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Will: That was part of it. I'm a reader. I read Mancur Olson and Jonathan Rauch's Demosclerosis, where he applied some of Olson's insights to how interest groups fasten like barnacles on a ship of state and eventually immobilize the ship and make reform almost impossible.
reason: Let's talk about this in the context of Statecraft as Soulcraft, which was published in '83. You had been in the public eye for a decade or more, but this was kind of a big statement. Among other things you wrote caustically of the similarities between liberals and conservatives. Talking about FDR and Ronald Reagan, you wrote, "I will do many things for my country, but I will not pretend that the careers of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences." Specifically, you faulted both groups for believing that the inner lives of citizens, sentiments, manners, and moral opinions, are none of the government's business. So you're saying that Ronald Reagan meant it when he said he was an FDR Democrat, and that the problem with them is that they left people alone too much?
Will: Ronald Reagan said, "I'm an FDR Democrat, not a Great Society Lyndon Johnson Democrat." That Ronald Reagan never assaulted, never promised to assault in any way, the social safety net. It was when government got in the business of saying who should live where, who should think what-the Great Society agenda, comprehensive social engineering-is when Reagan got off the bandwagon.
Statecraft as Soulcraft, read by dozens, began as the Godkin Lectures at Harvard, three lectures in 1981. The subtitle is "What Government Does"-not what government should do but what government cannot help but do. Any regime by its structure of laws is affirming certain values and discouraging certain vices. If you have a free market, a market society affirms certain values-choice, freedom, self-reliance, sanctity of contract, promise-keeping, all the rest-and therefore, when you choose your regime, you're choosing to affirm and nurture certain characters. That's why what I said is that government cannot be in any business but the soulcraft business.
reason: Do you still believe that?
Will: I do. And I think you do, too.
reason: In the column about our book, The Declaration of Independents, you noted the essence of libertarian thought is the common-sense principle that before government interferes with the freedom of individuals and individuals making consensual transactions in the market, it ought to have a defensible reason for doing so. It usually does not. Now, we just talked about McCain-Feingold. The entitlement state-you're an arch-critic of things like Medicare and Social Security. You are against war in Syria; you became a critic of the Iraq invasion. The beads are piling up where you say the government can't do things. Where are some places the government should still be limiting human interaction, or where is it defensible to say, no, actually people can't do this?
Will: Fewer and fewer, as you say. Obviously there are neighborhood effects of pollution, neighborhood effects of noise, neighborhood effects of all sorts. Where the government goes astray is when it decides to allocate wealth and opportunity, and that's almost entirely what the government does these days. The tax code is, as Chairman Dave Camp of the Ways and Means Committee said, longer than the Bible without the good news, because it is entirely rent-seeking. It is more than the appropriations process. The tax code is how the government allocates favors.
And we reach a point-and this is a systemic thing in a way-where the tax code is so complicated that it cannot be reformed. If you say let's start over, as Camp and [Rep. Max] Baucus have tried to do, they've said, we'll have a blank slate and wipe out all the exemptions, credits, deductions, and all the rest, and it's up to you people to defend them and put them back in. The problem is, if you're starting with a blank slate, you're not picking one fight with every American, you're picking five fights with every American. The system can't handle it and you get overload.
reason: To get back to that Mancur Olson or Demosclerosis model, is it impossible to separate the barnacles from the hull? Are we sinking?
Will: We're not sinking. We're slowing down. That is, it's very hard to move the ship. It slows down economic growth, because you're allocating wealth and opportunity in political rather than efficient ways. This has, cumulatively, a terrific drag on economic growth.
reason: The philosophical basis of Statecraft as Soulcraft could be seen as government as an instrument of morality, and once citizens, politicians, and commentators have that feeling, then that helps the removal of limitations [on government power], in the LBJ way. I saw David Brooks was citing Statecraft as Soulcraft in one of his periodic jeremiads against libertarianism. How do you square those impulses?
Will: Strict, pure libertarians say that because the government can back its tastes with police power, it shouldn't have tastes. The argument of Statecraft as Soulcraft says that's all very well, but government is going to have laws. It's going to legalize certain things, proscribe certain things, encourage certain things. You have to pick, you have to choose. Unless you have the most severe night-watchman state, and we're not going to have that.
reason: By "severe" you mean totally freaking awesome?
Will: You mean that, but it's not going to happen. I wrote the other day that if we could tax Americans' cognitive dissonance we could balance the budget. The American people want all kinds of incompatible things, they're human beings, and they want high services, low taxes, and an omnipresent, omniprominent welfare state.