George Will is of course one of the most prominent of conservative pundits, articulating the right-wing point of view for decades before we ever heard of the Tea Party movement. And yet the man occasionally talks sense, as I have previously noted on this site. In “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Out,” (2009), I noted his startling call, as early as 2009, to get out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2012 (“George Will: Always Right, Occasionally Correct”), I flagged his call for breaking up the big banks.
Now here he is again, in perhaps his most heretical role yet: on Christmas Day, in The Washington Post, he wrote a moving column (“The Sledgehammer Justice of Mandatory Minimum Sentences”) about the evils of mandatory sentencing laws, drawing attention to several cases where nonviolent drug offenders were pressured by prosecutors to plead guilty in return for reduced sentences, but when they refused the deals, they got the mandatory minimum, often life without parole).
These laws were mostly written in the 1980s to tie the hands of allegedly lenient judges, in the face of what was depicted as a national crime wave. The implicit meaning was of course the menace of young black men. The emphasis on “law and order” has been a staple of conservative politics for decades, with the same unspoken meaning. The result is our present massive prison population (by far the largest in the developed world), a population that is very disproportionately black and Hispanic.
Prisons are hideous by intention (to deter crime), but also hideously expensive. Any conservative looking to shrink the government has to look at the criminal justice system, and that could be part of what’s going on with Will here. But that’s not the way he argues his case: he emphasizes the sheer unfairness of mandatory minimum sentences. One can easily imagine Justice Scalia’s response: “Who ever said life was fair? Get over it!”
Now, to be clear, Will writes a couple of columns a week, plus many other longer essays, and almost all of them are hard-rock conservative. He is a persistent and acerbic critic of President Obama on almost any issue. He loves the magic of the market and wants to reduce the size of government. The guy has not gone all mushy in his old age.
I think that what offends Will in all three of these instances is other people’s hubris (he seems quite tolerant of his own). More than four years ago, he was among the first conservatives to spotlight the follies of the two wars. Over a year ago, he abandoned his Wall Street allies to reject the idea that any financial institution is too big to be allowed to fail. And in this latest instance he objects to the arrogance of legislators who fish for votes by imposing rigid sentencing rules.
What we have in Will is an old-fashioned Tory, a throwback to before Margaret Thatcher, to before Canadian conservatism was taken over by the Alberta wingnuts. We don’t have a true Tory tradition in the United States: they all fled to Canada. The Tory mindset is just skeptical about innovation, about the possibility that a new idea could be an improvement over the status quo. The Tory wants to look for unintended consequences, and expects them to be mostly unpleasant. Above all, the Tory wants stability. The godfather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, articulated this skepticism about change; he also opposed the British attempt to suppress the American Revolution.
Whether it is ill-considered wars that have spun out of control, massive bailouts of bloated banks, or the tragic folly of mandatory sentencing, Will seems to be pleading that we just stop making things worse.
And that, from his point of view, is exactly his message about Obama.