On a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with conservative commentator and Washington Post columnist George Will. They discuss his new book, The Conservative Sensibility; why Elizabeth Warren’s policy ideas miss the mark; and how the Republican Party lost its dignity. A transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.
Mike Pesca: I heard in an interview that you had considered naming this book The Closing Argument, although maybe that says something about actuarial tables as much as it does your thoughts.
George Will: Someone suggested that, and I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” It sounds like the first paragraph of an obituary, so no, I wanted it to be The Conservative Sensibility. A sensibility to me is more than an attitude and less than an agenda. It’s a way of experiencing the flux of events. In the conservatives’ case, it’s a way of being comfortable with an unplanned, out-of-control reality.
Which is now?
Ideally, it would apply to a free society at any time, but the whole point of a free society is that it is shaped by the spontaneous order from below and not the plans from above.
Do you think that if we had just listened to James Madison, we’d be better off now? Or was it perhaps inevitable that the best-laid plans at the time were going to come smack into the reality of not just the design system but the lived system?
I think we’d be much better off if, as Madison envisioned, we had a government still of limited, delegated, and enumerated powers. The most interesting aspect of the 20th century in American political thought was the remarkably forthright way in which progressives repudiated the founders and the remarkable success they’ve had in making that repudiation stick.
Woodrow Wilson was the first president to criticize the American founding, which he did not do peripherally. He did it root and branch. He said, The heart of the matter is the Madisonian constitutional architecture of the separation of powers is a mistake. He said, It was all very well once when 80 percent of us were living within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater, but now we’re united by steel rails and copper wire and all that stuff. Therefore, we need a government that can act with dispatch and power and nimbleness, so we must get rid of the separation of powers.
Was he wrong, or just right, but off by a matter of scale? The U.S. population in Wilson’s time was around 100 million, for instance. Now it’s at more than 300 million.
He was wrong. The mistake is to assume—and this was the progressive assumption—that the larger society becomes and the more complex it becomes, the more susceptible it is to governance from the center. The reverse is true. The more complicated society becomes, the more it depends on market forces to deliver information—that’s all a market is, an information-generating device—and the less susceptible it is to central planning. There’s a lot in my book about Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who popularized the term the fatal conceit to believe that when you intervene in complex systems, you can control the outcome, whereas in fact the more complicated society gets, the less information can be had by government particularly, and therefore government is apt to blunder more and more.
You’ve long been a critic of the New Deal, and you think that the only reason that the United States lifted itself out of the Great Depression was the war, but it had nothing to do with the New Deal?
The depression within the Depression—that is, what happened in 1937—was a larger contraction of the economy that occurred in 1929. The fact is that the government was more interventionist than most of the governments in most of the countries afflicted by the Great Depression, and the United States took longer than most other countries did to recover from it. The recovery being, as you said, in response to the need to become the arsenal of democracy.
I would think that there’s a lot of history that shows a couple of things. One is that Roosevelt started as someone who wanted to rein in spending and then shifted toward being a Keynesian, and that seems to have correlated with economic success. Just as in our last recession, though it was widely criticized, the amount of stimulus and spending that seems to have correlated with a much more successful recovery in America than as compared with western European countries that went the austerity route.
That certainly is arguable, but with regard to the Depression itself, the criterion by which the New Deal wanted to be judged was curing unemployment. Unemployment never came below 14 percent before we began, as I say, to become the arsenal of democracy. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. said in 1940, We spent all this money. We simply haven’t made progress. By their own criterion, they were not a success. It is no accident that in 1964, when I cast my first presidential vote (for Barry Goldwater), 70 percent of the American people said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all the time or almost all the time. Today, that’s below 20 percent.
As government’s pretentions have grown, its prestige has plummeted. Partly because, and this is the irony of history, Barry Goldwater lost in an enormous landslide that swept in a liberal legislating majority into Congress for the first time since Roosevelt lost it over the court-packing plan in 1938. For a few years there in the 1960s, the government could do whatever it wanted on the liberal agenda, and it did. As I say, the prestige of government has been going down ever since.
Because of the actions of government?
Those polls started to crater in response to Vietnam and Watergate.
Indeed, they did, but also in response to disappointment over the interventions of the Great Society that produced something less than most people would feel was a great society. I think my man Goldwater, who lost 44 states in 1964—I like to say he actually won in ’64. It just took 16 years to count the votes. He was a creative loser in that he changed the American vocabulary. He changed the Republican Party. He gave the rising set of young intellectuals organized around Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and others, gave them confidence, and as a result the Republican Party became a conservative party.
Is it possible for that to happen with the Democratic Party, if, say, a candidate like Bernie Sanders doesn’t win many states but could change the alignment of the party?
It’s hard to say. I’m afraid that if Bernie Sanders ran and lost badly, which I suspect he would, people would say, “Let’s not do that again.” On the other hand, someone like Elizabeth Warren, who has an enormous intellectual self-confidence and an astonishing array of plans to fix this, that, and the other thing, she could, I think, by staffing up agencies and by staffing up the party, make a lasting difference.
But if you don’t like central planning, you must not like Elizabeth Warren. Do you have more respect for her plans than Sanders?
I do. I think she has a firm grip on half a point. The firm grip is this: She says we have this enormous government, and it’s become the plaything of special interests, of the rent seekers that I talk about repeatedly in The Conservative Sensibility, and she’s right. It was a libertarian in Washington, someone at the Cato Institute, who said, “If you set out a picnic, you expect to draw ants, and the federal budget’s the biggest picnic in the world.” This is why five of the 10 most affluent counties by per capita income in the United States are in the Washington area. Washington has no natural resources and doesn’t manufacture anything except laws, regulations, and trouble, but she looks at it and says, “What we need to do to correct this is make the government bigger.” It seems to me that’s exactly the mistake.
What you want to do is withdraw the government from so much importance in allocating wealth and opportunity. That would be an answer, particularly because she is going on and on, as most progressives do, about campaign finance reform. If you want to reduce the amount of money in politics, reduce the amount of politics and the allocation of money. It’s quite simple.
Warren identifies herself as a capitalist, but she wants to rein it in. Do you take her at her word, or does it not matter because her solutions are all based on federal government policy?
Both. I take her at her word that she thinks of herself as a capitalist. What she does not understand is what public choice theory has taught us, thanks to James Buchanan and others at the University of Virginia, for which he won the Nobel Prize. What public choice theory says, reduced to its essence, is in the private sector, people try to maximize their affluence. In the public sector, people are motivated the same way. They want to maximize their power.
What public choice theory does is it deromanticizes government. It says, “Do not think of government as a collection of disinterested experts of the sort that progressives for one century now have been promising to put in charge of our lives.” Government is, in Madison’s terms, a faction. It just happens to be the biggest faction of them all, and it gets big because people tend to think of it sentimentally as this unique island of disinterestedness in a society that is otherwise a maelstrom of interestedness. That’s Elizabeth Warren’s difficulty. She keeps spinning these new ideas of new laws and new agencies and all the rest, and she clings to this view that government is somehow going to be a) deft and b) disinterested.
Well, you’re not a pure libertarian.
You believe that there are some government functions that serve us all better than the private sector.
I happened to believe that laissez-faire is a government creation. Markets depend on laws and adjudications and contracts and judicial enforcement.
Some people say conservatives appreciate the law of unintended consequences. I think conservatives are conservatives often because of that, which is that when you intervene in a complex society, the unintended consequences of your action are apt to be larger than and contrary to the intended consequences.
Is the current Republican Party dignified?
Of course not. A cult of personality never is.
I ask you that because in a 2012 lecture, someone asked you about partisanship, and you defended it on the basis of how like-minded people tend to cluster. We call these clusterings “parties.” It seemed to me you were saying a natural consequence of how we’ve clustered is that the parties will have dignity.
That’s right, as long as what they cluster about are perceptions of society, ideas of right and wrong, a sense of social justice, and all the rest. When you drain away the intellectual content from partisan arrangements, you get cults of personality, which is what the Republican Party has become.
What do you think of the argument lately raised about impeachment, that we owe it to the Constitution?
I’m not sure. You have to find a place where he has violated the Constitution.
The oath of office clause, for instance.
Again, what has he violated? People say “obstruction of justice.” Here’s the problem with that: If you think of impeachment as retrospective, that is, as vengeance or as punishment for deeds committed, where do you start? Start with, for example, the firing of Jim Comey. That the president was exercising a core presidential power—that is, to remove the head of a federal agency—is clear. Therefore, you have to say, “He should be impeached because he exercised a core presidential power with a corrupt motive.” Then the corrupt motive was ostensibly to obstruct an investigation, but a) he didn’t stop the investigation and b) the investigation didn’t find the underlying offense that some people have postulated.
I think that the damage done by Donald Trump’s public manner—by ringing certain bells that will never unring, normalizing a kind of civic discourse that is extraordinarily damaging—is going to be much more lasting in its damage than Nixon’s surreptitious burglaries were, but try to make the impeachment ground on that. We had a very bad election in 2016. The cure for a bad election is a better election. Let’s get on with it. It is astonishing to me how much energy the Democratic candidates today are devoting to things they know are not going to happen, such as abolishing the Electoral College.
I looked at a bunch of your speeches and a bunch of your writing, and for over a decade you’ve been noting that ours is the only industrial government without a serious socialist redistributive party. I have a speech from 2007 where you got a laugh in front of the Cato Institute by saying how ridiculous it would be if a Democratic candidate proposed a 70 percent tax rate. But that was the exact number that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed. Now that things seem to be shifting from what we always observed was happening, what’s your diagnosis for that?
I think there’s an enormous extrapolation from pretty slender data about the popularity of socialism, particularly among people who haven’t a clue what they mean by that. Lenin said it’s government control of the commanding heights of the economy. Now that has been watered down over the years. Socialists say that socialism is government regulation of business combined with aggressive redistribution of income. If that’s your definition of socialism, we’ve had it for quite a while. Sixty-seven percent of the federal budget is transfer payments to individuals. The skies of America are dark with checks going back-and-forth as we redistribute income. It would be helpful if its advocates would define the darn thing because they’d find that they’re much less radical than they think they are.
If anything, that’s a rebuke to the Republican talking point of “this guy’s a socialist.”
Of course it is. We’ll go straight from socialism as an antique concept to socialism as a fright term without ever defining it.