Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Eikon.
George F. Will. The Conservative Sensibility. New York: Hachette Books, 2019.
Combine exceptional research, brilliant storytelling, unassailable logic, and a world-class, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and you have George Will’s recent book The Conservative Sensibility. The purpose of Will’s book, he writes, is “to suggest how to think about the enduring questions concerning the proper scope and actual competence of government” (xvii). The answers he gives to these questions are well worth considering as he provides a beautiful vision for the future of America that is achieved by retrieving her founding principles.
Will begins with an explanation of the principles and beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers and the government they created. He believes America and its founding principles are under a decades-old assault from a progressive agenda. As he details the rise of progressivism and liberal attacks on human nature, he demonstrates how the idea grew that human nature is not fixed but malleable. “The crux of modern radicalism,” Will writes, “is that human nature has no constancy, that it is merely an unstable imprint of the fluctuating social atmosphere” (57). He points to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson as one of the primary means of the rise of progressivism and today’s liberal philosophy. He marks Wilson’s presidency as the beginning of institutional changes that had lasting consequences.
Will explains that the Founders separated the powers of the government into three branches (legislative, judicial, and executive) in order to prevent the kind of changes that have been brought about by progressivism. Regrettably, power grabs by each branch have resulted in a system that looks less and less like it was intended.
One of the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence is respect for human dignity. This idea became the impetus behind America’s foundational principles of freedom and liberty. Inequality, however, can limit a citizen’s opportunity to enjoy these principles, and such limitations can begin from the moment a child is born. Many think that if everyone has the same schooling or money that they will have the same likelihood of success in life. However, the childhood home is one of the biggest indicators of how one will progress through life.
Instead of fixing these problems, the progressive vision of fighting poverty and inequality has given rise to the institutionalization of the welfare state. In what is one of the most shocking statistics in the entire book, Will writes, “Between 1960 and 2010, entitlements exploded from 28 percent to 67 percent of federal spending” (329). This extreme growth of the government has had detrimental effects on work ethic, the open marketplace, and the family. He cites Nicholas Eberstadt, who said that in 1960 the ratio of gainfully employed Americans to disabled workers was 134 to 1. By 2010 that was down to just 16 to 1 (330).
Both sides agree that education can help with these problems, but disagree on what this should look like. Will expresses his vision for the education system and states that it should be a way of “tak[ing] seriously the unending political task of recapturing the past through the cultivation of memories” (355). He remarks that our education system should be one that equips students with the “literacy, numeracy, and civic and historical information needed for remunerative work and responsible citizenship” (358). It is not possible for a good system of education to create excellence ex nihilo, but it has a responsibility to elevate it.
Once this can be achieved, America should not keep these political ideals inside its borders. This form of government exists because Americans believe that it best accords with freedom, liberty, and human flourishing. These principles should be the country’s greatest export to the world. Will says, “The belief that American principles should be universal begets the belief that America’s ambitious purpose in the world should be to shape the world in such a way that America will no longer have to have ambitious purposes” (449, emphasis original).
Will, an atheist, takes a bit of an excursus in chapter nine to explain that he is very thankful for the religions of the world as a way of giving a foundation to morality and of anchoring natural law. Nonetheless, he remains ultimately unpersuaded by these religions and the claims they present. In his view, it is logically consistent to be both an atheist and a conservative.
Will closes the book similarly to how he began, by expressing the importance of looking back to the foundations and the framework for government established by America’s forefathers. According to Will, America has swerved from many of its founding principles through progressives who seek progress, to improve and be improving. To progressives, harkening to the past is going backward. In contrast to these progressive ideals, Will is concerned with the question, “Can we get back…to the premises with which we started?” (538) “A usable past,” he argues, “will not be present, however, unless conservatives make it so. Their challenge is to make the Founders constantly consulted…Thoughtful Americans who revisit the great arguments of their nation’s political tradition will be rewarded by a richer sense of their home” (536).
The strongest aspect of the entire book is the way Will interacts with the Declaration of Independence and explains how it is the guiding philosophical document for America. His engagement with the Declaration in chapter four — the book’s most important chapter — should be required reading for every civics class in America. Will provides some of the best lessons on the subject one will find anywhere. According to Will, “The Declaration is not just chronologically prior to the Constitution, it is logically prior” (150). The Constitution is the codification of the Declaration into law. Its writing ushered in a period of history that declared government would no longer function from the top down. Since, as the founders thought, natural rights are the birthright of all men, government would be by the “consent of the governed.” Will argues that the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is such that every political discussion is a distillation of them. Lawyers are, in essence, “America’s practitioners of political philosophy” (157). He further argues that the single most important word in the Declaration is “secure” (23). As Will understands the founders’ intentions, the government does not bestow rights on its citizens. Rather, rights pre-exist the government. While progressives want to expand government and make it the overseer of every aspect of life, this notion is contrary to the very ideals of the Declaration. According to the Declaration, freedom resides in pursuing liberty for oneself, not setting up the government to hand it out. America’s founders did not throw off the shackles of a tyrannical government merely to set up another one.
Another key contribution is Will’s discussion of the family, where he demonstrates how poverty and poor education are ruining generations of families in America. Some of the statistics he provides are devastatingly sad. Will argues that a healthy family is one of the strongest ways to ensure a child grows up to excel academically and vocationally. A study he cites claims that the primary indicator of a school’s success is the quality of the family from which students come (316). This claim is based on what is called the 9/91 factor. Will explains, “Between birth and their nineteenth birthdays, American children spend 9 percent of their time in school, 91 percent elsewhere. The fate of American education is being shaped not by legislative acts but by the fact that, increasingly, ‘elsewhere’ is not an intact family” (316). The amount of verbal interaction a child receives, from the time of birth, is crucial for mental development. He says,
Children raised in poverty are apt to hear 600 words per hour. Working-class children hear 1,200, and children of professional-class parents hear 2,100. The issue is not the substance of the chatter…but the torrent of verbal stimuli as the child’s brain is developing. By age three, children from poor homes have heard, on average, 30 million fewer words spoken at home than children in professional-class homes (317).
Doctors can determine the probability of a child flourishing based on reading the body language in children as young as nine-months-old. Sadly, “some babies expect to fail for the rest of their lives” (318). Children who are used to praise from adults in their lives will play with the blocks forcefully or throw them around and then look for someone to cheer for them. A baby that “expects to fail will have a more limited repertory of play, limited by the realization that no one will care. Poor children sense and acquire the helplessness of their parents — or, more likely, of a single parent” (318). He goes on to say that “at least 15 percent of IQ points are experientially rather than genetically based, and the preschool experiences of some children can cost them a significant portion of those points” (321, emphasis mine). These studies only affirm what Christians know is true from Scripture — that healthy families are monumentally important to the flourishing of society.
For Christians, these alarming studies should prompt thoughtful action on behalf of the family in our society. Pro-choice progressives sometimes chide pro-life advocates and say they are really only pro-birth because they often ignore these issues. Christians, however, believe that the family is the building block of society and know that as the family goes, so goes society. This is why Christians can affirm both that abortion is a vital pro-life policy issue and also that faithfulness to Christ requires a holistic approach to the welfare of all men, women, and children made in the image of God.
Will’s ninth chapter, “Welcoming Whirl: Conservatism Without Theism,” is a puzzling addition to this book. His brilliant expression of the Declaration’s belief in natural rights given by “nature’s God” stands in stark contrast to his atheism. He asks, “Is a moral sense independent of religion constitutive of human nature?” (485) and then explains how cosmology and Darwinism can be helpful to conservatism. Will ultimately fails to explain in this chapter why mankind is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for any ultimate reason. If there is no foundational, unchanging standard, then what moral basis is there to stop anyone from pursuing their own happiness at the expense of their neighbor? He says at the close of the chapter, “The nobility, humor, and pathos presented in [Shakespeare’s] plays and poems testify to his fervent belief that somehow the way we behave matters, even if — or perhaps it matters especially because — we live beneath a blank sky” (511). One would be hard pressed to find a flimsier defense of moral and political reasoning than “somehow…it matters.”
Will’s The Conservative Sensibility is an enjoyable, informative, and engaging book. Starting from the ground up, he explains the history of America, the core beliefs and guiding principles of its Founding Fathers, and then details what he believes has gone wrong in America and how to fix it. It is a call for conservatives to rise up and fight in order to conserve the political philosophy that has been handed down from prior generations. He says in the final chapter,
This book is, among other things, a summons to pessimism. What is needed now, and what is especially incumbent on conservatives to provide, is intelligent pessimism that is more than a mere mood. It should be a mentality grounded in a philosophic tradition that has a distinguished pedigree, and that is validated by abundant historical evidence for this proposition: Nothing lasts (515).
Indeed, nothing does. Life is short and Americans must indeed strive to make a greater country for the next generation, building on the foundation provided by its founders. The Christian reader knows, however, that it is most important not to get so attached to this country as to forget that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).
Jeremy J. Lloyd is a PhD student in ethics at Midwestern Seminary. He and his wife, Erica, live in St. Louis with their four children.
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