George Will continues to abandon even the slightest pretense that he is genuinely conservative. Granted, it’s been quite a while since Will has fooled any actual conservatives into thinking that he’s one of us. George Will’s dubious conservative credentials were exposed as early as 1986 by the great and sorely-missed Sam Francis. Francis observes that Will’s career is based upon deriving from “more or less unexceptionable premises of classical conservatism policy positions that are often congruent with the current liberal agenda.” This is a fancy way of saying that George Will is a dyed-in-the-wool cuckservative. For decades Will has shilled for liberal policies such as the welfare state, liberal democracy, and of course open borders, all while masquerading as a conservative. It’s no surprise then that Will’s conservatism has failed to stem the tide of liberalism in any meaningful way.
George Will continues to demonstrate his credentials as a false conservative with his recent column published in the Washington Post. Will’s piece is titled, “Think You’re Living in a ‘Hellhole’ Today? Try Being a Billionaire in 1916.” There is nothing that can qualify as even remotely conservative in this brief article. Will piggybacks on an article written by Don Boudreaux and published on Café Hayek titled “Most Ordinary Americans in 2016 Are Richer Than Was John D. Rockefeller in 1916.” If this doesn’t immediately resonate as obviously applying to you as an ordinary American, then allow Will and Boudreaux to explain what they mean. The entire argument is predicated upon the greater availability of material goods and services today as compared to 1916. We are richer today because we can buy more stuff. I’m primarily critiquing George Will’s use of Boudreaux’s argument as a reason why America is in good shape, rather than the “hellhole” that Donald Trump described during the presidential campaign. For two main reasons this argument is entirely unconvincing.
George Will on Wealth and Purchasing Power
This argument is entirely materialistic in nature. This doesn’t come as a surprise given that Will describes himself as an “amiable, low voltage atheist.” Let’s address the argument that the ordinary American is actually wealthier than a billionaire in 1916. It is obviously true that the technology has improved over the course of the 20th century. Modern medicine has increased life expectancy and dramatically reduced infant mortality. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child due to illness, and this was a reality for most people throughout history until the relatively recent past.
Of course the passage of time and the progress of science and technology have not erased these problems altogether. Someone who does have the misfortune of losing a loved one due to illness, cancer, etc. will not feel consoled that he has access to plenty of modern conveniences. The point here being that even with modern technological progress, many age-old problems will still remain.1 From the standpoint of economics, Boudreaux’s argument that Will endorses is flawed in that it ignores relevant factors such as the consumer price index and the decline in real wages over the past several decades. While median household incomes have nominally increased with inflation, the cost of living has outpaced the increase in median income. This means that the average American household is steadily making less real income. This is also coupled with increasing economic stratification since approximately 1980 in which the growth of the top 1% of wage earners has greatly increased while the incomes of all other economic classes have stagnated or even diminished. This isn’t a merely academic issue. The consequences of declining real wages against the cost of living have made family formation increasingly difficult for average American families.2
The cost of medical care illustrates the problem with the approach of Boudreaux and Will. Medical costs have grown tremendously relative to inflation for the past several decades. This is by no means confined to cutting-edge procedures, but extends to even routine treatments. There are several reasons for this, but the point is that while medical technology has improved dramatically over the past century, quality medical care is becoming more and more difficult for average families to afford. (As an aside, George Will promotes amnesty and is critical of actual conservatives who support immigration restriction. A major reason for increasing medical costs is illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants cost Americans billions of dollars annually in unpaid healthcare.) Rising medical costs are of legitimate concern for Middle America. Someone who finds himself facing bankruptcy due to medical bills is not likely to be consoled by the fact that there are so many different channels on cable television that he can no longer afford. Will and Boudreaux’s contention that ordinary Americans are actually wealthier than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916 is simply ludicrous on purely economic grounds, and this is before we even consider the social problems that have emerged over the past century.
George Will Ignores the Social Decline of the West Since 1916
As an atheist George Will lacks the theological foundation for ascribing meaning or value to traditional social or cultural institutions. Given Will’s atheism he naturally identifies progress as being nearly synonymous with material comfort. By itself, comfort is certainly not a problem. I for one am grateful to have central air conditioning during the hot summer months. While life is certainly more comfortable today than in 1916, there are many ways in which society was much healthier in 1916 than it is today. To be fair, Don Boudreaux is not necessarily contending that society is healthier today than it was a century ago. Boudreaux is simply arguing that being a billionaire in 1916 wouldn’t have been as glamorous as living as an average American today due to the progress of technology.3 However, this is exactly what George Will is arguing. Will disparages Donald Trump for saying that America is a “hellhole.” America, according to George Will, is virtually at the zenith of her historical prosperity. Why else would America be “besieged by multitudes trying to get in”?
Is it good that cosmetic surgery like “safe breast augmentation” is readily available today to feed America’s obsession with vanity? Is it good that we have such effective birth control today given the well-documented social and medical problems associated with contraception? Is it good that improved contraception and the abandonment of traditional gender roles have caused the birthrate of Western nations to plummet over the past century?4 Boudreaux uses the example of diverse cuisine as a manifestation of the “cultural richness” provided by globalization. What isn’t mentioned is that we have been liberated from the traditional and wholesome home-cooking of our mothers and grandmothers in favor of fast food. Those living in the early 20th century didn’t have to contend with junk food-induced obesity. Crime has also risen dramatically over the course of the past century. Neighborhoods are becoming less safe and tranquil than they were a century ago. People lack the sense of community that was robust even a few decades ago. In the year 2017, mainstream Western society has embraced homosexuality, transsexuality, and even pederasty and bestiality as normal behaviors.
There are many ways in which Western society has declined over the course of the past century, and these are easily identifiable to any true conservative. As I mentioned before, there are many ways in which technological progress has improved man’s lot, but Will (and Boudreaux) seem to consider all technology to be an unequivocal good. Technology has many useful purposes, but can easily be used by sinners to more efficiently rebel against God. Western civilization has largely abandoned meaningful and fulfilling relationships and endeavors. Now we amuse ourselves to death by binge-watching TV and movies, playing video games, and giving people we’ve never met 5 minute updates on the banalities of our lives on social media. Knowledge of classic music and literature has similarly suffered in the environment of modern distractions. If Mark Dice’s street interviews are any indication (and they are), then college-aged adults have virtually no knowledge of history or current events. Genuine conservatives in the vein of Russell Kirk are understandably concerned by developments over the past several decades. No amount of technology can possibly pacify this knowledge that society is suffering from a severe spiritual illness.
There is still much to be thankful at the beginning of the 21st century. There is no doubt that technological progress has made our lives easier and even better in many important ways. Don Boudreaux states that he “wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916.” I understand why he feels that way, and I’m thankful for the blessings that I have received from living when and where I do. Nevertheless we must have a realistic outlook about the challenges that we face. True conservatism isn’t rooted in pure nostalgia which paints an overly nostalgic view of the past. Instead we tackle the problems of today so as to build a better future for our future descendants.
The presidential election of 2016 demonstrated that Donald Trump understands the needs of America’s conservative core far better than George Will, and Trump managed to get elected in spite of Will’s constant screeching in support of the Never Trump movement.5 When Donald Trump called America a “hellhole,” this resonated with white blue-collar workers who are losing jobs to outsourcing to the third world, as well as with social conservatives who see the moral fabric of the nation being utterly torn apart by the cultural Marxist agenda. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Donald Trump as the messenger, but the message that America has been turned into a “hellhole” by the policies of the past several administrations is grounded in reality. George Will’s hysterical reaction to Trump’s populism demonstrates that he has no sympathy for the plight of actual Americans. Instead George Will has “made it” in mainstream journalism, and this means that he can only succeed by toeing the line of the leftist establishment. This is why the conservatism of George Will and other movement conservatives such the National Review never manages to conserve anything. True conservatives will not trust in the “uncertain riches” of material comfort, but instead embrace and preserve that which is of abiding and transcendent value.
- Speaking of technological progress, I was surprised when I read Scott Locklin’s article, “The Myth of Technological Progress,” to discover that revolutions in technology have actually slowed during the past several decades compared to the first half of the 20th century. It makes for a fascinating read. ↩
- I discuss the issue of economics at greater length in my “A Traditionalist Critique of Capitalism.” There are several reasons for the decline in real wages including outsourcing, immigration swelling the pool of labor, an increase in interest-based consumption, currency debasement, and the end of the gold standard. ↩
- In his final paragraph Boudreaux states his preference for living as an “ordinary American” in 2016 as opposed to a billionaire in 1916. I suspect as an Austrian School libertarian that Boudreaux isn’t any more concerned with the status of morality than George Will. ↩
- There are other social and political causes in declining birthrates. See “Birthrates Are at Historic Lows and Here’s a Major Reason” by Jeffrey A. Tucker for a good discussion of how various policies have discouraged the formation of families. ↩
- There are legitimate differences of opinion on the Right regarding Donald Trump, and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. See Colby Malsbury’s article arguing that it is time to dump Trump and Nathanael Strickland’s article discussing right-wing motivations for voting. George Will is opposed to Donald Trump for the very reasons he should support him. ↩