The Road to Conservative Serfdom


Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, by George F. Will, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983, 186 pp. $14.50.

In Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, conservative columnist George Will seeks to challenge the foundations of liberalism. Whether it be classical liberalism (sometimes today called libertarianism) or social-democratic liberalism (generally thought to be inaugurated in the United States by Franklin D. Roosevelt), liberalism, Will claims, rests on an errant philosophic premise and political impulse: that human nature does not constitute a norm, or standard, by which reason can guide the passions and that the political problem is how best to control human passion. Instead of reforming human desires, liberal politics seeks to accommodate the satisfaction of such desires and to direct the process along socially useful or minimally harmful channels. "The premise of modern politics is reason in the service of passion." Thoroughly rejecting this view of human nature and politics, Will seeks to replace it with a truly conservative view.

There is for Will only one "first question" of government: "What kind of people do we want our citizens to be?" Ethics and politics are welded together, he maintains; liberal theorists have attempted to separate them, but such attempts are inherently futile. Government necessarily legislates morality—by enacting laws, it not only proscribes and prescribes human behavior; it affects in numerous ways the habits, dispositions, and values of the citizenry. So the idea that government cannot and should not become involved in the so-called inner or private life of its citizens is radically wrong. The essence of government is not coercion, but authority, and its task is to use its authority in ways that will help to develop human excellence.

Man is, after all, a social and political animal, notes Will, not some isolated individual who begins life in some state of nature. Hence, he argues, "reflection about how the individual should live is inseparable from reflection about the nature of the good society." Moreover, the effects of one's actions are not easily confined. "Society is like a Calder mobile. Touch it here, it trembles over there." Thus, Will believes that statecraft is, by its very nature, soulcraft. It follows, then, that the basic problem with current political philosophy—be it "Manchester or Massachusetts liberalism"—is its failure to recognize the state's true function: developing good human beings.

What is the nature of this goodness? Beyond saying that human virtue involves good citizenship—which Will characterizes as "moderation, social sympathy, and a willingness to sacrifice private desires for public ends"—he says little about the nature of human excellence. He is, however, quite sure that the ethos of a commercial civilization is hazardous to the individual's moral health. He worries about what will happen when "the ethics of a commercial civilization—the relentless manufacturing of appetites and the incitement to gratify them on credit—undermines self-restraint in political and economic behavior." How long will both democracy and capitalism last if government does not encourage those "moral prerequisites" that enable democracy and capitalism to work?

Thrift, industry, good citizenship, and family life seem to be the sorts of things that Will would have the government promote. Education is also an important factor in creating a society that can maintain itself, and tax credits to offset tuition payments to private schools count as a "subsidy" that Will would support. Education is, however, not limited to the schools; Will considers law an instrument of education. Accordingly, he advocates restrictions on abortion, pornography, and sexual permissiveness in order to elevate moral sensibilities. He argues for restraints on the marketplace for the sake of the common good, imposition of military conscription in the name of civic duty, and maintenance of a welfare state as an indication of social concern. These are the "lessons" that would "teach" people that not all their wants can or should be satisfied. "Proper conservatism," Will claims, "holds that men and women are biological facts, but that ladies and gentlemen fit for self-government are social artifacts, creations of the law."

Will is aware that his conservative counterattack involving law and culture might be dismissed as a gross example of the failure to distinguish between the question "How should man live?" and the question "What behavior should be mandatory?" No reasonable society, he concedes, would want to erase this distinction. His reply is that "it is impossible to stipulate a priori limits to the sweep of the law in matters of morality. Such limits must be set by prudential, not theoretical reasoning." Yet, he is quick to assure, "this does not mean that policy shall be unprincipled. It means that principles must be derived from a sense of national purpose and from evidence as to how law can contribute to the fulfillment of those purposes." So where is the line to be drawn to hold back "the sweep of the law in matters of morality"? "I do not know," Will answers. He admits that drawing lines without a limiting principle is dangerous. But, quoting Woodrow Wilson, he counters that if we are to have representative government, "somebody must be trusted."

Trusting politicians will, however, not do. Without a clearly understood basis for distinguishing between what ought to be (moral standards) and what must be (political standards), appealing to a sense of "national purpose" will not provide any principles for government policy. Instead, government policy will be up for grabs. Interest groups from both "left" and "right" will seek to determine policy through various forms of pressure; or, and this is usually worse, the politicians will every now and then "get religion" and seek to force some moral principle, legitimate or not, down the electorate's throats. Principle will be the last thing to guide government policy.

On a more fundamental level, Will cannot get away with the assertion that setting an a priori limit is involved in distinguishing between what ought to be and what must be. The natural right to liberty is a principle that limits which matters of morality can be made mandatory, because liberty is the essential political precondition for the exercise of morality. But since this right is a natural right and thus has a basis in human nature, it is not a priori.

Will fails to consider the possibility of a political philosophy that does regard human nature as constituting a standard of conduct and does consider reason capable of guiding passions toward the attainment of that end—but also holds liberty as the most important political value, as that value above all others that government exists to preserve and protect. On the grounds that liberty plays an intimate and vital role in the process of self-actualization, such a political philosophy regards liberty as the fundamental precondition of a person's life having any possibility of being morally a good one.

Will does not consider this possibility because he never really bothers to examine the nature of human excellence. For all his talk of human potential and the importance of establishing habits and dispositions that will lead to fulfillment as a human being, Will never grasps a point made by Aristotle—that individuals cannot be what they ought to be without doing so by their own deliberate choice and in light of their own understanding. Particular individuals may, of course, fail to exercise the choice to be what they ought to be, or their understanding of what they ought to be may be flawed. Yet, human fulfillment is impossible if individuals are not the source of their own actions, if their actions are forced upon them by others.

Will believes that if the state can change erroneous moral beliefs by compelling behavior, then coercion has a pedagogical function and thus a real use in the promotion of human excellence. But Will fails to see that such a change of moral beliefs would not be a change for which the person would be responsible, since it would be the result of compulsion. It would, therefore, not be self-perfecting. As Ayn Rand once noted: "An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes."

Neither does Will consider the possibility that the free market ("commercial civilization") tends to promote some of the virtues whose lack he mourns. Productive work is not only the means by which man secures sustenance; it is also an exercise of his potential, a potential that can be realized only by the fullest use of his mind. Freedom to act in accordance with one's judgment in matters of productive work and exchange is an essential feature of the free market. To function well in a free economy, individuals need not only to know their own values but also to learn to rank them and act accordingly. The free market provides an incentive for individuals to take responsibility for their lives—to determine their own careers, produce whatever is their unique talent to produce, and use these to fashion a human-fulfilling life. In short, the pursuit of "economic" well-being is not merely the gratification of desire. It is also, quite often, self-actualizing.

Two final points: (1) Will claims that "it is a non sequitur to say that because the state has a monopoly on legitimate coercion, its essence is coercion, actual or latent.…Proper conservatism teaches that it is authority." This is inexact. The state's essence does involve authority (assuming that it is duly constituted and has the function of protecting rights), but what differentiates its authority from other forms is precisely its possession of a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. The state's essence is not simply coercion, but neither is it simply authority. (2) Will claims that he wants to develop community. Indeed, his position has been described as "communitarian conservatism." Humans do not work in isolation; they also work in human groups. Will does not, however, consider the consequences of coercion for human groups. Human groups exist only if their members judge that common action is needed to attain an end and only if they mutually decide to pursue that end. Coercion is the very thing that will destroy the unity that undergirds human groups. Will's program for the state will not, ultimately, produce community. It will, however, produce fascism.

Douglas B. Rasmussen is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. John's University in New York. He is a coeditor of The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, to be published soon by the University of Illinois Press.