George Will and ‘conservative sensibilities’

The journalist is a Constitutional Originalist, but the framers’ sole focus wasn’t solely freedom.

In 1986, the Wall Street Journal called him, “perhaps the most powerful journalist in America.” George Will is a 78-year old conservative who writes opinion columns in 450 newspapers. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has earned two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. from Princeton.

Will has recently written a book entitled “The Conservative Sensibility.” I decided to read the book because I am a moderate and want to learn how conservatives see America in 2019. I work very hard to avoid confirmation bias, so I knew I wasn’t going to agree with everything he wrote, but I figured he would give me insights into my own thinking and into his. I felt he might help me to see how a conservative views progressives, and how one conservative sees his world.

Will is an originalist regarding interpretation of the Constitution. That means he believes that the founders’ intent is knowable through the “Federalist Papers” and should be followed today, just as the framers intended.

James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, had very fixed beliefs about human nature, according to Will. It is fixed and unchangeable rather than malleable and fluid as progressives believe. Individualism is the focus of the Constitution rather than the good of collective society. Freedom is the Constitution’s main goal and emphasis rather than government shaping behaviors and actions to attain a perfect society.

Because much of the Constitution is vague with uncertain meanings, there are four major perspectives that Supreme Court justices take when deciding what the Constitution means:

The plain meaning of the words in the Constitution: In this perspective the justices read the passages literally. What does it say? In some cases, they study what the words meant at the time of its writing. Then they make their interpretation.

The intention of the framers: What were the framers thinking when they penned the words during the 1787 convention? Using this method, justices base their decisions on how the framers would have decided.

Fundamental principles: This approach deals with the fundamental principles that were commonly held at the time. It looks at natural rights— equality, life, liberty, and property, the belief in the need for a constitution (a set of rules and procedures to govern the nation), and the belief that representative democracy is the best form of government. Using those philosophies, justices apply them to court cases that come before them.

Today’s social values and needs: More progressive judges take this approach. They believe that the values found in society today should be the basis for interpretation.

Will’s approach adheres most closely to the second and third perceptions, the intention of the framers and fundamental principles. That’s why he views human nature as unchanging. That’s what the framers believed, and that’s how the Constitution should be interpreted. This is the originalist approach. Will abhors how progressives really don’t believe in human nature. Race, sex, ethnic background, education, and current values are what shape human actions.

Will interprets the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People” to mean “We the Individuals”. If we take care of individuals, they will act in their own self-interest to create a strong, stable, and prosperous society based upon capitalism where individuals make billions of daily decisions to adjust to changing times. No government program can predict the future.

Will believes the overriding goal of the Constitution is to provide freedom, especially from government control. The more government decision-making, the less freedom individuals possess. The more government programs that are created based upon the belief that humans can be shaped, the less free we become.

Much of what Will says, I can agree with, but, as I said, I’m a moderate. His originalist approach to the Constitution is based upon a faith in what 18th century thinkers believed. We have learned a great deal since then. The framers were brilliant men and should be listened to, but they were only fallible human beings, not gods.

Will’s definition of “We the People” seems a stretch, too. If the framers meant “We the Individuals” they could easily have said so, but they didn’t. He’s using his own definition to fit his philosophy.

Freedom was not the only goal of the framers. It’s one of them. If you read the Preamble, you will see that there were several goals, including securing the “Blessings of Liberty”. They include forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, and promoting the general welfare. Will is cherry-picking. That’s not originalist thinking. It seems more like using today’s social values and needs—only from a conservative perspective.

George Will did an outstanding job of presenting the conservative sensibility. He’s obviously highly educated and very articulate. His erudition has made him forget that his human nature is also unchangeable—tending toward absolutism and arrogance—a problem we all possess.

Richard Elfers is a columnist, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor.

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