Confusions of a Conservative

This review of Garry Wills’s Confessions of a Conservative was first published in Inquiry for September 10, 1979.

Who else but Garry Wills would include in the same book a penetrating analysis of Saint Augustine’s view of justice and a tasteless defamation of Albert Jay Nock? Lack of discrimination and confusion of thought are the only constants in this meandering attempt to elaborate an allegedly conservative political philosophy that will justify the author’s idiosyncrasies. Wills suggests that the purpose of the state is not to enforce justice but to postpone conflict “in the name of common good things held.” His ideal, what he terms the “convenient” state, “exists to hold people together in peace, not to enunciate ‘raw justice.'” The state, he contends, cannot be founded on reason, since any attempt to do so represents a kind of masked theocracy. How did we get from justice to reason? And what is “theocratic” about, say, the society based on reason discussed in Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia?

Wills’s failure to consider questions like these means in itself only that his theory is insufficiently elaborated, but he soon falls into outright contradiction. He favors preferential hiring of blacks on the ground that “conservatives are bound to the concept of ‘historic guilt’ for racial wrongs.” Even granting that reverse discrimination is a case of implementing justice, what happened to his belief that the state is not founded to preserve justice? On the next page, Wills repents his mid-sixties opposition to civil disobedience: Apparently violence by some blacks is compatible with “holding the people together in peace.” Another chapter defends elitist “do-gooders,” whom others condemn as busybodies: Without such “prophetic” figures, how could radical reform measures get started? The convenient state goes out the window as soon as the status quo does not suit Wills’s pet causes.

Even when Wills is right he finds it impossible to avoid muddle. In the course of an argument that American elections do not settle major issues, he states that “our nation is never more united than at the close of an election,” forgetting his own discussion of the election of 1860 in the previous chapter. Vastly exaggerating the practical importance of Condorcet’s paradox of voting (which shows that voting does not always result in a clear social preference), he mars his interesting discussion of the limits of democracy by offering a mélange of poorly digested welfare economics. He manages to quote Kenneth Arrow without once mentioning the Impossibility Theorem, a much stronger version of Condorcet’s paradox.

Wills uses the idea of the convenient state (when the prophets are on furlough) to support a “conservative” position like that of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Vital Center: What are to be conserved are the social gains of the welfare state. Everyone must undergo twelve years of public education and contribute to social security; and federally mandated safety requirements are a step in the right direction. Characteristically, Wills offers no argument for public provision of these services. The need to serve certain interests is simply posited. This may seem an odd version of conservatism, but what can one expect from someone who avows himself a Chestertonian distributist but thinks that the widespread holding of property is nowadays both unnecessary and impossible? This is as sensible as being an admirer of Shakespeare, except for the plays.

In his long memoir of his years at National Review, Wills’s reporting of the opinions of others leaves a great deal to be desired. If “Alfred Kohler of the China lobby” instead of Alfred Kohlberg is dismissed as a slip, what is one to think of his imputing belief in unfettered capitalism to Russell Kirk? In A Program for Conservatives, Kirk — whom by the way Wills delicately terms a “sap” — explained in detail his preference for the moderate welfare state of Wilhelm Roepke over the “Manchesterism” of Ludwig von Mises. Murray Rothbard, an outspoken critic of the single-tax movement, appears here as a “latter-day [Henry] Georgist.” Leo Strauss did not believe that “history is one long conversation in univocal terms,” and the claim that Eric Voegelin supports “theocratic politics” is at least debatable, and requires some evidence. When I called Wills’s observation to his attention, Voegelin stated that it was nonsense.

The pièce de résistance, however, is surely the following, about Nock’s old magazine, The Freeman: “I find it hard to see what impressed so many people in the twenties. Nock was only exaggerating a little when he said in his Memoirs, ‘We produced what was quite generally acknowledged to be the best paper published in our language.'” If not formally contradictory, the two statements are at least glaringly inconcinnous, to use one of Wills’s favorite words.