George Will on the Conservative Sensibility
Sep 16 2019

Conservative-Sensibility-198x300.jpg George Will talks about his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Will argues for a conservative vision that embraces the dynamic nature of life. Topics discussed include the current political landscape, the American founding, James Madison's vision of government vs. Woodrow Wilson's, Friedrich Hayek, and of course, a little baseball.

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Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Sep 19 2019 at 11:11am

One of my favorite episodes to date. Will definitely buy the book.

Marilyne Tolle
Sep 19 2019 at 2:49pm

George Will comments that:

“Progressivism was exactly a doctrine of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites.” (18’30”)

and later that:

“There’s a de Tocquevillian problem here; de Tocqueville said that in a mass society, an egalitarian society, there will be a) a prejudice against distinction and b) there will not be institutions that nourish distinction. So this is a problem of an egalitarian society; to nourish and welcome elites.” (1h14’10”)

This seems contradictory at first – George Will seems to condemn elites but then to plead in their favour.

I think that the etymology of the word “elite” can solve the apparent contradiction.

At the risk of putting words in George Will’s mouth, I think in the first statement, he means that Progressivism favours a system of governance that is “elit-ist”. By contrast, I would say that in the second statement, he advocates a system of governance that is “elit-ar”.

Think of it as the distinction between “popul-ist” and “popul-ar”.

The word “elite” comes from the French word “élite”, itself from the Latin eligere, which means to choose (also found in “election”).

Elit-ists self-select into a “select few” to the detriment of the masses, much like popul-ists self-select into a vocal few that claim to represent the common people, but operate above them.

Elit-ar means celebrating excellence, much like popul-ar means celebrating the common people.

Nick R
Sep 21 2019 at 1:56pm

I believe he also says something to the effect that there will always be elites doing the ruling, and that the challenge is getting the right sort of elites to do it. (My words, I can’t seem to find that comment in the transcript.)

Ajit Kirpekar
Sep 21 2019 at 9:09pm

I found that statement pretty anti Hayekian. If only we had the right elites…

Perhaps he needs to revisit why the worst get on top.

Casey C
Sep 22 2019 at 12:09pm

I think the point was by definition, leadership are “elites” by position not by personhood. And the 18th century social processes were better at finding suitable persons to fill leadership roles

Sep 23 2019 at 10:06am

I would suggest that any seeming contradiction can be resolved in a different way.

I agree with Nick R that there will always be elites, including elites who hold office.  Casey C is right as well that this will be true effectively by definition.  But return to this statement.

“Progressivism was exactly a doctrine of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites.”

The fact that there are elites in positions of power need not entail that the execution of their authority is “for the elites” or for the execution of their progressive doctrine.

The point of the American system was to restrict government power in order to secure the unalienable rights of the people.  “Progressivism” is not merely the fact that elites rule (which is effectively unavoidable, just as Will said).  Rather, it is that they rule in a way that removes those restrictions on their exercise of power with the predictable result that the rights of the people are trampled.

Will’s point is not contrary to Hayek in that the safeguards didn’t depend on getting a special superior quality of elites — so long as the safeguards remained.  Wilson openly moved to abandon and dismantle those safeguards.

Sep 19 2019 at 7:57pm

Only a few comments on this episode
It’s mentioned Ronald Reagan several times in a positive way yet he also condemned the current housing situation in San Francisco. This IMO is a contradiction has Ronald Reagan is directly responsible for the high cost of housing and in San Francisco/ Silicon Valley. As Reagan championed prop13 which insulates incumbent hone owners from paying higher property taxes when property values rise. Leading to the perverse incentives we have here with local zoning laws. I.E. incumbent homeowners approve office space leading to higher demand for housing but no new housing leading to higher  cost of housing because of which homeowners enrich themselves and prop 13 protects them from taxes that would otherwise incentives them to build more housing. Prop 13 propelled Him Eagan to the whitehouse. This oversight displays a key insight from conservative thinkers markets have always been created.
secondly I take note of remarks by George Will stating that the USA let markets not class or government decide the allocation of resources. Does he forget slavery does he forget that only land owners could vote. Does he forget black Wall Street. Our country is one where class consistently hasn’t Trumped markets when the winners and losers of the market where the wrong set of people class race gender etc. denying this fact blinds one to the current method to fix problems. For example George Will raills against medicare which on many points I agree with him but he does not acknowledge the fact that medicare lead to the integration of 3000 hospitals.  It has been through progressive top down approaches and strong national government that has lead to the realization of dignity and rights to African Americans.

Sep 22 2019 at 3:58pm

San Francisco Bay Area politics is dominated by progressive renters. Home owners resisting new housing is a relatively minor factor in the cost of housing compared to the high construction costs, $700,000 to build a unit of “affordable housing”, some of which is caused by the progressive building requirements.

Sep 23 2019 at 5:19pm

Well if you think it’s bad now with Prop 13 still in effect? just wait until the progressives in California repeal it.  And with the massive progressive majorities in California, why can they repeal?  That way they can really stick it to the current home owners with massive property tax increases.  It’s all for the children.

Sep 19 2019 at 9:14pm

I just wanted to say for the record that I like George Will. Most importantly, he’s honest and introspective. I had previously stated elsewhere that I didn’t think that the Green New Deal was a green idea with red roots, (Marxism), like George has claimed in the past. But then I read a blog post from a person who had attended a socialist conference and it turns out that many of the socialists don’t actually care that much about the Green New Deal, but that they just viewed it as an opportunity to transform the whole economy in their vision. Although I still think that there are opportunities to do some good things that have been envisioned in the document(s), I admit that George might be more correct than I previously thought.

On growth, of course growth is important – population is growing and we all need places to live and need to pay off bills and save for retirement. But I would also hasten to point out that I am a firm believer that growth might be easier through a certain amount of economic shrinkage. Obesity is a serious problem and so is Alzheimer’s disease. I view GOOD economic growth as a way to provide a better standard of living that entails not having to continuously worry about the basics. We can’t keep increasing GDP for its own sake. Lots of economic activity is like trying to bail out a sinking ship, and this also includes maintenance on lots of economic goods. Many goods should be more repairable, and this would mean companies not switching models so often, as they like doing to make more money.

Lastly, I don’t think that our country necessarily needs a narrative, so much as a focus on solving really important problems. The free market isn’t really supposed to need a narrative, so I thought.

Good episode though. It was really dense and I had to listen multiple times to digest it.

Michael McEvoy
Sep 21 2019 at 7:37am

I also enjoy Mr Will’s wide ranging intellect. However he ignores large swaths of our history. The compromise that led to slavery has inflicted a terrible wound on this project we call America. We must continue to heal that wound and strive to avoid returning to that path. Many of the thinkers he cites are very smart people, yet I believe many of them chose or choose to forget that part of our past .

In a question – was Mr Lincoln’s mindset a conservative sensibility?

Mads Lindstrøm
Sep 21 2019 at 8:52am

I am confused about George Will’s (and many others) worry about American soy bean exports. Soy beans are a commodity with a world market, and thus easy to change one supplier form another. Likewise, it is also easy for producers to change one customer from another. Therefore, China may buy more soy bean from Brazil, but then some current Brazilian customers would have to go somewhere else. Where else? America. It seems to make little difference. And when the trade war is over, it will be easy for China to shift back to American soy beans, if that is an advantage somehow.

Notice, that this is very different from non-commodities like TVs or cars.

I honestly thought my story above, was standard economic theory, but not being an economist I might be wrong. I am wrong? Or maybe I am right in general, but there is something that makes soy beans different from other commodities?

Sep 23 2019 at 5:30pm

The issue here is not with international prices but with the international supply chain.  The participants in these supply chains have been optimizing this for decades and now to have it stopped by the biggest consumer will only cause increased prices in the consuming countries and poverty in the supplying countries.  The worst parts are yet to come:

What do farmers do with all of the soy?  They may be able to get some of the money to decrease the pain from their now huge glut, but that won’t pay for storage of current supplies.  And now the price to other consumers will be so low that it may not cover shipping.
How will farmers reestablish futures contracts with now angry shippers, consumers and retailers
When this foolishness ends, will the current participants in this market need some help/loving/graft to reestablish their current supply lines

The answer is of course the US Government will have to pay out even more money to get these parts of the supply chain back on board.

Casey C
Sep 21 2019 at 9:12pm

It concerns me to hear how the elderly are discussed by otherwise thoughtful folks, especially from the right. My grandmother is evidently legally robbing my daughter. Meanwhile, her sacrafices for her family through a life of mostly extreme poverty resulted in multiple engineers, programmers, a nurse, a lawyer, small business owner etc. These she enabled to enjoy a much higher standard of a living and sustain the tax base. Hmmm…

And the net transfer shouldn’t really matter anyways in a civilized society. We’re not talking about people unwilling to work or enfeebled by destructive choices. That section was disappointing.

I will order the book on Madison, my favorite founder as well.

Sep 22 2019 at 4:20pm

There are a lot of Strawman arguments here.
The deficit will be a burden on the young caused by progressives and old people who want social security and Medicare.

So why do conservatives keep cutting taxes and ballooning the deficit?

You could argue that the deficit is the fault of military hawks that refuse to cut wasteful and needless defence spending.

JK Brown
Sep 22 2019 at 11:30pm

If only conservatives or Republicans had really held any ground over the last century. Better then letting the Progressives/Democrats run roughshod, but as noted below, excepting Reagan (and now Trump) Republican presidents haven’t really made much of a difference in the march of the administrative state.

Without getting into the comparative defects of Clinton and Trump (disclosure: I’m #NeverTrump), I think it’s useful to remind everyone of the ways in which having a Republican president hasn’t made all that much difference for the last fifty years, with Ronald Reagan as the one exception.

–Charles Murray, May 2016

This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.

–Robert Lewis Dabney on Conservatism in 1897

Marilyne Tolle
Sep 24 2019 at 3:25pm

Russ says:

“(…) they seem to think there is a dial called ‘How much market you have.’ It goes up to 11, of course (…)”

For those who don’t know the origins of this popular idiom, I recommend watching This is Spinal Tap, a mockumentary about hard rock made in the early 80s.

The expression comes from a scene (watch here) where the lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel shows the film crew how the control knobs on his Marshall amps go up to 11 instead of the standard 10. When asked why the dials for 10 are not simply set to be louder, he replies: “These go to eleven”. Brilliant, as the Brits say.

John J. McDonald
Oct 2 2019 at 6:20pm

After a mere 10 minutes of listening I DID buy the book, audio of course. What a delicious thinker.


Patrick Allen
Oct 12 2019 at 1:59pm

Two comments on the transcription shortly after 25;35.  The names that Mr. Will mentioned were Jimmy Foxx (not “Fox”) and Tris Speaker (definitely not “Chris Baker”).

[Thanks! I’ve fixed it. As you can see, I’m not exactly sports savvy! –Econlib Ed.]

Earl Rodd
Oct 14 2019 at 10:26am

In a section of this podcast, there was a discussion of tariffs in which I thought the host and Mr. Will sounded like two guys from the 19th century! As part of Trump bashing (a rare event on econtalk, as is its counterpart), the talk of tariffs was about saving factory x in city y. While I’m sure there are lobbyists maneuvering for such petty results, it seems clear to me that the tariff is being used as a negotiating tool in a much bigger context – that of China attempting to surpass and oppress the US by continuing to steal intellectual property, brutally suppressing any political dissent, suppressing religious expression and strong-arming American companies to help them do it all. We have spectacles like 50 recalls of Chinese (the only maker of one key ingredient) blood pressure medicine in the past year. It goes on and on. I’m not saying tariffs or the way they are implemented are the best tool – but talking about tariffs only in terms of 19th century protectionism sounded really disconnected from the modern world.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: August 14, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is... George Will. This is his third appearance on EconTalk, the last being in May 2017 discussing liberty with David Boaz and P.J. O'Rourke. His latest book is The Conservative Sensibility, which is our topic for today.... Your book is a rather extraordinary work of scholarship, entertainment. It's a survey of American history, economic and cultural history. And of American political thought. And, early on in the book you set up a conflict or contrast between what you call the Madisonian and Wilsonian traditions. And you cast them as the debate which we're still having in America. Why is that the right way to think about it, and what do you mean by that?

George Will: Well, first, there is kind of fun, because there were two Princetonians involved: James Madison of the great class of..., I believe, 1771; and Woodrow Wilson of the class of 1879. So, it's tidy. Beyond that, it's accurate. Which is to say that Madison, who I think of as the best political philosopher/practitioner since Aristotle, said: First of all, there are such things as natural rights. Hence, there is such a thing as a human nature that is fixed and settled, not plastic to the touch of culture or government. That, we are more than culturally-acquiring creatures that take on the coloration of whatever social situation we are in. And third, from this flows the most important principle, which is separation of powers, to make government strong enough, to protect our natural rights, and not so strong that it threatens them. Woodrow Wilson, as the first self-consciously and theoretically progressive president--I'm not intentionally leaving out Teddy Roosevelt from both of those--rejected these premises: that, there's not a fixed human nature, which gives government an enormous new project. Which is to make people better as creatures by making the social promptings[?] around them better. Therefore natural rights are a fiction and not a useful one--anthropologically naive; they really thought that Locke and Hobbes and the rest [?] out there was a state of nature rather than that being a heuristic device to help us think about these things. And, finally, he comes, as you would expect from someone who starts wrong, to wind up really wrong, by saying that the separation of powers is an anachronism that was suitable once when America was formed[?] and people, 80% of whom living within Atlantic tidewater on the fringe of a non-export continent--but, said Wilson, 'Now that we are a great nation united by steel rails and copper wires, we need a nimble'--one of his favorite adjectives to describe government--'we need a nimble government that can act with despatch.' Which requires marginalizing Congress and celebrating a kind of watery Caesarism in the modern Presidency.

Russ Roberts: And I think you would agree--in fact, I'm sure you say so somewhere in the book--that we are living in Wilson's world. Not the world where human nature is plastic, but the world where government has expanded way beyond what a Madison would have wanted.

George Will: Yes. The Progressives have been winning for a century. Until along came the conservative sensibility that changed the tide of history, and all that. No, it's been a remarkable success, partly because the Progressives knew what they were doing. They had ideas. And they knew how to implement them. Again, they had developed an intellectual infrastructure, in academia and elsewhere. For a very long time, if you wanted an advanced degree in the United States, in, say, the second half of the 19th century, you went to Germany. Wilson didn't, but a number of his teachers at Johns Hopkins had done so. And there they acquired two things: A kind of Hegelian mysticism about History--that History was a proper noun, history with a capital H --History with its own autonomous unfolding logic. And they came back with a somewhat entailed admiration or Bismarck's bureaucracy, as the administrator of the unfolding wisdom of history. And, Americans imbibed this--not least, Thomas Woodrow Wilson--Tom, as he was known at Princeton--as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins.


Russ Roberts: So, you talk about the conservative sensibility that came along as a counterweight to that Wilsonian tradition, thinking, I assume of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, Ronald Reagan here in the United States. You refer to Barry Goldwater as an important intellectual failure, electorally but then setting the stage for Reagan.

George Will: It would be a stretch to refer to Barry as an intellectual precursor. But, to me, Barry was an amiable--as someone described, as a 'cheerful malcontent.' But, what he wanted to do was to revive the vocabulary of wide-open spaces, Southwestern individualism; and the Founders. Which he did. He famously did not write but presumably read The Conscience of a Conservative.

Russ Roberts: That's his book.

George Will: Yes. It's one of the most important, probably the most important campaign book ever published. Sold millions. And other millions were given away. So, I've interrupted you not to disparage Barry but to defend him against the slur that he was an intellectual--

Russ Roberts: Well, I mention it, as I think I've probably mentioned on this program before--but, I went back at some point and read his--his 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, and it's shockingly erudite for, compared to today's, which are mainly just a set of noises punctuated by jeers[?]--

George Will: Partly because he had the good sense to have among his speechwriters Harry Jaffa, of Claremont University. And Harry, of course, is the author of the great book on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided.


Russ Roberts: But, what I was going to say about that conservative interruption of the Progressive movement--and I want to put this in a broader context. Which is that a lot of people will decry--on the Left--will decry the Reagan years, the--and also what's called, lately, an insult, neo-Liberalism or sometimes called free market dogma. They'll blame certain things on Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek. And I look back at the last half of the 20th century and I see a speed bump that the Reagan revolution put up, or that Milton Friedman put up--of really tiny--you know, when I hear these complaints, I always think, 'Well, boy I would like to live in the world they think we live in.' Which is a world where government got small; where markets were relied on with faith. That's not the world we live in. It seems to me that 1919, if we think of that as the Versailles disaster as the beginning of the Progressive movement--you can go back a couple of years before as you suggest. But the Wilsonian vision. It's--it's a pretty steady increase. There's ups and downs. But there's a large secular trend toward bigger government, more intrusive government. A few stepbacks of deregulation in the late 1970s to early 1980s with Carter and then Reagan. But overall, government just gets bigger and bigger and more intrusive. And so, I think Wilson won. And I also--which bothers me, like it bothers you. And yet, I have to concede that life in the United States overall is pretty good. And so, that's a challenge to your view, and mine.

George Will: It is. Ronald Wilson Reagan--was his middle name, which I regret--Ronald Reagan's complaint was not so much with the New Deal as with the Great Society. I think Reagan looked at the great achievement of the New Deal, which was Social Security, and said, 'Okay. Government knows how to do this. You identify an easily-identifiable cohort--the elderly--and you write them checks. And you stick them in the mail. What government does not know how to do is deliver Head Starts and model cities, and things like that. That, something fundamentally changed in 1965, when after the Goldwater/anti-Goldwater landslide produced the first Democratic, liberal-legislating majority in Congress since Roosevelt lost it after trying to pack the Supreme Court in the 1938[?] elections.' Government lost all sense of limited bearings, in terms of its proper scope and actual competence. And what fell is what James Q. Wilson, great social scientist of the second half of the 20th century, called the 'legitimacy barrier.' Before then, when Congress wanted to do something, they tried to locate it in an enumerated power of the Constitution. When Eisenhower built the Interstate highway system, most of the national defense Highway Act--I went through Princeton's graduate school with assistance from the National Defense Education Act. So, they made [?] at least a perfunctory, a [?] cynical attempt at--Jim Wilson said, the legitimacy barrier fell finally with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Which was the quintessentially statement of co-responsibility. And Congress took it on without even pretending. I mean, they could have said this is the National Defense--education, elementary, secondary. But they didn't. From then on, it was, there were no--

Russ Roberts: Drop the mask--

George Will: Yes. There was no restraint on the government. And, what happened in the 1960s was social scientists became intoxicated with the idea that direct transmission of social science into policy ignoring the wisdom of the man who became my best friend, at one hand--he said, 'Social science cannot tell us what to do. It can tell us the results of what we are doing.' And, what we were doing was disappointing. Hence, along came the wonderful journal, The Public Interest, with a very small readership, but very distinguished authors--Wilson [James Q.], Daniel Bell, Pat Moynihan, Nathan Glazer--all the rest. And we began to have a serious argument about, as I say, the actual competence of government.


Russ Roberts: So, here's the irony, for me. So, we--I think 'we,' whether we call us classical liberals or conservatives or libertarians--people want smaller government than the one we have. We lost, we've lost most of that debate. At the same time, the standard of living in the United States I think has risen steadily. Some people think that's not particularly true. They can bring forth numbers to show otherwise, though I think those numbers are deceptive and wrong. I think the standard of living of the average American is dramatically higher than it was 40 years ago. Obviously higher than it was 100 years ago. Probably by a factor of anywhere from 10 to 30 times. The number of people who are in safe jobs has gone, as you point out in your book--so many improvements in the quality of life. And, how do we square that with the size of government? How do we square that with the intrusiveness of government? the increased red tape? the decrease in, I would say, in property rights, in effective property rights? And maybe you and I should just change our mind?

George Will: Uh, hah, hah, hah. Don't hold your breath.

Russ Roberts: It was a joke.

George Will: I understand.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

George Will: First, the happy lesson of this is that it's really hard to prevent the American people from creating wealth. We're entrepreneurial. We're individualists. We're restless. We're mobile. At least we used to be. One of the changes, now, and this goes to the heart of your question, is: So far, so good; well, let's wait and see. When the Dust Bowl and the Depression--this 1-2 punch--hit Oklahoma in John Steinbeck's Great Depression novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family got up and moved. They went to California in search of work, and found it. Today, people are much less mobile, much less apt to move, because they are entangled in a web of local service provisions. And this immobilizes them. These provisions aren't sufficiently portable. But there's more to it than this. We have seen American growth slow, to the point at which 3% growth seems to be, a steady 3% growth, seems to be a utopian aspiration. And we have, people like, a Professor Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, his great tome--he's a Northwestern economist--saying, 'Well, we had this unusual and unrepeatable century, 1870 to 1970. Electricity, sanitation, all that stuff. Simply can't be repeated.' Now, I tend to think that's a mistake. I remember talking about this with the head of the St. Louis Fed, and he said, 'Yeah; it's like someone saying in 1100 AD: 'What we've got with the wheel and fire, we're done, we're done now.' So, I think these people are always wrong. But, in fact, we did have tremendous economic momentum because of certain wonderful inventions--internal combustion engine, the incandescent light bulb, on and on and on, antibiotics--

Russ Roberts: assembly line--

George Will: assembly line. All the rest. But, uh--it seems to me reasonable to say that one reason for the sluggish economic dynamism has been the suffocating effecting effect of state intervention. Because states--governments--intervene precisely because the political class finds the economically efficient allocation of resources morally offensive.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to take a different approach, get your reaction. My view is, the current economic system with all of its--it's quite a bit of economic freedom, quite a bit of opportunity for innovation, entrepreneurship. And yet, also, at the same time, a sort of Gulliverian set of cords holding things back. I recently looked at what it takes to put up a building in San Francisco. It's, um--it's frightening. It's extraordinary. It's, of course, subject to the rule of men, not the rule of law--

George Will: We built the Empire State Building from a hole in the ground to topping off in 410 days during the Depression. We build the Pentagon--world's largest office building--in 16 months during a war. That's the way it used to be when we could do things.

Russ Roberts: So, we've got some freedom, but lots of additional restraints. And yet, I would argue that for well-educated children growing up in 2-parent homes, life's really good.

George Will: It is good.

Russ Roberts: And, more than good, of course. Not just materially lovely, but an opportunity for people for I would say, use the word as you do in your book, 'flourish.' Use their skills, dream, have a sense of self-respect and dignity. But there's a large group of people--it's not 50%: it's something like maybe 15%, maybe it's 20%, of the population--that is being left behind. That gets a horrible education. Grows up in a very unproductive, unencouraging culture. It's a, used to be, in the inner cities, now it's also in many rural areas. You talk about the entanglements of state benefits. We've also, of course, made it expensive to land somewhere, because we've made it extremely hard to build those buildings in America's cities, where opportunity is still quite successful. So, it seems to me that the--ironically--the Wilsonian project has been great for the elite. And I would call the bulk of people. And really punishing and destructive of the people who struggle.

George Will: Progressivism was exactly a doctrine of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites. They said--I mean, their objection to market society was that markets function so annoying well, without the supervision of intellectuals. And that therefore Progressives were needed to run the administrative state--they didn't use that term, but they set about building it without denoting it. And therefore, uh, it's not an irony. It's natural, that Progressivism has been good for the cognitive elites. And we have an increasingly, cognitively stratified country. There's no question about that. The market is saying at the top of its lungs, 'Stay in school.' Because, I won't say education, I'll say credentials, because we have an enormous number of expensively-schooled imbeciles who are just awfully badly educated at great expense, still. Those who acquire the cognitive skills flourish in America today. Those who don't, don't. My grandfather was a Lutheran minister in Donora, Pennsylvania. I am really familiar with the Monongahela Valley. And what happened to the steel industry. What happened to the towns like Donora, Pennsylvania. And it's devastating. But, the steel jobs aren't coming back. Period. I remember when John McCain, to his great credit, as candidate in 2008 for the Presidency, went to Michigan and said,' The jobs, the automobile jobs, are not coming back.' Some have gone to Mexico; some have gone to South Korea; some are gone to South Carolina--

Russ Roberts: some have gone to robots--

George Will: it's different. Sure.


Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, agreed. And yet, today, people who would identify themselves as Progressives purport to be concerned about the people at the bottom. So, I think one of the challenges of 'our side'--and I say this periodically to my libertarian friends--is: You know, what's the market going to do for those folks? The other side, the Progressive side, wants to give them a check. I get that. It's not--to me, I think that's the road to, a very unflourishing world and a dangerous world.

George Will: Well, they want to give them more than a check. They want to give them--and here's there a complete convergence between the Trumpian Right and the Progressive Left. The Progressive Left wants to give them a check, but it also has no principled objection, no articulated objection, to protectionism. And what the Trumpian Right and the Progressives want is to pull up the drawbridge, raise the walls, and somehow coerce the manufacturing jobs come back to the United States. We have people in the White House who talk about repatriating our supply chains. Now, these people have no clue what the supply chain of a Boeing Dreamliner looks like. Or even a much simpler gadget like an iPhone looks like. Repatriating the supply chains--trying to repatriate Boeing supply chains--would simply make Airbus the indisputable winner in the commercial aviation competition.

Russ Roberts: Well, they can fix that, too. There's no end to what you have to adjust once you start fiddling; and I think that's, you know, a challenge that--I guess maybe that's a feature, not a bug, for some folks. But, I do believe that one of the challenges of the people on the Right today who have become less enamored with market outcomes than they once were, is they seem to think there is a dial called 'How much market you have.' It goes up to 11, of course, but you can turn it down smoothly and continuously. But, of course, it doesn't work that way. You've got to intervene in a patchwork way that will inevitably be driven by cronyism. It's just--it's an appalling picture. But, there is a certain aspect to your and my view of this which is a little bit utopian. Which--I don't know what the right word is. You'll tell me. Which is that we do see a certain cliff coming, whether it's the cliff of [?], whether it's the cliff of dysfunctional cities, whether it's the cliff of an economic system that is so gridlocked by regulation and industrial policy that it stops producing anything close to the 3%. But it's not here yet. So, we're standing here Cassandra-like, and people are kind of dismissive of us.

George Will: Well, I'm very pro-Cassandra. Very useful figure. Look, Washington is run by people who think that there's a 1% difference between 2% growth and 3% growth. I mean, it's sort of fundamental product[?] of innumeracy.

Russ Roberts: That's one of the deepest things ever said on this program. Just to make it clear: 3% is 50% higher than 2%.

George Will: Correct.

Russ Roberts: But, yeah--other people think it's a little higher.

George Will: While steady 3% growth has become a receding dream[?]--Barack Obama was, I believe the first President in American history to serve 8 years and not have a single year of 3% growth. While it has become a receding dream, we have been increasing the enormous calls we've made on the future productivity of this country through the entitlement programs' promises. We have no choice but to cultivate economic dynamism, with all its frictions, understanding that creative destruction, as Schumpeter's term has it, is both creative but destructive--with casualties. We have to understand it. But, again, we made the choice, when we made the choice of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. We have attached a most-rapidly growing in percentage terms portion of our population--the elderly--to our most dynamic science--medicine--as an entitlement.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

George Will: And, we have to live with this. Now. We can't take that back, politically. And electorally we can't solve this without rapid economic growth. Which is why protectionism, which is a recipe for sluggishness--protectionism, which is a new form of industrial policy, which is government allocating wealth and opportunity, not as the market would--that is, not efficiently but politically--why we are in for a downward spiral. And increasingly politics of distributive arguments.


Russ Roberts: So, just a brief aside: we're recording this in your office here in Washington, D.C. There are no notes in front of you of any kind. You have an enormous number of facts, quotes, and anecdotes at your fingertips--but at your mental fingertips, not your literal fingertips. Your book hit--ever since I interviewed A.J. Jacobs, and he encouraged me to create a file called 'One Thing,' which is to say something you take away from a book or a lecture or a conversation, because you forget them. You think, 'Oh, that's a great point.' And then it just drifts away. So, I write them down, now. I think I wrote down--well, let's just say I wrote down a lot more than one thing while reading your book: great quotes, or here's one we may not get to, so I'm just going to throw it out: "Where you stand often depends on where you sit." I'd never heard that before. It's extremely apt. You told me, in your book, that Grover Cleveland answered the doorbell at the White House to illustrate how informal the Presidency was as recently as the end of the 19th century. How do you keep track of these? Do you have a technique? Do you have a system?

George Will: No, not really.

Russ Roberts: Do you just have a big brain?

George Will: Well, I blame baseball. I mean, I grew up memorizing statistics. And thinking about Jimmy Foxx and Tris Speaker. And at least--I mean, I shudder to think how many of my brain cells are devoted to this--

Russ Roberts: I have the same issue--

George Will: But, anyway, I--it just sticks. Let me give you a few statistics back on our subject of medicine.

Russ Roberts: Okay.

George Will: In 1900, the American people spent more money on funerals--twice as much money on funerals--as on health care. If we had had national income statistics back then. Simon Kuznets was [?] on our future. Which we didn't. If we'd had national income statistics, the health care sector would have been too small to take cognizance of. Today, of course, it's 18% of the economy. Our health care sector is larger than all but four nations' economies. In 1900, only 17% of deaths were people over 65. Today it's 75%. In 1900, 37% of all deaths were from infectious diseases. Today it's 2%. And what we've done, is we've changed medicine from conquering infectious diseases--which we've done--to managing chronic ailments. Longevity is this tremendous social achievement, the greatest achievement of the 20th century. Helped along by the greatest device of the 20th century which are antibiotics. But now here we are. And we've made these promises to ourselves with an aging population, as I say, attached to by an entitlement to this dynamic science--

Russ Roberts: An attachment that lets the elderly put their hands in the pockets of taxpayers, without any--

George Will: Precisely. One of the amazing things about modern America is that we haven't had explicit generational conflict.

Russ Roberts: It's coming.

George Will: It is coming, because the elderly are losing the futures of the rising generation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.


Russ Roberts: So, that conflict isn't the one I'm most worried about. The one I'm most worried about is the Wilsonians against the Madisonians. Or maybe there's a third group in there. Because there's this new phenomenon in Conservatism or at least in the Republican Party, which is Populism/Nationalism/Trumpism--whatever you want to call it. Is there--you and I both lived through the 1960s, which was a tumultuous era. A lot of people died. There were bombings--and political bombings, not just terrorism. There was a war of ideas that led to death. But not very many. Most of it was over the War in Vietnam, at least nominally. The War ended. It sort of settled down. I don't see a healthy future for the United States in the sense of a shared vision of what our country is. Your book is an attempt to provide that. It will appeal deeply to a very small group. I respect them all. I would put myself in that group--the people who, we haven't gotten to it yet, but, your book's about the ideal of returning to the Constitution and the ideals of the Founders. It's a quixotic mission I salute you for. But is there any potential for a shared vision of our country that would lead to a healthy future, as opposed to, say, a civil war?

George Will: What worries me is a shared vision that's destructive. We talk a lot about the discord in America today, and Lord knows it's real enough. But I am much more alarmed by a consensus and it's as broad as the Republic[?] and it's as deep as the Grand Canyon; it is simply this: We should have a large, ever-more-generous welfare state and not pay for it. Everyone--everyone--is agreed on that. The political class, which I believe is much more united by class interests than it is divided by ideology--the political class from Elizabeth Warren on the Left to Ted Cruise on the Right, it agrees that we should permanently run large deficits, because it makes big government cheap. The public loves it: It gets a dollar's worth of government; it's charged 80 cents for it. Twenty cents--a fifth of the government--is fobbed off on the future generations, which are unconsenting because unborn. And we roll merrily along. We are about to run a trillion dollar deficit at more than full employment. And we with[?] 6 million unfilled jobs in this country--never mind the people clamoring to get in at our southern border to fill the jobs. I mean, this is astonishing. And, this again--we are on a trajectory to increased sluggishness economically, which will mean increased ferocity politically as we use political power to allocate wealth and opportunity, which we used to assign to markets.

Russ Roberts: Yeahhh--I'm sympathetic to that view, unfortunately. I'm worried about it, also. You've already said as much--I think your favorite Founder is James Madison. You certainly would, I think, call him the most under-rated Founder.

George Will: Yes.

Russ Roberts: You want to recommend a biography of Madison? Is there a good one?

George Will: It's not a biography, but it's an explanation of his thought. It's by Greg Weiner. It's a slender book published by the University of Kansas Press. It's called Madison's Metronome. And it's a superb look--Greg Weiner, everything he writes is excellent. He's amazingly prolific. He's just published a book on political prudence in Burke and Lincoln. He's produced a wonderful slender book on the political thought and significance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But, Madison's Metronome is the best.

Russ Roberts: Have you seen Hamilton?

George Will: I've not seen Hamilton. No.

Russ Roberts: Is there a reason?

George Will: No. I'm just too busy; didn't go to New York. They did annoy me for a while. When there was some shooting somewhere, so they did it without people holding muskets. And then, Vice President Pence, for whom I have no political brief, but who was in the audience and they were rude to him. And I said, 'Well, I don't want to go see these people for a while.' I suppose I'll get around to seeing it. And, anyone who can make stirring theater out of the assumption of state debts by a government is worth paying attention to.

Russ Roberts: But, it's quite an achievement in that it deals with something I struggle with, which is the sweet spot between entertainment and education. If you have too much education, people don't want to see it. If you have too much entertainment, they don't get anything out of it. And, it is a creation that is both educational and entertaining. I just saw it for the second time, and it was clear to me in this production that I'd underappreciated Aaron Burr's role in the show because of who had played it when I'd seen it in the two shows. But, it's really also clear that the hero of the show is America. The America that you are advocating for--

George Will: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: The America of a vision, of--unattainable vision. Of a quality of opportunity. Of respect for the individual. Of freedom to find your own path, whether you are an immigrant, whether you are native born. Whether you are black, whether you are white. And that show just salutes that in a way that has never been saluted--certainly never been--I haven't seen 1776--I was going to say it has never been saluted on Broadway, but 1776 was a small show. Here's the most successful show, probably ever on Broadway--

George Will: Well, Hamilton himself--Hamilton the man--was the archetype of the restless American individual. When the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians had our first great political divide, our first great argument, they were arguing about economics and technical matters like Bank of the United States and all that. But they were arguing about what kind of people we should be. Jefferson said--and this is why he leapt at the chance to expand his executive power and make the Louisiana Purchase--Jefferson said, 'We should have sturdy, rural people.' Rather like, oh, well, Thomas Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton said, 'No, no, no, no, no. We should have restless, urban, churning, aspiring individuals'--rather like, well, come to think about it, Alexander Hamilton.

Russ Roberts: Where you stand depends often on where you sit.

George Will: Yeah. Jefferson won the American argument in the sense that he provided us with luminous vocabulary, great Declaration of Independence, all that stuff. We live in Hamilton's country. He won. And aren't we glad, frankly?

Russ Roberts: Yeah; that's true. Slappin' the hog[?] is not really my idea of fun.


Russ Roberts: I just want to read a quote. We've touched on some of this already, but it's such a nice quote from the book. You write:

The case for limited government is grounded in the empirical evidence that human beings have something in common--human nature--but nevertheless something incorrigibly different capacities and aspirations. From this it follows, not logically but practically, that government cannot hope to provide happiness to all. Rather, the most it can reasonably expect to provide are the conditions under which happiness, as each defines it, can be pursued, as each is equipped by nature or nurture, to do.

And it's a beautiful quote. I agree with it. It's so out of fashion.

George Will: It is. But the great episode in American--in the world political philosophy that began, really, with Machiavelli, was to understand that the ancients approached political philosophical by saying, 'Let's define the best and see how we can get there.' Modernity said, 'There's no agreement on the best. Therefore, let's define the worst and see how we can avoid it.' Madison revolution in democratic theory was this. Before Madison, those--and they were few--who thought democracy was possible, and advisable, said it was only possible and advisable in a small, face-to-face society you could walk across in a day.

Russ Roberts: Athens.

George Will: Pericles' Athens, Rousseau's Geneva. Because, supposedly, the enemy of democracy was factions; therefore you had a small, homogenized society. Madison said, 'No, no. Here's our catechism. What is the worst outcome of politics? Tyranny. To what form of tyranny is democracy prey? Tyranny of the majority. Solution: Don't have majorities.' Meaning: Don't have stable, potentially tyrannical majorities. Have majorities that are ephemeral--constantly shifting coalitions of minorities. 'To which end?' He said in Federalist 10, 'The first task of government is to protect the different and unequal capacities of acquiring property, because that will produce different factions. And, we will be safe with this saving multiplicity of factions.' Hence, he said in Federalist 51, 'we need to have an extensive republic,' so we can have more room to breathe, as it were. More of these factions.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, of course, as the Constitution has fallen away as a restrictor of government intervention of various kinds, the ability of factions to extract their pound of flesh has grown. And I see cronyism--and part of it is cultural: the willingness of politicians to give in to that. It's not just the political incentives; it's a cultural change, I think, in how politicians see their job.

George Will: Yes. Exactly. We've destigmatized dependency. There's no shame at all in being increasingly dependent on government.

Russ Roberts: That's whether you are on Food Stamps or agricultural price supports.

George Will: Exactly. Furthermore, you know, we are about to have a roaring argument in the United States about Socialism. Which I find highly amusing. It's going to be hilarious when the Republicans say, 'Eeek! There's a socialist in the room,' when 60% of the Federal budget is transfer payments, the sky over America is dark with checks going back and forth as we redistribute income. These Republicans defending us against Socialism just re-authorized the Export-Import Bank, which exists to funnel capital to favored corporations. If that isn't Socialism, tell me what is. We're crowding out defense spending by the growth of the Entitlement system. In 1960, 50-some percent of the Federal budget was national defense. Fifty-some percent. And very little on sort of what we call human resources or whatever. That's completely changed; and it's going to be, not difficult--it's going to be impossible to reverse.


Russ Roberts: Let's go back to history for a minute. And I'm going to quote one of my favorite quotes from the book where a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt called him "a steam engine in trousers," which is just--it's a great line. Teddy Roosevelt is not known at all except as a swashbuckler--an exuberant fellow. Why is he important? What should I read to understand him better.

George Will: First of all, you should read Jean Yarbrough--who is a very fine political philosopher at Bowdoin University--on his political thought. The biography Mornings on Horseback, by David McCullough. And the great, stomping, huge biography by Edmund Morris. What made Teddy Roosevelt so significant was that he--he was sort of a child naturalist, and he read Darwin early, and he became a believer in Social Darwinism of some sort or other: Life is struggle, struggle will produce those who prevail--ought to prevail. Survival of the fittest. Etc., etc., among racist nations, etc. When he became President, he had what he called the 'stewardship view of the Presidency,' which said a President can do anything he's not explicitly forbidden to do. Now, this was the precursor of Roosevelt's theory of the Presidency. But he--the embryo, the fetus, if you will, of the modern Presidency, was in Teddy Roosevelt. His distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, taking advantage of modern means of mass communication--Teddy, by the way, was the first person to become President who had been filmed by a movie camera--Franklin Roosevelt, when he sat down to deliver shortly after his inauguration the First Inaugural Address--I mean, his first Fireside Chat--began with two words that do not appear on the transcript up at Hyde Park, but he said them anyway. He said, 'My friends.' Now, you say, 'What's wrong with that? We have presidents who feel our pain. And presidents who are national consolers.' Well, here's the point. Imagine George Washington addressing Americans as 'My friends.' Unthinkable. That austere man knew he was not in the friendship business. Do we--one of the themes of my book is the grotesque inflation of the presidency--at the expense of, and often with the collaboration of, Congress--which has marginalized itself by delegating to the Executive Branch powers it has no right to delegate.

Russ Roberts: And to the administrative state.

George Will: Precisely. And there are faint signs of hope, the Supreme Court and other courts might try to breathe life back into the nondelegation doctrine. Which is to say there should be judicial review of Congressional delegations, since some of which will be illegitimate.

Russ Roberts: By delegations, you mean ceding authority and power to unelected folk who effectively make the rules.

George Will: Right. The first substantive words of the Constitution, which means the first words after the Preamble, is: "All legislative powers shall be vested in a Congress of the United States." And there's no provision there for divesting them simply because it's convenient for Congressmen and -women to say, 'I voted for quality education. You guys are in the Executive Branch: Fill in the details.' And 700 or so, thousand, pages of regulations.


Russ Roberts: There's an irony there, and it struck me, that irony struck me as I was reading your book. Which is: You would think it would be a virtue to the empowerment of the Executive, because the Executive, in principle--the President--is the only political actor who, in theory, acts for the good will of the nation as a whole. Congress is, by nature, geographically incentivized and so on. You'd think that would lead to more efficient, generally beneficial things in the world, by empowering the Executive.

George Will: That would be the Progressive theory in a nutshell. They went all the way back to Andrew Jackson, who was the first one to say, 'Look, I'm the only one who has got a national mandate. So, get out of the way.' The problem is it assumes that presidents are elected by a somewhat homogenous country that comes to a conclusion that this president represents the will, the general will, to use Rousseau's terminology here. Which, of course, is sentimental romantic and utterly unreal understanding of how presidents acquire 270 electoral votes.

Russ Roberts: And yet--I mean, the interesting--we talked a little bit about tariffs--you'd understand why a Senator or Representative from Michigan would want tariffs in the old days, at least. Now it might be a Senator from Tennessee or Kentucky, who has got a plant in his or her state--

George Will: Biggest BMW [Bayerische Motoren Werke] plant in the world is in South Carolina--

Russ Roberts: But why--why is the President the proponent for those special interests in those local geographic areas? Part of it, I think, the ability to use the bully pulpit to sell the argument--which I think is false--that this is not just in the interest of these individuals but actually is good for the country as a whole.

George Will: Well, first is the perennial problem of the visible and the invisible. We can see the fact that there are jobs, perhaps saved, by steel tariffs. We cannot see the far more numerous jobs lost downstream from the steel makers in the businesses of the steel users. So, there's the seen and the unseen here. But, beyond that--we have, today, protectionism is wielded by someone who is uniquely unable to understand elementary facts. We have a President who really believes--believes--that China is paying the tariffs.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I think that's--I'm not--I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least on paper.

George Will: Big mistake.

Russ Roberts: Today is August 14th. He did actually withdraw some of the imposition of tariffs today because he was worried it would affect consumer prices for Christmas. So, he's getting some information to the contrary. That's encouraging, I think.

George Will: Yah. He's been very busy handing out, I guess by now some kind of $30 billion dollars to heal the wounds that he inflicted on farmers. The soybean farmers in the Mid-West--one in three rows of their soybeans used to go to China. Not going right now. And China is saying, 'All right. We're going to look to Brazil, and Argentina, and other places.' And so, the markets, when this Trade War that he started and that he says is easy to win, when it finally comes to an end--as, all wars do end--he's going to find that a number of these markets for a number of his important constituents are just gone. Forever.

Russ Roberts: You know, I had hoped that the Trump Presidency would discourage some people from championing a powerful executive. But I was wrong. The ability for people on--I'd say more of the yearning to worship a political leader--is so strong that, on the Left, just as on the Right--when Obama was the President and despised by the Right, they said, 'Well, we'll get our turn.' They didn't say, 'Let's defang'--what's the right word?--

George Will: That's a good word, 'defang'--

Russ Roberts: 'Defang the President's ability to use executive orders and discretion.' And now, we have the most, I think, despised--it's hard--there's a lot of competition, but the most despised Republican President of our lifetime. The Left doesn't like Republican presidents. The Right doesn't like, you know, Democratic presidents. I get that. But it doesn't seem to get them to realize that they shouldn't like any presidents. It just gets them to say, 'Wait for my turn.'

George Will: Kamala Harris, one of the Democratic candidates running for the nomination, has said the following: 'If I'm elected, I will give Congress 100 days to pass satisfactory-to-me gun control regulations. And if they don't, I'll do it by Executive Order.' Now, this is, again, the kind of watery Caesarism that is the natural consequence of elephantitis of the Presidency.

Russ Roberts: And, doesn't seem to be likely to change in the near future.


Russ Roberts: But it does raise the question, which is: Where do your ideas have a home? They used to have a home in a piece of the Republican Party. That piece is quiescent at best, or gone at worst. Do you think there will be a new political party in America?--

George Will: I don't think--

Russ Roberts: Do you think the Republican Party will some--will just morph into something totally different now?

George Will: There has been amazing stability. Michael Barone, great student of American politics, raised[?] about this brilliantly. Amazing stability in America. The Democratic Party really emerged as a fighting force in the third decade of the 19th century; the Republican Party in the 1850s. And these two parties have organized our political argument ever since. And are apt to continue so-doing. Conservatism, as I understand it, and as I write about it in my book, is right now persuasion without a party. Now, that's not the end of the world. What Conservatives have to do is try and regain a foothold in the Republican Party when there's some space left in the Party. Or, dissent. Right now the Republican Party is more homogenous than it has been in a century. The Great Fight began in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt wanted back in to the White House and he challenged his protégé, William Howard Taft, who was the incumbent Republican President, and reduced Taft to winning just two states--Maine and Vermont. Sorry--Utah or, and--anyway, just two states.

Russ Roberts: I knew that. I knew which were the two. I didn't want to say.

George Will: The argument re-emerged in the '1940s between the Taft and Dewey Republicans. And then there came the Goldwater and Rockefeller Republicans. Today there's no argument in the Republican Party, partly because a large number of Republican office-holders have no ideas other than the fact that they'd rather like to be in office, and partly because they are afraid of the 45th President. But this will not always be the case. And we can say with confidence that the departures from the Conservatism that I advocate have consequences. And they are unpleasant. And they are slower economic growth, and bitter redistributive politics. And people will grow weary of both. At which point, people are going to pick up their copies of The Conservative Sensibility and say, 'Ah. We made a wrong turn.' And they will thumb through my book and everything will be right again. Margaret Thatcher, when she was elected head of the Parliamentary Conservative Party but before she became Prime Minister was at a meeting of her Members one day, and someone was nattering on about the beauties of centrism and being free of philosophy and all that. And she got impatient, as was her wont; reached in her famously capacious handbag, pulled out a copy of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, slammed it on the table, and said, 'This is what we believe.' I live for the day when an American President picks up The Conservative Sensibility, slams it on the desk, and says, 'This is what we believe.'

Russ Roberts: That Thatcher story could be apocryphal.

George Will: It's true. It's absolutely true. Andrew Roberts, who knows these things--

Russ Roberts: Yes, and who is a recent EconTalk guest; it hasn't come out yet, so but, yeah--

George Will: says it's true.

Russ Roberts: Okay. It could be true. The Constitution of Liberty? That would be impressive. You sure it was not The Road to Serfdom? Or The Fatal Conceit?

George Will: Positive. It was The Constitution of Liberty. She would, she was an early adherent of a think tank in Britain called the Institute of Economic Affairs--Ralph Harris, Arthur Seldon, all these guys. She knew her Hayek. And not just The Road to Serfdom.

Russ Roberts: I'm impressed.


Russ Roberts: I'm glad you mentioned Maggie Thatcher, because, I've started pointing out, and I think it's true, that she would unembarrassedly make the case for liberty for its own sake. And, I don't think there's a politician in America--Reagan did it, too, of course. But she was strident about it. It's fun to read some of her old speeches and stories about her, because she just took it as a fact. That fact is not at the front of people's minds in America any more. It used to be. It used to be that if you wanted to impinge on liberty, the burden of proof was on you. Now, for those of us who are in favor of liberty, the burden of proof is on us. And I don't think we have as much a say as I think we should. What are your thoughts on that? And, let me phrase it slightly differently. You talked about the downside risk, a little bit ago, of tyranny. So, one reason to be in favor of liberty for its own sake is so you don't have tyranny. That's a big one for me. It's way up there. It's the reason that I am a defender of the Second Amendment and the right to own guns. What restrictions might be placed on that can be talked about. But the right--private ownership of guns--is I think is extremely important as--I just think it's important as a bulwark against tyranny. Now some people say[?] that's naive--that tanks versus pistols, or even tanks against rifles is not going to help. But, um, I don't know. I think it has some effect. But, what else can we say about liberty? I don't think we've done a good job making the case for it.

George Will: Look, let me go about it obliquely. Some people say, 'Why the title of your book, Conservative Sensibility?'

Russ Roberts: It's on my list of questions.

George Will: Okay. Well, let me get to it right now. Sensibility to me is more than an attitude but less than an agenda. It's a basic comfortableness with a world of flux and change. I'm old[?] accretion. I believe in that change is the only constant. Now, some people like that, and some people don't. And today, those who like uncertainty and change and the absence of control, are conservatives because that's what freedom looks like. Someone wise, I think it's Virginia Postrel, has said, 'The lesson of the Bible reduced to one sentence is: God created man and woman and promptly lost control of events.' The conservative sensibility says, 'Great! We find that exhilarating, not frightening.' A woman Member of Parliament not long ago giving her maiden speech in Parliament said, 'Democracy is like sex. If it isn't sexy, you aren't doing it right.' And I would just change 'democracy' to 'politics.' That's what politics is--what life is. It's supposed to be messy. It's supposed to be a certain absence of control. One of the chapters in my book of which I'm proudest is called "Conservatism Without Theism." I describe myself as an amiable loofold[?] adjatheist[?]. I don't want to convert anybody. I'm married to a ferocious Presbyterian. Got no problem with religion. I just don't have any. And that's why I say I'm a Lucretian. I like the world of things.

Russ Roberts: 58:40 So, I'm going to skip to Hayek, because I don't want to miss this quote. This is what you say about Hayek.

Hayek was enthusiastic about markets, but not because of utopian expectations.

I'm going to put a footnote here, which is that, I hate it how anti-free market people like to pretend that free markets are perfect, and since they are not, we can reject them. So, I love that opening sentence. I'm going to re-read it and then continue:

Hayek was enthusiastic about markets, but not because of utopian expectations. He was enthusiast because markets comport with what he called the Tragic View of the human condition. Human beings are limited in what they can know about their situation, and governments composed of human beings are limited in their comprehension of society's complexities. The simple, indisputable truth is that everyone knows nothing about almost everything. Fortunately--yes, fortunately--this is getting more true by the day, the hour, the minute. As humanity's stock of knowledge grows, so, too, does the amount that, theoretically, that can be known but that, practically, cannot be known. As Hayek wrote, "The more men know, the smaller the share of all that knowledge becomes that any one mind can absorb. The more civilized we become, the more relatively ignorant must each individual be of the facts on which the working of civilization depends."

George Will: What Hayek was recommending, urgently, was epistemic humility. Epistemology is the field of philosophy that deals with how we know things are true and how we know things, period. And, Hayek said, 'Epistemic humility is plain prudence.' The best way, I think, to appreciate this aspect of Hayek--well there are two ways. One is, to understand that markets are information-generating devices. That's what they do. They aggregate information. The Soviet Union, which had no markets, died of ignorance, because it didn't know what things should cost. They managed to make shoes that were an example of value subtraction: the shoes were worth less than the materials and labor that went into them. But another way to understand Hayek is to read Leonard Read's famous little essay called "I, Pencil"--the theme of which is: No one can make a pencil. Emphasis on 'one': No one can make a pencil. Millions of people are involved in making a pencil: the graphite miners, the shippers, the lumberjacks who cut the trees down to make the wood, etc., etc. Millions of people involved, literally, in making a pencil.

Russ Roberts: And they have to be coordinated. And yet there is no coordinated. And that's what markets do better than top-down control. Which is still somewhat honored in our country--which is a good sign.


Russ Roberts: I wonder what your response is--I would describe you as a fan of the Enlightenment, writ large. I'm sure there are parts that you don't like. A lot of this book, which we haven't talked about, shows a deep respect for John Locke, and others. And there's been an attack on that from a number of corners. But, one of the attacks says: All the progress that we've made over the last few hundred years--sure, we've made material progress, but, you know, the fundamental nature of humanity has not changed. Human nature certainly has not changed. And, in fact, some of the nonmaterial parts of our lives have perhaps gotten worse. We have an opioid epidemic, perhaps--I don't know if 'epidemic' is the right word--but a tragic use--I don't want to say 'overuse'--but a tragic use of opioids. We have a rising suicide rate in the United States, it appears. And a lot of loneliness, it's claimed. How do you think we are doing overall? What's your take on that as a conservative and a [?]?

George Will: We certainly do have an upsurge in what are accurately called the diseases of despair--suicide, substance abuse, etc. This is not the first time. At the turn of the 20th century, when we had a mass migration of people from small towns and farms into cities, they left social networks, arrived in cities, were bereft of mediating structures to give them a sense of companionship; and we had a consequent upsurge in alcoholism, which led to, among other things, Prohibition. It is fair to say that there can be--not must be, but there can be costs of individualism. There can be a sense of duress in [?] individuals literally uprooted, without roots in the community; but it's not necessarily so. And, those who say that Americans are now bowling[?] alone, that the mediating institutions of civil society have withered and died are wildly exaggerating things. The America de Tocquevillean genius for spontaneous combustion of organizations at a local level is still there. So I don't despair of that. Furthermore, if in a regime of freedom people use the freedom badly, that does not speak ill of freedom. It speaks ill of the individuals, who have agency and can choose, and can choose well or can choose ill. And the fact that a lot of people are choosing ill, as I say, is not an indictment of an open society: it's an indictment of the people who are ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities of an open society.

Russ Roberts: But you argue, I think effectively, in the book, that some of those communities and ties of civil society and family have been destroyed by government expansion. I think that's an issue that doesn't get discussed much, and certainly doesn't get discussed enough.

George Will: Pat Moynihan used to say, with regard to welfare, that the great cost isn't on those who pay for the welfare but those who receive it. That, by becoming wards of the state, by becoming comfortable with dependency, welfare and the government--as the government becomes like an enormous tree in the shade of which smaller saplings and smaller plants cannot grow, people find themselves without these nourishing institutions as the government takes over the functions that used to be done at local level. And they find standing there, confronted with Leviathan and nothing in between to mediate their relationship with the state, that's a real problem. It's not as serious yet as some people have said, but it's real and getting worse. And, it's a reason to think that Leviathan should be pared back.

Russ Roberts: You say,

Edna St. Vincent Millay was right about what to read but wrong about what to think about it.

And then you quote her:

"Read history: So, learn your place in Time
And go to sleep: all this was done before."

You continue:

Actually, one reason to read history is to know how little was generally known about what was coming next. Which is to say, reading history is a cure for historicism. Nothing is as distinctively modern and as demoralizing as the sense that change is autonomous.

George Will: Yeah. The great--great in the sense of large, not in the sense of good--the great event of the 19th century was 'History' becoming a proper noun. History with an upper-case 'h.' History understood as a force with its own autonomous, inward logic, the unfolding of which we have very little to do with. This, Marx got from Hegel--and Marx made it characteristically vulgar in a way that Hegel didn't--but Marx said that we can--those of us who are really clever can understand the unfolding of history. And, his disciple, Lenin, said, 'Yeah. And we will create a political party that will be the vanguard of those who understand the unfolding of history; and it shall wield, because it will deserve to wield, dictatorial powers because it is on the side of history.' How many times have we heard that phrase in recent years? Barack Obama was forever saying such-and-such is 'on the side of history.' If you believe history has sides, you are in trouble right away.

Russ Roberts: When you were talking about the Republican Party, or I would say, when you were talking about the two-party system, I wanted to respond with an insight of your book which is related to what you just said, which is that: Nothing lasts. And so, perhaps the two-party system won't last. But, you argue that that's a summary of why one should be a Conservative, as a recognition of that. Why is that? What do you mean by that?

George Will: What I mean by that is that things will not preserve themselves, least of all the fragile, subtle, rich complexities that make possible an open society. The rule of law--mess[?]--means of communication, respect for freedom of speech, all the rest--these are rare and, it turns out, fragile flowers. And, look: We live on a planet in which the tectonic plates are moving. I mean, nothing is settled yet. The continents drift. Why do we assume that anything else is fixed? So, Conservatives begin with, and indeed my book is, a summons to intelligent pessimism. Not fatalism. Fatalism says there's nothing we can do except watch the passing working out of these autonomous, vast, impersonal forces. Pessimism means there's so many ways that things can go wrong in a free society, so be wary, and take what Madison called 'auxiliary precautions' to make sure that what we have had bequeathed to us by wiser generations aren't just frittered away by our generation.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I like to say: The veneer of civilization is thin. And it's thinner than we realize. And it's fragile.


Russ Roberts: Back to the Founders for a sec, with talking about this. You claim that some people say that an accident of history blessed the colonies with an extraordinary number of wise and decent men. And you don't think that's what's significant about the Founding. Isn't that a true statement: Were not these--they were all men, as it turns out--were they not extraordinary? Is there not a--

George Will: They were extraordinary.

Russ Roberts: certain bit of fortune there that could have been very much otherwise?

George Will: Oh! Look: those 55 people who gathered in Philadelphia in the Summer of 1787--

Russ Roberts: Is it only 55? In my mind it's more like a convention--it's got the word 'convention' in it.

George Will: No, no, no--were marvelous people. And we had a social system that got them to Philadelphia. With 327 million people in this country today, instead of 4 million in their day. If we tried to have a Constitutional Convention--if there were 55 people that competent in the country, which is unlikely, getting them to the Convention would be impossible: our political system wouldn't churn them up that way. I remember when we--

Russ Roberts: You're not talking about a transportation problem. You are talking about--

George Will: No. No, no--

Russ Roberts: people who rise to the top.

George Will: I'm talking about a process would bring the cream to the surface. When we went into Iraq and were going to do nation-building, I said the following: 'Every baseball team goes to spring training, and the managers have to say: I'm just two players away from the World Series. Unfortunately, they are Ruth and Gehrig.' And you could say of Iraq, then, they were just about 3 or 4 people away from paradise. They needed a George Washington--a unifying figure of gigantic trust. They needed a Madison--a genius of Constitutional architecture for allowing a fractious people to live together. They needed an Alexander Hamilton, who could understand the requirements of political economy. And they needed a John Marshall, who could construe the Constitution of such a republic. But, I then said, you also needed the social soil of the United States, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region, in the 3rd quarter, the 4th quarter, of the 18th century. That social soil was remarkable. And it's not to be found in Iraq. It's not to be found very many places.

Russ Roberts: So, by 'social soil,' do you mean that there aren't four extraordinary people in Iraq, or there isn't the ability of the Iraqi culture/system to get there from here, that would allow those four people to get a chance to implement a vision?

George Will: I doubt that there are those, that there are the equivalent of those 4 people in Iraq. I'm certain that the social soil does not produce a constituency for such people, who would say, 'Yes, we will accept your leadership.

Russ Roberts: It does seem that after a nation is formed, though, that there is a romance about its founding. I know that because I go to Israel often, and people will decry the fact that the current leaders are small compared to the greats of the founding of the state. We say that about America. Is it simply that our political system produces small people in 2019? Is that another way to say it?

George Will: Well, there's a de Tocquevillean problem here. De Tocqueville said that, in a mass society, in an egalitarian society, there will be a). a prejudice against distinction, and b). there will not be institutions that nourish distinction. But this is a problem of an egalitarian society, to nourish and welcome elites. The essence of populism is the dislike of elites. Whereas, the Conservative knows that the question in a society is never whether elites shall rule, but which elites shall rule. And the question for democracy is how to get people to consent to who are the elites. Because, definitionally, whoever runs a large society is an elite. The trouble is, our elites now are rather shabby.


Russ Roberts: Last question. How has your political philosophy or perspective on America and politics changed over your lifetime, if at all?

George Will: Oh, it's changed. This is my 50th year in Washington. I arrived in Washington on the first day of the first month of the first year of the 1970s--January 1st, 1970. And I have a diminished confidence in the ability of the American people to think reasonably about politics--not because they are unable to think clearly, because they are busy doing other things and they can't possibly know all that government is doing. Government is doing at times more than it did when I came here 50 years ago. Furthermore, I've pushed up against Public Choice Theory--so, I've, under the big tutorship of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock and others, I have shed whatever romantic view of government I used to have, and I understand that as people in the private sector try to maximize their wealth, people in the public sector try to maximize their power. And that the national pastime is no longer baseball: it's rent-seeking. It is bending public power for private advantage, either to confer an advantage on the faction or disadvantage on the faction's competitors. So, I have a sobered, unromantic view of what goes on in this city where I live. Now, I happen to love Washington. As I love America. And Washington is full of glistening monuments to glistening achievements and great people. And, it's still the best country ever. The best thing that ever happened in the history of the human race happened on the 4th of July in 1776. So, I'm not despairing about this. But, I have a--call me a sobered American.

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