case, I see no reason to assume that the GOP would be noticeably better spenders of citizens' wealth.

More to the point, if the GOP abandons the goal of limiting government, a sizeable number of Republicans are going to refrain from voting for Republicans, even if they were judged to be “better” spenders than are Democrats. This is because such voters will want to rub the GOP-leadership's nose in the fact that it has betrayed the central conservative impulse of limiting government. Such voters will continue to rebel until GOP leadership comes to its senses. Moving to the middle costs you at least as much on the right, as moving to the right costs you from the middle. No song-and-dance about “better” spending is going to change this.

Given the shaky nature of Will's assumptions, I doubt he actually believes them. After all, Will is a smart guy. Moreover, neoconservatives, being as a group rooted in Strauss's Platonic doctrine of the conflict between truth and custom, tend to be somewhat circumspect about their true motives. When we find neoconservative arguments being offered publicly, we thus get a wonderful opportunity to think about human love of the state, as the neoconservatives do not so much explain their state-worship, as hint mysteriously as its’ nature.

Why do neoconservatives so love the state? Toward what goals do they wish to direct the trough-spillage of state-spending? Mere goals of social equality are for the liberal; something else is desired. But what? Do neoconservatives have dreams of constructing a grand, monochrome civilization that reaches for the stars, all the while under their control? Is the simple extinction of traditional culture a sufficiently grand goal? Is it more about just having power that one does not have to share with the other, liberal talking heads? Or perhaps it stems from a belief that the providential function of America is to bring the gods of Democracy and Semi-Market Economics to the world? All of the above, plus some? Who can say!

My, one can wonder at such possibilities for hours. Neoconservatives certainly do bring up fascinating questions about what one is to want, if not simply safe and peaceful lives for all of one's fellow humans.

I conclude, then, that Straussian roots are real. Because thinking about what neoconservatives want is not totally un-like thinking about what the pre-Socratic Greeks desired to achieve; or about what Aristotle valued in praising “the great-souled man.” What unites Ancient and “Post-modern” here seems to be that the concept of Christian humility is equally opaque to the Ancient Greeks, and to the present-day neoconservatives. And so neither has the attending knowledge that “striving for greatness” can only be done when one clearly sees how this furthers love of God, and love of one's neighbor.

  1. The central “basic needs” approach I have in mind here is that advocated by Martha Nussbaum. Neoconservatives cannot endorse these kinds of proposals, because they would involve a massive expansion of government that, for the neoconservative, is “too much.”

February 3, 2004