George Will, race, and the “national conservatives”

George Will predicts that the current fever of racial thinking in America will break in 2022. I agree that the fever will break because it represents an irrational view of modern America, the prescriptions of which serve the interests of few Americans and, on balance, the interests of few whom it treats as victims.

Will the fever break in 2022? That may be optimistic.

One reason for Will’s optimism is that the left’s racial prescription — treating people as members of groups rather than as individuals — runs counter to the American tradition of upholding “a zone of personal sovereignty independent of communal arrangements.” This tradition, as articulated by Michael Oakeshott whom Will quotes, holds that government must be powerful enough to protect the order without which the aspirations of individuality could not be realized — security of person and property — but not powerful enough to threaten individuality.

Will contends that this view is rejected not just by the modern American left, but also by “national conservatives.” Will effectively shows that today’s progressives reject the notion that people should be treated as individuals rather than as members of their racial group. It’s an easy task.

As for “national conservatives,” Will is content to say only this:

In 2021, U.S. “national conservatives,” who are collectivists on the right, recoil against modernity in the name of communitarian values, strongly tinged with a nativist nationalism and with a trace of the European blood-and-soil right.

Is this a fair characterization of national conservatives? My understanding of national conservatism is that it is strongly nationalistic, and that it objects to contemporary mainstream conservatism as too pro-business, too obsessed with free markets, and insufficiently focused on cultural issues. Nothing in this description suggests to me a radical rejection of individualism, much less sympathy for treating people as members of racial groups.

I believe the leading exponent of national conservatism is Yoram Hazony, who organized a convention under its banner and gave its keynote speech. You can view his address below and I recommend that you do.

Hazony doesn’t call for a radical rejection of individualism, but he does advocate for limits on it. He gives four examples of where it should be limited.

First, he favors some restrictions on private companies that want to send certain business offshore, especially to our adversaries. Second, he favors some restrictions on giant social media companies. Third, he favors restrictions on pornography. Fourth, he favors some restrictions on immigration to America.

Nothing in this portion of Hazony’s address, or in any other part of it, persuades me that Will’s description of national conservatism as “strongly tinged with a nativist nationalism and with a trace of the European blood-and-soil right” is accurate. Nor, although I don’t agree with some of what Hazony says, am I persuaded that he favors a government “powerful enough to threaten individuality” in any strong sense. He expressly calls for “carve-outs” to protect individual expression and lifestyles.

But listen for yourself and see what you think. I also recommend this essay by Peter Berkowitz, which strongly criticizes national conservatism (“common good conservatism,” as Peter calls it) and Hazony’s address.

I agree with Will that there’s a communitarian element to national conservatism, or at least to the version of it some uphold (it’s debatable whether there actually is a united movement of national conservatives). For example, American Compass expressly favors a public policy oriented to sustaining “vital social institutions,” (ironically, Will argued for something along these lines decades ago in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft.) as opposed to the more classically liberal ideal of government neutrality towards social institutions.

Does this type of public policy entail a “strongly tinged nativist nationalism with a trace of the European blood-and-soil right?” No, but it may not be inconsistent with such a nationalism.

To conclude: Is Will’s shorthand attack on “national conservatism” on the money? I don’t think so. Is it entirely without foundation? Probably not.

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