Gilder, Will, and welfare

The rise of conservatism in the United States has brought with it a combination of positive and negative images. One of the latter - a stereotype of self-interest rather than public concern - is a fitting target of two leading voices on the right.

''Can there be conservatism with a kindly face?'' This is the question posed - and answered affirmatively - by syndicated columnist George Will in a New Republic article provocatively called ''In Defense of the Welfare State.''

Naturally, conservative Will has in mind a welfare state different from the Swedish socialist model which conservative George Gilder attacks in a National Review article, ''Family, Faith, and Economic Progress.''

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But Mr. Will argues that the linking of private interest and common good has become a durable matter of public consensus. ''A conservative doctrine of the welfare state is required if conservatives are even to be included in the contemporary political conversation.'' Such a state would:

* Embody a ''wholesome ethic of common provision.''

* Use government to provide not goods and services but incentives, such as tax deductions for medical insurance, to ''cause the private sector to weave much of the net of security that people demand in every developed, industrial society.''

* Be a unifying force for ''moderate and cooperative policies to promote the economic growth that alone can pay for general entitlements.''

* Recognize a structure of public entitlements ''can do what private property alone cannot do: it can give everyone a stake in the stability and success of the social system.''

This may be a point on the right flank where Mr. Will and Mr. Gilder would part company. Mr. Gilder's version of conservatism seems to be that capitalism will take care of everybody's needs if only the government does not interfere.

What echoes between their recent articles is a concern for everybody's needs. Mr. Gilder laments conservatives who have focused on the economic realm as if separate from the larger domain of human activity. He says that Adam Smith, the father of capitalist theory, did not have this narrow view. But interpreters of Smith have stressed self-interest as the ''governing force of capitalism.'' To Mr. Gilder it is not self-interest but ''giving'' that is the crux of capitalist success.

''It's not that the system allows leading capitalists to revel in wealth - if they hoard their wealth, the system tends to fail - it's that the capitalist keeps giving back to the system, and that's what makes it grow,'' he writes. And: ''This idea that capitalism is somehow a Faustian pact we make with the devil, in which we achieve economic growth by exploiting greed and avarice, is profoundly misconceived and cannot work.'' Instead, the capitalist succeeds to the extent that other people succeed and to the extent that he ''responds imaginatively to the needs of others.''

Responding imaginatively to the needs of others - could there be a better formula for individuals, right or left, to use according to their own lights?

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