George Will has challenged conservatives to reconsider their political principles in a manner that never occurred to Barry Goldwater. Which isn't to say that ''Statecraft as Soulcraft'' will outsell ''The Conscience of a Conservative.'' But then, Will's political philosophy wasn't meant for a mass audience. Rather this book contains the Godkin Lectures that he recently presented at Harvard University.
Accordingly, he cites a philosophical patrimony that includes, among many others, Aristotle, the first ''consciously conservative philosopher . . . because his realism did not preclude a politics that takes its bearings from what ought to be,'' and Edmund Burke, who believed that the state provides a partnership ''not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those about to be born.''
Will's central thesis is that government cannot, and should not, be morally neutral. Thus, statecraft is soulcraft, inasmuch as ''all education is moral education because learning conditions conduct, much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation. . . .'' Hence, he suggests that conservatives, whose primary business is preserving that which is best in the social order, should heed Burke's reminder: ''The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.''
He regrets that the field has been generally conceded to liberal politicians whose specialty is enlarging government to satisfy the citizenry's self-interestedness when, in fact, the essence of statesmanship is enriching their souls.
If, Will contends, conservatives could overcome their ''visceral hostility'' toward the state and counterattack with a coherent political program, the liberal hour would be at an end, and with it this nation's senseless pursuit of self-gratification.
To start with, Will suggests that conservatives take the political high ground by first accepting, and then refining, the welfare state. After all, he argues, ''Two conservatives (Disraeli and Bismarck) pioneered the welfare state . . . for impeccably conservative reasons: to reconcile the masses to the vicissitudes and hazards of a dynamic and hierarchical industrial economy.''
Thus he contends that ''conservatives should be leading the fight for a welfare system that supports rather than disintegrates families.'' Moreover, he adds that a conservative welfare state should ''combat the tendency of the modern bureaucratic state to standardize and suffocate diversity.''
But he chides conservatives to recognize that complex social realities cannot be reduced to simple slogans, chief among these being the facile footrace metaphor wherein everyone is presumed to be roughly equal at life's starting line. How, he argues, can this be so when inadequate prenatal care, infant stimulation, childhood nutrition, and home environment ''affect the competence of a young 'runner' as he or she approaches the academic hurdles that so heavily influence social outcomes in America?''
The same is true, he says, for conservatives who insist that people (not the state) produce wealth, when in fact ''Government produces the infrastructure of society - legal, physical, educational - from highways through skills; and that is a precondition for the production of wealth.'' In this regard he compares ''ideological capitalists'' to the proponents of choice on abortion, because both successfully impose their values on society and then suggest, rather disingenuously, that theirs is a value-free result.
No, Will doesn't condemn capitalism. Rather he refutes the oft-repeated conservative claim that ''political economy'' is an oxymoron. To the contrary, he claims that every ''economic order represents a political choice.'' And the most important basis for the conservative's choice should be social justice. For ''Traditional conservatism has not been, and proper conservatism cannot be, merely a defense of industrialism and 'free-market' economics. Conservatism is about the cultivation and the conservation of certain values, or it is nothing.''
Some of Will's conclusions are certain to be controversial, but his philosophical credo is consistent with those classic principles that have animated the Western political tradition.